Turbulent history of Nativity site
By Claudia Mathis
SUN staff writer
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem marks one of Christianity’s most sacred sites — the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Situated on Manger Square five miles from Jerusalem, the church is built over a grotto where the Virgin Mary is said to have given birth to Jesus. The site has been venerated by Christians since St. Justin Martyr identified it as the site of Jesus’ birth in the second century. It is the oldest church still in use in the Holy Land and is one of the oldest churches in the world. It attracts thousands of people from around the world every year.
The church’s large fortress-like exterior stands as a testament to its turbulent history. It was seized and defended by a succession of armies — including Muslim and Crusader forces. The first church was built over the Grotto of the Nativity in the fourth century A.D. under the patronage of Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena, but it was later destroyed. In the sixth century, Byzantine Emperor Justinian built a new and more elaborate church on the site and the present structure is basically the same as it was then.
When the Persians invaded in 614, they left the church intact, legend has it, because they were moved by a painting of the nativity story inside the church. The painting depicted the Wise Men of the East in Persian clothes. In the 11th century crusaders renovated the church. Control of the church has more than once led to physical warfare, most significantly when Napoleon III declared the entire complex French property in 1852 — an act that brought him into conflict with Russia, which supported the rights of the Eastern Orthodox Church. 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.
Today, the church is controlled jointly by three Christian denominations — the Armenian Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church.
The main body of the basilica, including the nave, aisles, katholicon (choir and sanctuary), south transept and the Altar of the Nativity in the Grotto are in the possession of the Greek Orthodox.
The Armenian Orthodox have possession of the north transept and the altar there. They also have use, on occasion, of the Greek Orthodox altar in the grotto.
The Roman Catholics have exclusive possession of the altar of the Adoration of the Magi in the area of the grotto of the nativity known as the “Grotto of the Manger.” They also possess the silver star beneath the adjacent Altar of the Nativity. Both the Armenians and the Catholics have rights of passage and procession in the Nave.
Over the years, the site has been expanded. The church compound covers an area of approximately 12,000 square meters and includes, besides the basilica, a Franciscan convent, a Greek convent and an Armenian convent, which encircle the church.
Archbishop Michel Sabbah, the current Latin patriarch of Jerusalem and head of the Catholic Church in the region, spoke recently and described the basilica as a “place of refuge for everyone.” He added that this meant Israelis as well as Palestinians.
The compound is actually a combination of two churches, with a crypt beneath — the Grotto of the Nativity.
The main basilica of the Nativity is designed like a typical Roman basilica (divided into five naves by four rows of Corinthian pillars with pictures of the apostles on them) and an apse in the eastern end, where the sanctuary is. The church features golden mosaics covering the side walls, which are now largely decayed.
The basilica is entered through a very low door (less than four feet), called the “Door of Humility.” The original door was much larger but it was lowered by the Crusaders during the Middle Ages and further restricted during the Ottoman era to prevent mounted horsemen from entering the church. The original Roman style floor has since been covered over, but there is a trap door in the modern floor which opens up to reveal a portion of the Byzantine mosaics that covered the original floor. The church also features a large gilded iconostasis and a complex array of lamps throughout the building. Stairways on either side of the sanctuary lead down by winding stairs to the Grotto.
The Grotto of the Nativity and underground cave located beneath the basilica enshrines the site where Jesus is said to have been born. The exact spot is marked beneath an altar by a 14-point silver star set into the marble floor and surrounded by silver lamps. Another altar in the Grotto, which is maintained by the Roman Catholics, marks the site where tradition says Mary laid the newborn Baby in the manger.
The adjoining Church of St. Catherine, the Roman Catholic church, was built in a more modern Gothic revival style, and has since been further modernized according to the liturgical norms which followed Vatican II. This is the church where the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem celebrates Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
Numerous chapels are found in the compound as well, including the Chapel of Saint Joseph, commemorating the angel’s appearance to Joseph, commanding him to flee to Egypt (Matthew 2:13); the Chapel of the Innocents, commemorating the children killed by Herod (Matthew 2: 16-18) and the Chapel of St. Jerome, where tradition says he translated the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate).
Manger Square, a large paved courtyard in front of the church, is the site where large crowds gather on Christmas Eve to sing Christmas carols in anticipation of the midnight services.
The Church of the Nativity was placed on the 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites by the World Monuments Fund. The organization did so in hopes that the listing would encourage its preservation of the church’s disintegrating condition. It is hoped that the three custodians of the church — the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church and the Franciscan Order will join with the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority to preserve the building.