Bethlehem - Birth Place of Jesus Christ
Bethlehem is the birthplace of Jesus and therefore a holy site to Christians around the world. The city also is significant to Jews because it is the burial place of the matriarch Rachel and the birthplace of King David. Samuel anointed David king in Bethlehem (I Sam. 16:1-13) and David was a descendant of Ruth and Boaz, who were married in Bethlehem.
The city, just 5 miles south of Jerusalem, was turned over to the Palestinian Authority as a result of the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement. Bethlehem has a population of approximately 50,000 people, with the Muslims holding a slight majority. In Hebrew, the town is Bet Lehem ("House of Bread" ) and, in Arabic, it is Bet Lahm ("House of Meat"). For centuries, Christian pilgrims have made the roughly 2½ hour walk from Jerusalem to Manger Square. Today, the trip typically begins at the train station in Abu Tor and proceeds along the Hebron Road.
Manger Square is the focus of activity of Christmas celebrations not once, but three times a year. In addition to the traditional Western celebration which begins on December 24, the Greek Orthodox mark their Christmas on January 6 and the Armenian observance is on January 19.
The Church of the Nativity
The Church of the Nativity was built in the 4th century by the mother of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine. Helena also was the person responsible for the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The present building, the oldest church in Israel/Palestine was reconstructed in the 6th century by the Emperor Justinian (527-565) and further repaired by the Crusaders.
The church has a colorful history. When the Persians invaded in 614, they left the church intact, legend has it, because they were moved by a painting inside of the Nativity story depicting the Wise Men of the East in Persian clothes. King Edward IV of England donated wood from English oak trees for the ceiling. He also contributed lead to cover the roof, but that was taken by the Turks, who melted it down to use as ammunition in their war against the Venetians.
The entrance to the church is a low doorway that has its own legends. One story is that the door was installed by the Muslims during their rule to remind Christians that they were guests in the country and must bow to their hosts. An alternative explanation is that the height of the door was designed to prevent unbelievers from entering the church on horseback. Yet another version holds that it was to protect the Christians from their hostile neighbors.
The church is divided into five naves by four rows of Corinthian pillars with pictures of the apostles on them. The names are written in Greek and Latin and many visitors have carved their own signatures over the centuries. The floor of the nave has a hole that allows you to see what remains of the Byzantine mosaics that covered the original church floor.
The Altar of the Nativity sits below a silver and gold chandelier. Stairways on either side of the main altar lead to a grotto. A fourteen-point silver star embedded in white marble indicates the birthplace of Christ. An inscription reads, Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est ("Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary"). Fifteen lamps burn around the spot. Nearby is the Chapel of the Manger, where Mary placed the baby Jesus. Like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, various Christian denominations share control over different parts of the church. The grotto is under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Church.
The traditional midnight mass celebrated on Christmas Eve is held in St. Catherine's, the Roman Catholic church next door to the Church of the Nativity. This is also the site of several chapels with their own historic and religious significance. The Chapel of St. Jerome is where the Bishop of Bethlehem translated the Old Testament into Latin. The Chapel of the Innocents is devoted to the deaths of the babies killed by Herod. The Chapel of St. Joseph is where an angel appeared to Joseph and commanded him to flee to Egypt.
Not far from Manger Square is the Milk Grotto. According to Christian tradition, this is where Mary spilled some milk while nursing Jesus when she was hiding from Herod's soldiers. The milk turned the rocks of the cave a chalk white color. The rock is believed by some to have healing power and to make nursing easier for women.
Other pilgrimage sites include the Shepherds' Fields, where an angel appeared to the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:8-20), the Field of Ruth, where Ruth, the Moabite, gleaned barley from the field for her future husband, Boaz, and David's Wells, three cisterns from which King David longed to drink when the Philistines controlled Bethlehem (2 Samuel 23:13-17).