Nativity Church

The Nativity Church in Bethlehem is a major destination on any Christian Holy Land tour to Israel. Technically it is located on Palestinian Authority Territory, about fifteen minutes from Jerusalem.

The tourists are brought to a check point from where they are assisted by Palestinians tour guides on their visit of the church. At the end of the visit they are brought back to the same point for the return to Jerusalem.

Church of the nativity on Manger Square Bethlehem

History of the Church of the Nativity

This Church marks the traditional place Jesus Birth and is also one of the oldest surviving Christian Churches. The Birth of Jesus as narrated in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke took place in a manger here. The square where the Church is located is called Manger Square.

Mary and Joseph, originals of Nazareth, were in town for a special census decreed by Herod. There was no room at the inn or no space in the room and she had to “Lay Him” in a manger. Some say he was born in a cave. This makes sense because at that time many houses were built as a continuation of a cave in the mountains.

The Inside of the Nativity Church in Bethlehem

The Original Church was built

In 326 AD, Constantine and his mother St Helena commissioned the building of a church over the cave where the tradition said Jesus was born. The first church finished in 339 AD was in the form of an octagon built on top of the cave. In the center a big hole surrounded by a railing showed the actual cave.

The church built by Constantine and his mother was destroyed by Justinian in 530 Ad, who later build a much larger one that remains until today. It survived the invasion of the Persians in 614 AD. During the Muslim Period it was also saved from destruction, because they have been using it as a site of prayers.

The Crusaders took Jerusalem in June 1009 and help redecorate the interiors keeping ancient inscriptions by the Greek, that still seen there today. During the Mamluks and Ottoman periods the church was neglected but never destroyed. Some marbles of the church were looted by the Ottomans and you may find them on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. An earthquake in 1834 and a fire in 1869 destroyed some of the furnishings of the cave, but the Nativity Church survived.

The Door of Humility is a small rectangular door that serves as entrance to the church. You actually have to bend down to enter. Legend says that it was created to avoid the entrance of visitors with carts and horses to the holy place.

Pilgrims praying on the Church of the Nativity

Attractions of the Nativity Church

  • The naves columns carry Crusaders paintings of Saints and the Virgin with the Child. Because of deterioration of time they are hard to see.
  • The columns are made of pink, polished limestone, most of them dating from the original 4th-century Constantine Basilica.
  • Fragments of wall mosaics dating from 1160 decorate both sides of the nave. The lowest depicted the ancestors of Jesus; the middle contained the decrees of provincial and ecumenical councils; and the top has a series of angels between the windows.
  • Trap doors in the present floor reveal sections of floor mosaics surviving from the original basilica. The mosaics feature complex geometric designs with birds, flowers and vine patterns, making a rich and elaborate carpet for Constantine's church.
  • Similar doors in the north transept protect another 4th-century mosaic that shows the Constantine apse was octagonal; these are sometimes opened on request.
  • An octagonal baptismal that originally stood near the high altar with an inscription that reads, "For remembrance, rest and remission of sins of those whose names the Lord knows."

The Star inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

Main Nativity Church Altar

  • The main altar at the east end and the one on the south called Altar of the Circumcision, are the property of the Greek Orthodox Church includes an Orthodox iconostasis, which is crowned with gilded angels, icons, gilded chandeliers and lamps.
  • On the north side of the high altar is the Armenian Altar of the Three Kings, dedicated to the Magi who tied up their horses nearby, and in the north apse is an Armenian altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
  • The focal point of the Church is the Grotto of the Nativity, a rectangular cavern beneath the church, and you may enter through a flight of steps by the church altar. This cave has been revered as the place of the Birth of Jesus since the second century. A Silver Star n the floor marks the exact place of the birth.

In other times I used to come to Bethlehem with my Christian Groups, we had lunch and bought souvenirs in their stores. Nowadays things have changed and the visit to the Nativity Church is done only with Palestinian guides.

images for nativity church
courtesy of wikimedia commons

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