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Written by Stephen Langfur
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Nativity Church

The Church of the Nativity

We shall discuss the church in two parts:

1. The Manger.

2. The church as a whole, including logistics for a visit.

The Manger

The focal point of the church is the cave of the birth. The Gospels do not mention a cave in this connection, but the tradition goes back at least to 150 AD, when Justin of Nablus recorded it. The cave he knew must have been the one that the Christian philosopher Origen wrote about in 248 AD, adding: "For the heathens, too, it is a well known matter." Two years later, however, when the Roman emperor Decius carried out the first empire-wide persecution of Christianity, heathens turned the cave into a sanctuary of Adonis. This profanation went on for almost a hundred years. In the late 4th or early 5th century, Jerome wrote a friend: "Bethlehem, which now is ours, was overshadowed  by the grove of Tammuz, that is, Adonis, and in the cave where once the infant Jesus whimpered, people bewailed the lover of Venus." 

Manger with child

In Luke 2:7 we read: "She brought forth her firstborn son, and she wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a feeding trough, because there was no room for them in the inn." The Greek word translated as "inn" is katalyma, which in ordinary usage meant simply a large room (Kroll, p. 49). The slopes of Judaea contain many caves, and often people used to build their houses in such a way as to incorporate one; here the animals might be kept, as well as their feeding troughs or "mangers." We may picture a house built against the western slope of the tell, containing a large room busy with people, and beneath it this cave.

Today we enter by descending a few steps on the south side of the church. Beneath an altar on our right is a fourteen-pointed star. It marks the place where, in Christian belief, God became human. We cannot know for sure that this was the spot, but we do know that Jesus was born at a particular place and time, and here we have the place to remember that fact.

When we come down the steps, on our left stand three candle holders, representing the magi. (One may insert a candle, bought from the cleric above.) Below them is a slightly deeper chamber, and on its far (western) side is a trough in the rock, covered with marble, in which lamps burn. This represents the manger. The visitor may sympathize with the reaction of Saint Jerome, recorded more than 1500 years ago:

Oh that I might see the manger in which the Lord lay! Now we Christians, as though we were honoring Christ, have taken away that manger of clay and set a silver one in its place. For me, however, the one they've taken away is greater in worth. The heathen world reveres gold and silver; the Christian faith serves that manger of clay. He who was born in this manger has no regard for gold and silver. I do not despise those whose reverence led them to install the manger of silver, just as I do not despise those people who wrought golden vessels for the Temple. But I feel awe before the Lord, Creator of the universe, who was born not between gold and silver, rather on clay. Bibliothek der Kirchenvaeter 15, 211    

The church as a whole

The Emperor Constantine the Great funded the first church here, a huge basilica, finished by 334. Fire destroyed it in the early 6th century, perhaps during the Samaritan revolt of 529. Pieces of its mosaic floor may be viewed by opening trap doors inside. Its atrium (or forecourt) lay in the open space west of the present building, from which one normally enters the church.

Gate to Nativity ChurchStanding in this open space, we can view successive gates, all filled except for today's small opening. The majestic lintel of Justinian I surmounts what was the central gate of three.

The church we have today is essentially the one rebuilt by this great ruler. It is the oldest church still standing in the land, indeed one of the three or four oldest in the world. It owes its survival to a number of peculiar facts: 

The church's designers put a mosaic over the outer door, showing the scene of Jesus' birth, including the wise men (Magi). Since these came from the east, the artists clothed them in Persian dress, complete with Mithras caps. (Similar Magi may still be seen at Justinian's church in Ravenna.) In 614, the Persians broke into the Byzantine Empire. They massacred Christians and destroyed their churches. On reaching this one, however, "they were amazed at the picture of the Persian Magi, the astrologers, their fellow countrymen. In respect and affection for their ancestors...they spared the church" (Baldi, p. 105, n.2). This report stems from a letter written long after the event, at the Jerusalem Synod of 836, in the midst of the iconoclast controversy: the point was to show that images had saved a major church. 

Justinian's church was later saved by another feature as well. The architects designed the eastern end as a cross, with large apses facing east, south and north. The southern apse could be interpreted as a Muslim mihrab . After the Islamic conquest in 638, the Caliph Omar visited Bethlehem. Revering Jesus as a prophet and servant of God, he prayed in this southern apse. (Ibn al-Batriq, cited in Marmardji, p. 4). Then he gave the Christians a written guarantee that Muslims would pray there as individuals only. When the Caliph al-Hakim, still in his Muslim phase, carried out a great destruction of churches in 1009, he had to leave this one alone because Muslims prayed here.

Thus Justinian's church of 529 has survived to this day. The Crusaders filled in most of his great gate, leaving one formed by their typical pointed arch. Through it went the Crusader kings of Jerusalem to be crowned: they eschewed a golden coronation in the city where their Savior had been crowned with thorns.

Later Christians walled up most of the Crusader gate as well, leaving an entrance smaller than an ordinary doorway, forcing all but children to stoop. (See the photograph above.) This too had its reason. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Greek Orthodox walled off the choir, abandoning the main part of the church, which merchants then used as a market, and "the Janissaries of the Pasha and the Beduins of the desert went there to tie up their horses to the abandoned columns of the nave" (Les Eglises de la Terre Sainte, Paris, 1860).

