The most fascinating place in Bethlehem has to be the church of the Nativity. The church is built atop the cave which is believed to be where Mary and Joseph ended up when there was no room in the inn, and where Jesus the Messiah was born all those years ago. The history of that is pretty solid – the site was attested to in writing by the mid-100’s, and has never truly been contested.
To enter the church, one has to enter through ‘the door of humility’. This door was clearly much larger at one time, and was walled in to its current smaller size during the Ottoman period. It is a small door (only about four feet tall) that requires one to bow upon entering. There are a few reasons why this door was made so much smaller: one is to keep anyone from riding in on a horse, which apparently was a problem at certain points in history, and another is to require that anyone entering this special place to bow in humility before the One who humbled himself for us. The door leads to a second door, then into the church itself.
The altar of the church is built directly on top of the grotto, or cave, where Jesus was born. To the western observer, the first sight of this place of a humble birth doesn’t appear to very humble. Gold plated walls, icons and centuries-old ornamentation give it a feel that one may not have expected. Incense and red and green ornaments are prominent here, and the site is shared by three Christian denominations — the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Church and the Roman Catholic Church. Each group ‘takes turns’ holding services in the main sanctuary and also underneath the altar at the grotto itself.
During our visit, the church was undergoing a renovation, and so scaffolding, ladders and tarps were just another element of this unfamiliar eastern decor. A church that has been around for centuries does need some work on occasion, and any work requires all three of the above groups to agree on what will be done and when. We all know how church committees can go, especially when three ancient denominations are involved, so no work has been done on this building since 1479.
It’s long overdue.
We made our way to the front of the church and behind the altar to the stairs leading down to the grotto, the area where Jesus was born and the manger where he was laid. When we reached the stairs going down to the spot, we were barked at by this priest guarding the area, and it was confirmed that we weren’t going to descend these stairs today.
It may have been for the better. As you can see from the pictures below, there is not much left of what was once a humble cave that held animals or a manger. The entire area has been built over, and the manger itself is no longer there – it was said to have been taken to be stored in the Vatican years ago, but the spot where it once was is clearly marked off.
We were able to wander around to the other side, and were able to walk far enough down the stairs to get a glimpse of the Catholic service that was going on there. The area is marked with stars, representative of the Star in the East that marked the place where He was born.
Below is a picture (not mine) of what the spot where Christ was born looks like today, and what we would have seen had we walked all the way down. It is historic, but not at all what one would expect if you were hoping to see it untouched and looking like it did centuries ago. To me, it kind of loses a little bit of the wonder…
In spite of this looking nothing like the cave where Jesus was born, there is a sense of awe that this is indeed the spot where it happened – the spot where Heaven and Earth collided in the form of a newborn baby boy.