December 22, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

A visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

John F. FinkA highlight of any pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a visit to the Church of the Nativity, built in Bethlehem over the cave in which Jesus was born. It’s the oldest church in the Holy Land, built by St. Helena, Constantine’s mother, in 325.

It survived destruction by the Persians in 614 that 300 other churches did not because the Persians found a mosaic of the Nativity with the magi dressed in ancient Persian costumes.

The present church isn’t precisely the one built by St. Helena, though. That one was looted and burned by the Samaritans from Nablus in 529. The Emperor Justinian then had a larger and more beautiful church built, and it’s the one still standing today.

The church is a fortress. To prevent men on horseback from entering, its entrance is only 4 ½-feet high, and it’s narrow enough that only one person at a time can enter. Since one has to stoop to enter, it’s called the “gate of humility.”

Today, it’s mainly a Greek Orthodox church, with other Christian religions having control of parts of it. Mosaic floors from the fourth century are covered to preserve them, but there are openings so pilgrims can see part of them.

To get to the cave where Jesus was born, pilgrims descend a flight of stairs to the right of the sanctuary. The rectangular cave is covered with asbestos as a safeguard against fire from the numerous burning candles. A Greek Orthodox shrine, with a silver star, marks the spot where Christ was born. A Roman Catholic shrine off to the side has two altars—the altar of the crib where the newborn infant was laid, and the altar of the magi.

That silver star was an indirect cause of the Crimean War in 1853. Someone stole it, and that incident spread to the war between Russia, defending the rights of the Orthodox Church in the Holy Land, and France, defending the rights of Roman Catholics. Of course, the incident was a mere pretext since there were bigger issues between the two countries.

The roof of the church also figured in war. During the time of the Crusades in the 12th century, the roof was badly in need of repair, and the Crusaders replaced the cedar roof with lead. Later, in 1683, the Ottoman Turks were besieging Vienna and threatening to overrun all of Christian Europe. The Turks were running out of ammunition when someone remembered the lead on the roof of the Church of the Nativity.

The church was stripped of its lead and it was rushed to Vienna. It arrived too late, after the Christian forces led by Prince Sobieski of Poland had defeated the Turks. However, from then until late in the 20th century, including the first few times I visited the church, large puddles formed on the floor of the church whenever it rained.

The Catholic Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria is attached to the Church of the Nativity. It was built in 1881 over a cave where St. Jerome lived while he translated the Bible into Latin. †

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