Every December our collective thoughts turn to the little town of Bethlehem. We sing about it, read about it, and have a picture of it in our minds.
But what was the Bethlehem of 2000 years ago really like?
What is it like today?
Sometimes I imagine a light dusting of new fallen snow, and soft candlelight from the shepherds lamps. Sometimes it is rough-hewn desert with only the occasional palm tree to be found. In my imagination it is a quiet and serene place, where all is clam and all is bright.
In my imagination, I have been to this imaginary Bethlehem of 2,000 years ago many times, but a few years ago I was fortunate enough to visit the actual city of Bethlehem. To look upon the place where Jesus was born, the hallowed spot where history was forever altered so many centuries ago, is an experience beyond words.
Bethlehem was not the quiet little place I had envisioned; there was no stable filled with hay and no shepherds abiding in the fields nearby. Yet there remains a unique and distinct feel to Bethlehem. Having seen centuries of shifting politics and shifting sands, a special sense of holiness still lingers in the air simply because of the history of the place, and the almost tangible remembrance of those who have spent moments of their lives here.
Bethlehem was the home of Ruth and Boaz, the birthplace of King Saul and King David, the birthplace of Jesus the Messiah. The significance of this place cannot be underestimated. However, the political landscape of Bethlehem today is a little bit tricky.
Atop the building in the following picture flies the Palestinian flag. Palestine is not a nation, and the area ultimately falls under Israeli jurisdiction. However, the day-to-day affairs of Bethlehem are governed by the Palestinian authority, and as such our Jewish guide did not enter the area, but handed us over to an Arab Christian guide. This is just one example of the complex politics of the area. That said, at no point in Israel did I ever feel ‘unsafe’. In fact, I felt as safe there as I ever have anywhere else. Perhaps more so.
Across the street is the Bethlehem Peace Center. And from the peace center hangs a large portrait of Mahmoud Abbas, the current leader of the Palestinian government. No offense to Mr. Abbas, but it was a reminder to me that this contested land has had many foreign rulers, including the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Romans, the British, and the Jordanians. I was reminded that the kingdoms of this world are temporary, and will all someday give way to the Kingdom of our God. I was reminded that the only true peace we will ever find comes from the Prince of Peace, born just a few yards away from this spot so many years ago.
There is no idyllic stable as we may expect, but rather the Church of the Nativity, which is built upon the site Jesus was born.
The exterior of the church is unassuming, which is fitting considering the humble birth of the Prince of Peace whom it honors. The entryway requires bending down: some say in order to enter the church in humility before the King who was born in that place so many centuries ago.
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 and unexpected 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: that’s a decade before Columbus set sail and 100 years before Shakespeare began writing.
The work is long overdue.
We made our way to the front of the church and behind the altar where there are stairs leading down to the grotto, the area where Jesus was born and the manger where he was laid. The altar is built directly above this spot. When we reached the stairs to go down, 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, where we were able to walk far enough down the stairs to get a glimpse of the Catholic service that was in process. The area is marked with stars, representative of the Star in the East that marked the place where He was born.
This is a picture 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 thing really happened. Jesus was born to save us from sin. This is indeed the spot where it happened – the humble spot where Heaven and Earth collided in the form of a newborn baby boy.