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Bethlehem Church of Nativity
Entering the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem that marks the site of Christ’s birthplace means having to stoop low. The only doorway in the old front wall is just 4 feet high.
The previous entrance to the Church of the Nativity was lowered around the year 1500 to stop looters from driving their carts in and from armies to come in on horseback. However, it is appropriate to bow low before entering the place where God humbled himself to become man.
Today’s basilica, the oldest complete church in the Christian world, was built by the emperor Justinian in the 6th century. It replaced the original church of Constantine the Great, built over the cave venerated as Christ’s birthplace, and dedicated in AD 339.
Before Constantine, the first Christian emperor, the Romans had tried to wipe out the memory of the cave. They planted a grove dedicated to the pagan god Adonis, lover of Venus, and established his cult in the cave.
As St Jerome wrote in AD 395, “The earth’s most sacred spot was overshadowed by the grave of Adonis, and the cave where the infant Christ once wept was where the paramour of Venus was bewailed.”
The 4 Gospels do not say that the Lord Jesus was born in a cave, but there are written references to the Nativity cave as far back as AD 160. Even today in the Judean hills, families live in primitive houses built in front of natural caves used for storage or to give animals shelter.
When the original Bethlehem Church of the Nativity was built, the cave was enlarged to make room for pilgrims and a silver manger was installed.
St Jerome did not approve: “If I could only see that manger in which the Lord lay! Now, as if to honour the Christ, we have removed the poor one and placed there a silver one; however, for me the one which was removed is more precious . . . .”
The Persians invaded the area in 614 and destroyed many churches. They spared the Church of the Nativity when they saw a mosaic on an interior wall depicting the Three Wise Men (Magi) in Persian attire.
In 1482 King Edward IV sent English oak and large amounts of lead to renew the roof. In the 17th century the Turks looted the lead to melt into bullets. Afterward, the roof rotted and most of the rich mosaics on the walls were ruined.
When Unesco put the basilica on its list of world heritage sites in 2012, it was also deemed to be endangered because of damage due to water leaks. A $15 million restoration of the church’s roof, walls and mosaics began in 2013.
Today’s Church of the Nativity is cool and dark, its interior bare with no pews. Wall mosaics from the 12th century depicting saints, angels and Church councils have been restored.
During the restoration an over 6 foot tall mosaic of an angel that had been lost for centuries was discovered.
Doors in the floor allow us to look at parts of the mosaic floor of Constantine’s basilica. The beautiful red limestone pillars were quarried locally. Many have paintings of saints that were painted by the Crusaders.
There is a carved screen, adorned with icons, that stands in front of the main altar. Steps to the right of this lead down to the Grotto of the Nativity.
The basilica of the Bethlehem Church of Nativity is now almost wholly a Greek Orthodox place of worship. The Armenian Orthodox own the northern section of the church. The Catholics have the site of the manger and the adjoining altar next to the Nativity cave.