An incredible sight, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is one of the most holy places in the world. If you’re lucky enough to visit the Holy Land, it should absolutely be on the list of places to see.
Commissioned by Constantine the Great, the Church of the Nativity was built between 325–326 on the site that is believed to have been the birthplace of Christ. The original stable and manger may be gone, but the Church was raised specifically to safeguard and keep the site for future generations to come and enjoy. Surviving war, fire, and even hostage situations, the Church has seen it’s share of excitement. But amazingly though, after being rebuilt between 527–565 following damage done during the Samaritan revolts, the Church has remained remarkably unchanged. While additions have been built (and destroyed) in the years since, the core of the Church is basically the same as it was a millennium and a half ago! This makes it an astounding connection to early Christendom and Jesus’ life on Earth.
Today, the Church of the Nativity is operated and overseen by three separate Christian denominations including the Armenian Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church. This is the result of complicated political and cultural shifts over the years and long negotiations. However, for the regular visitor, these arrangements are merely interesting pieces of trivia. Today everyone, no matter your denomination or background, is welcome to visit and worship in this incredibly special house of God.
The Church of the Nativity is divided up into three main areas:
The Basilica of the Nativity
The heart of the Church is the Basilica of the Nativity, a jaw droppingly magnificent chapel that is marked by ancient history. With a high ceiling braced by columns of Corinthian pillars, it feels like somewhere from out of this world. Combine this with the splendor of the high altar, and the special trap doors that allow visitors to see through to original parts of the mosaic floor, and you’ll understand why people from all over the world want to see this Church.
But for as grand as the Basilica is itself, you might be surprised by its entrance. Called the "Door of Humility” you’d be forgiven for thinking the entrance to the Church was some disused closet or storage area. Only 120cm high, most people have to stoop low to enter through to the Church. When you look at the surrounding area, it appears that there used to be a grand arch that served as the doors, but was sealed off to only leave this tiny passage. There are a number of theories as to why this was done, but the most popular belief is that it was done to prevent mounted horsemen from entering the Church on their steeds!
Below the Basilica is the true draw of the Church, the Grotto of the Nativity. This sacred place is believed to be the exact birthplace of Jesus. It is a powerful and immensely spiritual place to reflect on the true love of Jesus and the full weight of his sacrifice for humanity. It is not at all uncommon for visitors to become overwhelmed at the sheer magnitude of it all.
The Grotto itself is small, as one might expect. The place of Jesus’ birth is marked on a white marble floor with a 14-point star which is surrounded by 15 silver lamps representing the three Christian communities. Inside the star is a circular hole, visitors can reach in it to touch the stone that is said to be the original stone that Mary laid on when she gave birth to Jesus. It’s hard to describe what it’s like to touch history like this, to feel a small sliver of Jesus’ life solid, complete, and here for us to experience. It’s the kind of thing a person would never forget.
The Church of St. Catherine
Finally, we have the Church of St. Catherine. The adjoining church is dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria and built in a more modern Gothic Revival style from the rest of the Church of the Nativity. Being the most modern of the areas in the Church, this is also the area where major events and gathering are conducted. This includes the annual Christmas Midnight Mass, a major event for millions of believers around the world.
If you ever travel to Israel, chances are you’ll be staying in, or at least stopping by Jerusalem. Bethlehem is only 8 small kilometers from Jerusalem, barely a 20-minute car ride away. To come that close without actually seeing the Church of the Nativity would be a miss-opportunity anyone would regret. So, plan early and schedule the time to come and see the Church!