The Holy Land – Christmas day on the 9th Of November

The Holy Land – Christmas day on the 9th Of November

Yesterday was Christmas day for me, we reached Bethlehem. The city takes its name from the fertile land that once made this now politically walled city, a bread basket. For Bethlehem means ‘House of Bread’ Like the shepherds and kings who paid homage to the Lord, every pilgrim to the Church must out of default bend low as the enter the Church.

Over the centuries, the entrance to Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity has twice been made smaller. The purpose in the last case was to keep marauders from entering the basilica on horseback. It’s now referred to as the “Door of Humility,” because visitors must bend down to enter and so we did.

The door of Humility

Your guides will tell you that this is the first Church in the world but that is certainly not true as  Armenia  by then,had become the first country to establish Christianity as its state religion way back as 310 AD.

In 325 AD the Roman pagan Emperor, Constantine converted to Christianity and with him the entire Roman world. A religion persecuted for three centuries was now free to propagate its faith under royal patronage. By the year 327 he sent his mother Helena on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and it is to her that is attributed the recovery of many relics and sites in the Holy Land

In Bethlehem, she built a Church in the year 327 AD but was destroyed during the Samaritan revolts in the sixth century. During the 5th and 6th centuries the Samaritans revolted against  the Byzantine Empire in the province of Palestine. The revolts were marked by great violence on both sides, and their brutal suppression at the hands of the Byzantines and their Ghassanid allies severely reduced the Samaritan population.

The mosaic flooring going back to Helena

Constantine then established a new capital in modern day Istanbul naming the city after himself. He called it Constantinople. Rome was now abandoned while Christianity in the near east grew rapidly. This new area became known as the Byzantine Empire. At its peak existed great Emperors like Justinian and his wife Theodora. It was in his time that the Hagia Sophia was built in Istanbul as a cathedral to match the grandeur of King Solomon’s temple. That Cathedral is now a mosque today.

It was Emperor Justinian who in the year 565 decided to rebuild the Church. He built it over the Church that Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine built the first Church over the  site of Jesus birth. The present structure that you see in Bethlehem goes back to the Emperor Justinian. All the Byzantine era Churches in this region were destroyed in wars that ravaged the land except the walls of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. During  recent archaeological digs within the Church the mosaic floors dating back to the Church built by Helena in 327 was discovered and now preserved.

The Pillars and mosaic go back to the Byzantine period post 325 AD

Later during the 12th century the crusaders who came from Europe to liberate Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Turks rebuilt certain parts of the Church of the Nativity. While our guide said that the mosaics on the walls were from this period ( 12th century) I beg to differ. The crusaders (the first few) were nothing but a bunch of misguided marauders with little or no skill in battle. Besides, such mosaic craftsmanship can only go back to the Justinian era as seen in other Churches sponsored by the Emperor in places such as Ravenna on the eastern shores of Italy. The pillars in the Church in polished red limestone go back the the Byzantine period and have paintings of Saints on them.

The Grotto is entered by descending the stairs to the right of the iconostasis ( the altar of the Greek Orthodox Church which is the main altar of the Church). Here the space is very narrow and restricted and the walls, which were originally irregular, form an almost-rectangular perimeter. The natural walls of the cave, decorated in the Constantine period, were covered with marble during the Byzantine period.

The spot where Jesus was born marked by a silver star

 Beneath the altar is spot where Jesus was born, now marked by a silver star with the inscription “Hic de Virgine Maria Iesus Christus natus est” in memory of the precise spot of the Nativity. To the right of the altar is the place where Mary laid Jesus in the manger, also known as the Crib. At this point in the Grotto the floor is lower and the space is made up of columns similar to the Byzantine ones in the nave of the church, and by the remains of two Crusader columns.

In front of the Crib is a small altar dedicated to the Magi, where the Latin Church celebrate Holy Mass. The structure of the Crib is not the original one but is the result of alterations necessitated by the continuous wear and tear of time and the passage of pilgrims.

It is often asked how one knows for sure that this is the precise spot that Jesus was born,  By the second century, believers of Jesus began to make pilgrimages to this spot. This was during the pagan rule of the Roman period where Christians were put to death for their faith.  The Roman Emperor Adrian who wanted to put an end to Christianity and such worship had the pilgrim site at Bethlehem sealed with the hope that Christianity would be forgotten and the site lost forever,

To ensure this, he converted the Church  into a Roman temple to Venus, the goddess of beauty and desire in the year 155 over the very spot that pilgrims had come to venerate the birth of Jesus. Inadvertently Adrian ended up helping the preservation of the Church. By converting the Church into a temple over the shrine, he had now inadvertently marked forever the place where Jesus was born and this was known down the year’s upto the time the Byzantine Emperor Justinian decided to build a new Church. As a consequence of this, the spot was never destroyed.

The main altar of the Church of the Nativity

The church today is administered by the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian and the Catholic Church jointly. Be ready to stand in serpentine queues for as long as two to three

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