Church of the Nativity – an Incredible Structure
A highlight of the tour through Israel (and Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank and under Palestinian rule) was a visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The church, thought to be the oldest operating church in the world, was originally built by Helena, the mother of the first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great. The first church was dedicated in AD 339.
The original church was destroyed. It was rebuilt in the 6th century by Emporer Justinian (who reigned 527–565) and is largely the same today. The church that covers the cave where Jesus was born is magnificent in size and decor.
The Church of the Nativity is interesting in that it is home to three different religions: Greek Orthodox, Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox. A Muslim holds the black wrought iron key to the church. Originally, Muslims were commissioned to hold the key to keep the peace among the three Christian religions using the church.
As you can see, the Church today features no pews; its interior is mostly dark and cold and huge. You feel quite small when you stand there waiting your turn to go through the 1.2 meters high door that takes you into the cave where Jesus was born. Except for the front of the church, which is quite ornate, the only decorations are Crusader-era paintings on the massive columns, wall mosaics near the ceiling of the massive structure, and the chandeliers that hang along the columns.
I really didn’t notice it while visiting the Church of the Nativity, but it is said that the church has fallen into some disrepair over the years. Apparently, politics from way back during the Ottoman Empire have prevented significant renovations from occurring for over five centuries.
Fortunately, beginning in 2013, $15 million (US) has been invested into fixing the church’s roof to keep it from falling in and to make other needed repairs to the walls and mosaics. Among the repairs is the restoration of the intricate mosaics in the church. The 12th-century mosaics, made of gold and silver leaf with mother of pearl, had been covered with soot and grime accumulated over the centuries. An Italian team was commissioned to painstakingly restore their grandeur a few years ago.
I found it quite sad that some visitors to the Church of the Nativity feel it is appropriate to desecrate it. There is graffiti on many of the stately columns lining the church. I honestly don’t know what is wrong with people.
Entering the Grotto of the Nativity
To get to the Grotto of the Nativity, you must descend steep and narrow stairs after bending to enter the doorway that is slightly less than 4 foot high. The only doorway to the Grotto is cut into a massive wall and is purposefully low. It was lowered around the year 1500 to keep looters from driving their carts into the holy spot.
Unfortunately, I did not get many pictures while in the cave. It is only about 39 feet x 10 feet and was very crowded. We were rushed to look and get out. If I ever take another Holy Land tour, I will spend more time celebrating the birth of my Savior while in the Grotto of the Nativity, regardless of how crowded or rushed we are.
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
We descended a few more steep steps to see where it is believed Jesus was laid in his manger bed. This tiny spot was even more crowded. The pictures below were hastily taken of where the manger where the baby Jesus slept is believed to have been.
I looked so quickly that I don’t even remember much about the manger except that I had to climb down several steep stairs that had no railing and it was very, very crowded.
I have read that the rock in the Grotto of the Manger is the original rock from when Jesus was born. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of it and don’t even remember seeing it.
The manger in the Grotto is built to match the dimensions of feeding troughs that were cut into the rock by Bedouins back in Jesus’ day. If you want to see a picture, there is one here.
Last Words about the Grotto fo the Nativity
I have to qualify some of my statements. I believe Jesus may have been born in this cave that we saw beneath the Church of the Nativity. I believe he slept in a manger bed, just as the Bible says He did. I do not personally believe that any of us know exactly where Mary gave birth to Him or exactly where the manger stood. I have a little difficulty honoring exact spots that humans have decided are THE spots where historical events occurred over 2000 years ago.
With that said, it does not matter to me if the spots I saw in Bethlehem are the exact spots where my Savior was born. I’ve even seen some reports that say the Palestinian Bethlehem isn’t even the Bethlehem where Jesus was born. I don’t care. What matters to me is that He was born, He lived, He died on the cross for me and you, and He was resurrected three days later.
Links to the Hope and Survive pages related to my 2019 trip to Israel:
Journey to Israel – The Beginning … Part 1
Journey to Israel – Getting There … and Getting Home … Part 2
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Part 3
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of the Nativity … Part 4
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of Saint Catherine … Part 5
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Shepherds’ Field … Part 6
Journey to Israel … Nazareth … Part 7