The tiny nation of Israel is central to the three monotheistic religions of the world: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Followers of these religions point to various sites in Israel that help them understand the origin and history of their tradition.
For Christians, one place that is central to its roots is Bethlehem. While the faithful visit here throughout the year, the Christmas season sees thousands upon thousands who come to celebrate the place of Jesus’s birth. Several years ago (though not at Christmas time!) I made my third journey there. I decided not to take one of the group tours, as I had done in the past. Rather, I opted to take the short bus ride from Jerusalem to Bethlehem by myself because I knew the sites I wanted to visit once in the city, and I wanted to visit these places on my own schedule and not be hurried along.
The bus ride, though only a short distance, sometimes takes 30-45 minutes since Bethlehem is located in the Palestinian Territories, and there are numerous barricades and checkpoints along the way. Traveling the narrow road with steep ravines toward the town of Bethlehem, I saw the razor wire strung all along the roadway. This disturbing sight prompted me to reflect upon the promise that the angelic hosts made so long ago to the shepherds in their fields about “peace on earth among those of good will.” A promise that in this part of the world remains unfulfilled.
My bus ride ended at the closest stop to Manger Square. I was approached by Yosef, a Palestinian taxi driver, with passable English. We made an arrangement for the places I wanted to visit and we were on our way. The first stop was Manger Square, the central square in Bethlehem, where the Church of the Nativity is located. The square takes its name from the manger where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus was lain. The streets that lead to the square bear specifically Christian names, e.g., “Star” Street and “Nativity Street.” The Square is today for pedestrians only; it is a meeting place for locals and for the many Christian pilgrims who visit here. There are rows of beautiful trees with benches and fountains made of white and yellow marble to accommodate visitors.
This peaceful scene was once the stage of a military standoff between the Palestinians and Israel Defense Forces, commonly known as the Siege of the Church of the Nativity. It lasted from April 2 to May 10, 2002. In an attempt to contain the siege, IDF occupied Bethlehem and tried to capture the suspected Palestinian militants. Dozens of the militants fled into the Church of the Nativity and sought refuge among the 200 monks who were resident in the church. After a tense 39-day standoff, an agreement was reached and the militants surrendered to the IDF. They were later exiled to Europe and the Gaza Strip. Today you can still see the bullet holes in the church, a poignant reminder of the tensions still alive in this area of the world.
This Church of the Nativity has a long and glorious history that stretches back to the 4th century when this beautiful basilica was originally commissioned by Constantine the Great and his mother Helena. It was built over the cave which ancient tradition regards as the birthplace of Jesus. The original church was destroyed by fire during the Samaritan Revolt in the 6th century, but a new basilica was built in 565 CE by Justinian, the Byzantine Emperor, restoring the architectural tone of the original. Since then there have been numerous additions.
I followed the crowds entering the Church of the Nativity through the small door just off the square. The interior of the church is very ornate. I saw the original floors with mosaics dating to the 4th century and the beautiful pillars which are red limestone from Bethlehem. The walls are lined with mosaics made during the 12th century by the Crusaders.
Today, the church is administered jointly by Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic traditions, thus this church celebrates Christmas three times because of different calendars. The 24-25th of December for the Catholics, the 7th of January for the Greek Orthodox, and 6th of January for the Armenians.
The birth site is down some stairs underneath the main altar of the church. It is a small room which contains two altars. The Grotto of the Nativity enshrines the site where Jesus is said to have been born. The birth Grotto is cut into a wall. Within that opening the exact birth-spot is marked by a 14-pointed silver star with a Latin inscription that reads: “Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary.” The star’s 14 points are believed to represent the 14 generations from Abraham to David, from David to the Babylonian captivity, and from the Babylonian captivity to Jesus (Matthew 1:1-17). This star is set into the marble floor of the altar and is surrounded by 15 silver lamps representing the various Christian communities. As I passed in front of the grotto, I saw the inlaid star worn down somewhat by those who wish to touch it as they pass by. Despite being my third visit to the grotto, a chill ran down my spine as I knelt before this holy place. That single, fleeting moment before that small altar connected me to the history of my faith in a way that I had seldom felt in my life. As I turned to move on, I noticed that just opposite the grotto sits another altar believed to be where the Magi placed their gifts for the Christ child: Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh (Matthew 2:11-12).
My next stop was in an eastern suburb of Bethlehem, a mostly Christian area which includes the shepherds’ fields believed to be the place where they heard the angelic hosts announce Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:8-10). There are two locations to commemorate this holy site: A Greek Orthodox and a Catholic one. Both sites, carefully examined by archeologists, have been home to churches and/or monasteries since the 4th century, or perhaps even earlier. I visited the red-domed Catholic Church known as the Shepherds’ Field Chapel. Tradition indicates that this site is 1,000 paces from Bethlehem and that it marks the spot where the shepherds received the angelic message (Luke 2:14). The chapel is designed to resemble the tent of a nomad. Paintings in the chapel depict the angelic announcement to the shepherds, the shepherds paying homage to Jesus and the shepherds celebrating the birth of the Messiah.
Finally, I toured the Chapel of the Milk Grotto. It is a Catholic chapel also near Bethlehem built in 1872. Since ancient times, the place has been a center for Christian pilgrimages. The Chapel is built on the site of a former Byzantine church dating from the 5th century. A part of the mosaic floor from that structure remains. Christian tradition says that this chapel marks the spot where the Holy Family found refuge during the “slaughter of the innocents” (Matthew 2:13-15) before they fled to Egypt. The name is derived from the legend that a “drop of milk” from the Virgin Mary fell on the floor of the cave and changed its color to white.
My day-long visit to Bethlehem left me thrilled at the state of preservation of these important sites, and hopeful that despite the political difficulties throughout this region, they will remain for centuries to come so that worshipers of every stripe might enjoy the deep inner peace and spiritual lift they provide all who visit.
Next time: My journey “Across the Himalayas.”