The Church of the Nativity stands on the traditional site of the birthplace of Jesus Christ, and is the second holiest site in Christendom after the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The current structure dates in part to the 6th century AD and is one of the oldest Christian churches still in use in the Holy Land. The Church of the Nativity is part of a complex of religious buildings, which includes the neighboring St. Catherine’s Church, located at the eastern end of Manger Square. Like the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Nativity is overseen by several major Christian denominations in a complex arrangement that dates back to Ottoman times. In years when travel to Bethlehem is less arduous, it is one of the most popular places in the world for Christmastime pilgrimages.
Bethlehem was an important Jewish site long before the birth of Christ. Its first major appearance on the Biblical stage occurred sometime around the 19th century BC, when Jacob’s wife Rachel died here while giving birth to his twelfth son, Benjamin. Bethlehem would later become the ancestral home of King David and his house, from which Joseph and Mary, the parents of Jesus, were descended. During the reign of Caesar Augustus, sometime around the year 4 BC, Mary and Joseph were required to travel to Bethlehem in order to register for the imperial census. What followed is probably the single most popular narrative in the Bible and one of the most famous events in world history.
While the story of the birth of Jesus is engraved in the hearts and minds of Christians around the world, the subsequent history of the site of the nativity is perhaps less well known. There is no way today to tell with any certainty exactly where the famous inn and manger once stood, though based on certain archaeological evidence the likely location can probably be narrowed down to a few dozen acres. Early Christians identified the site in the years following Jesus’ life. Sometime around the late 1st or early 2nd century AD, the Romans erected a pagan temple on the site in an effort to discourage Christian pilgrims. This not only failed to deter the Christians from secretly visiting, it inadvertently kept the place well marked. When Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine, arrived in the Holy Land in the 4th century looking for holy places upon which to construct shrines, the local Christians were able to show here exactly where to build.
This first church survived until 529 AD when it was destroyed in the Samaritan Revolt. It was replaced by a new church based on the original plans and has remained standing ever since, despite a steady stream of foreign conquests. Although the Church of the Nativity remained in Muslim hands from 1187 onward, Christians were generally allowed to continue to visit the shrine, usually in exchange for monetary tribute. Starting around 1347, the shrine was held in trust by the Franciscan order. However, ever since the Orthodox Church was allowed to return to the area in the 16th century, Catholic and Orthodox partisans have bickered over the guardianship of the site. The Church of the Nativity is currently in the joint custody of the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and Armenian Apostolic Church, although access is universally permitted to all Christians.
For the better part of the last century, Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity have been caught up in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. The British took over the city in 1917, and Bethlehem, which had virtually no Jewish population, was included with the Palestinian territories when the United Nations attempted to divide the area. After the Six-Day War in 1967, Bethlehem was occupied by Israeli forces, and was not returned to Palestinian control until 1995. During this period, Christian pilgrims began flocking back to the Church of the Nativity. Since the return of Bethlehem to Palestinian control, the number of Christian pilgrims to the city has fallen off somewhat due to occasional outbursts of violence in the area. Just a few years ago, the Church of the Nativity was the site of a siege between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian insurgents holed up inside. This has not stopped determined and enthusiastic pilgrims, and the local popularion is eager to accommodate Christian tourists.
The Church of the Nativity consists of the main church structure above and the grottoes below, as well as the adjoining St. Catherine’s Church. The current structure was completed in the mid-6th century. Portions of Constantine’s original building were incorporated into the later church, and can be glimpsed in places. The main church is entered through the Door of Humility, so called because of its small size. The interior consists mostly of the original Byzantine decorations, with many embellishments added later, including an oak ceiling donated by King Edward IV of England. A decorative mosaic of the Three Wise Men is one of the shrine’s most famous pieces, and legend has it that this decoration saved the Church from demolition at the hands of Persian conquerors.
The adjoining St. Catherine’s Church was built by the Franciscan Order during their tenure. It later became the only Nativity site accessible to Catholics after the Orthodox Church took over management of the main shrine. Among the highlights of St. Catherine’s is the Chapel of the Innocents, which was built over the site of a mass grave of children that were slaughtered during the days of Herod. The tombs of a number of other saints also lie within St. Catherine’s, including that of St. Jerome. The main attraction is the Grotto of the Nativity beneath the Church. Inside, a fourteen-pointed star, symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem and the Stations of the Cross, marks the place where Jesus was born. A Latin inscription reads ‘Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary’. Fifteen lamps, gifts of various Christian churches, illuminate the sanctuary. A short underground corridor connects the Grotto to the Chapel of the Innocents beneath St. Catherine’s.
The Church of the Nativity stands in the heart of Bethlehem, just a few short miles south of Jerusalem. Visiting the Church of the Nativity and Bethlehem’s other sacred sites has been subject to restrictions in recent years due to ongoing tension in the region and security issues. That said, the greatest difficulties for visiting Christians are generally long waits at security checkpoints. All visitors should plan ahead and be prepared for delays. The Church of the Nativity is open every day in summer from 6:30am-7:30pm and Winter from 5:30am-5:00pm (closed every day between noon and 2:00pm and Sunday mornings). There is no cost of admission. Web: http://travelpalestine.ps/destinations/bethlehem (official tourism website of Palestine)
Bethlehem was an incredibly important location in Israel’s early history. In addition to the Church of the Nativity, there are numerous Old Testament sites scattered throughout Bethlehem, as well as a number of other places of Christian interest. Just east of the Church is the Milk Grotto Chapel, traditionally held to be the place where Mary suckled Jesus just before the Holy Family departed for Egypt. Further east just outside of Bethlehem is the Shepherd’s Field, where the angels first proclaimed Christ’s birth. North of the town is the incredibly ancient Tomb of Rachel, the second wife of Jacob and one of the world’s oldest verifiable Biblical tombs.