After receiving permission to expel the market, the clergy walled up most of the Crusader gate so that no one could get a horse in. That explains today's tiny entrance. The result, for a Christian, is fitting: One has to make oneself small to visit the place where God made Himself small.

For a detailed explanation of the church, see Freeman-Grenville . Here are a few pointers:

The basic structure, which we see on entering, goes back to Justinian (529 AD), who raised the floor above Constantine's and provided the 44 pillars, then unpainted. Its octagonal baptismal font, once on the eastern end, is now in the southern aisle.
Church of the Nativity, interior

There were and are no seats. People would normally stand throughout the Byzantine service, which sometimes lasted for seven hours or more. "And now we are entered on our travail and anguish," wrote Paul of Aleppo in the 17th century on entering Orthodox Russia, "For all their churches are empty of seats. There is not one, even for the bishop; you see the people all through the service standing like rocks... God help us for the length of their prayers and chants and Masses, for we suffered great pain, so that our very souls were tortured with fatigue and anguish" (Ridding, p. 14).

From descriptions by pilgrims, we know that Justinian's church was covered with mosaics, but the fragments we see today date from the 12th century. On the side walls of the nave, in the lowest band, the artists represented the ancestors of Jesus: on the south wall according to Matthew, on the north according to Luke. Above that, on the north wall, they put summaries of the decisions by the Six Provincial Councils of the Orthodox: we can still see Sardis and Antioch. Opposite these, on the south wall, were summaries of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. Today only that from the first Council of Constantinople remains (held in 381 AD): it confirmed the condemnation of Arianism. That condemnation had originally occurred at the Council of Nicaea (325 AD), which decided that Jesus is co-eternal with God the Father and of the same substance with Him. The mosaic summarizing Nicaea is gone. Fortunately, a monk made a copy before it disappeared:

The Holy Synod of 318 holy Fathers against Arius, who claimed that the son and the Word of God were created, met under the Emperor Constantine the Great. The Holy Synod decreed and confessed that the only Son and Word of God, by whom all things were made, is co-eternal and consubstantial with the Father, begotten and not made.

iconostasisIn order to overcome Arianism, Eastern Christendom surrounded the Lord's Table (the altar) with splendor and mystery, befitting one who is consubstantial with God the Father. We can still sense something of the old splendor in this Nativity church. As for mystery, we find it in the development of the iconostasis or screen, such as the one in the eastern apse. There was no such separation in churches before Arius, but in opposition to his doctrine, Christians of the East sought to stress the awesome mystery of Christ by concealing the holy Table from the eyes of the congregation. At first they used curtains. Justinian added a standing screen with doors, full of icons (hence "iconostasis"), at his great church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Other Eastern churches copied this feature, until it became the rule (Chadwick, pp. 266-67).

Crusader artists painted thirty of Justinian's 44 pillars. Today they make up one of the world's most complete collections of medieval paintings. The practice of polishing them with oil is responsible for their present dullness, although the smoke of the lamps has contributed too. The figures include not only the usual saints, but also saintly kings, such as Canute of England (1017-35) and Olaf of Norway (1016-29). If we stand in the middle aisle, we can easily find Elijah being fed by the raven (fourth pillar from the east). One pillar shows Onuphrius, a Byzantine monk who went naked; he was able to retain his modesty thanks to the amplitude of his beard.

The Nativity church has been a place of strife among the Christian communities, although the matter has rested (with occasional exceptions) since the Crimean War and the Treaty of Paris (1856). Here the European powers accepted a firman (decree) by the Turkish sultan, assigning rights in the holy places. The Sultan's ruling re-affirmed the Status Quo ante bellum, dating from 1757. In accordance with it, the Greek Orthodox have almost the entire church, although the Armenians and the Roman Catholics also hold carefully specified rights.

Passing through the northern transept (under Armenian control), we leave the church and immediately enter another: The Roman Catholic Church of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, built in 1881 on the ruins of a Crusader sanctuary. It has recently been redesigned.

The Christmas Eve Mass on December 24 is celebrated here. In the southern aisle is a staircase leading down to a series of caves. (These grottoes connect to the cave of the manger, but the door is usually shut.) A number of traditions were linked to these caves, mainly in the Middle Ages. On our left, when we come down the stairs, is a low-ceilinged chapel believed to contain the graves of the innocent children. Before us is a chapel where Christians locate the angel's warning to Joseph, to take his family and flee to Egypt. Through an opening on the right, we find several grave markers with inscriptions, including St. Jerome's and that of his helper, St. Paula. Jerome himself described Paula's burial "beside the Cave of the Lord," so her grave is probably authentic. Jerome's was here as well, but a Byzantine emperor moved the body of the cantankerous Bible translator to Constantinople, and later it is thought by some to have been moved to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. The chamber beside Jerome's grave came to be known as his study, where the Vulgate originated.

Logistics for a visit to the main church and the manger

Modest dress required.

Telephone: 02-274 3867

Opening hours: Winter: 05:30-17:30; Summer: 05:30-18:00

In the mornings the various denominations hold Masses in the manger with brief intervals between them. It is best to visit from 13:00.

One may also inquire with Bethlehem Tourist Information, which is open from Sunday through Thursday from 08:00-16:00. Telephone 02-274 1581/2. Fax: 02-274 3753.