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Church of Nativity - Birth Place of Jesus Christ
Bethlehem, Palestine

Church of Nativity History and origion

The Church of the Nativity in the heart of Bethlehem marks one of Christianity's most sacred sites - the birthplace of Christ.

Situated on Manger Square 8 kilometres (5 miles) from Jerusalem, the church is built over a grotto where the Virgin Mary is said to have given birth to Jesus. The church's large fortress-like exterior stands as a testament to its turbulent history. For centuries, it was one of the most fought over holy places. It was seized and defended by a succession of armies - including Muslim and Crusader forces.

It is controlled jointly by three Christian denominations - the Armenian Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church.

  • The Grotto of the Nativity contains the manger that is believed to be the place where the baby Jesus was laid after he was born. The grotto is encased in white marble.
  • The site of the birth is marked by a 14-point star on a marble stone.
  • The High Altar standing above the Grotto.

The site has been venerated by Christians since St Justin Martyr identified it as the site of Jesus' birth in the second century.

Place of refuge

In 333 AD the Emperor Constantine completed the basilica, which attracts thousands of pilgrims from around the world every year. The original structure was completely destroyed in the early 6th century. It was rebuilt in its present form in 527-65 AD during the rule of Emperor Justinian. Over the years, the site has been expanded. The church's compound covers and area of approximately 12,000 square metres and includes, besides the Basilica, a Latin convent, a Greek Orthodox convent and an Armenian convent. Speaking recently, the current Latin patriarch of Jerusalem and head of the Catholic church in the region, Michel Sabbah, described the church's basilica as a "place of refuge for everyone". He added that this meant Israelis as well as Palestinians.

Pilgrimage

The main access to the basilica is by the very small Door of Humility, which visitors must enter bending over, as if entering a cave or grotto. It was said to have been made during the Ottoman era to prevent mounted horsemen from entering the basilica. The Palestinian Authority was given control over Bethlehem in December 1995, when Israeli troops pulled out.

Bethlehem is mentioned in Genesis as Ephratah, the burial place of Rachel - a place of pilgrimage for both Jews and Muslims. It is also referred to in the Old Testament as the home of King David's family.

Another Account of Church of Nativity History & Origion

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).


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