O Little Town – We Were There (Part 2)

Series: Israel 2022

O Little Town of Bethlehem6

Yesterday I gave you a little bit of Bethlehem’s history; today, I give you a little bit about our visit there last February.

Outside the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square, our Palestinian Christian guide gives us an overview of the church. While in Bethlehem, our Israeli guides were replaced with a Palestinian guide. The Church of the Nativity was the home church for our guide – his family had attended for many generations. But he said that he and his immediate family now attend a church closer to their home for regular services.

Our first glimpse of the Church of the Nativity was from Manger Square which is the site visited on Christmas Eve by thousands of Christians who come to celebrate the Lord’s birth. You enter the actual church through a very low door known as the “Door of Humility” which forces you to bend down to enter – being made to be humble as it were.

Entering the Church via the “Door of Humility”

But the story behind the door is much more interesting but not very spiritual at all. Sometime after the Ottoman conquest in 1516, the church had fallen into decay and was being ill-used by the locals. The large main doors were walled up to prevent people from riding their horses right into the sanctuary. The small, low door kept the horses and other animals out of the church.2 While the original intent of the small door may not have been about humility, it does feel a bit like you’re going into a very sacred place when you bow down to enter that door which opens up inside to a large open sanctuary.

Looking back at the “Door of Humility” from inside the church. The stone archway gives you an idea of that the original entrance might have been. Looking at the changes in the stonework helps to imagine the location of the large wooden doors of the original church.

I have only been into one Orthodox church in my lifetime and never into one so old. This church is the oldest Christian church in Israel and, in terms of active continuous worship, possibly the oldest in the world.2 Being someone who grew up in a little country church in the US with very little embellishment besides possibly a large wooden cross over the altar behind the pulpit, this church seemed a bit overwhelming to me. The floors were marble flagstones with marble columns lining the aisles up to the altar which was all gold and silver and lit strategically to enhance the glow and sheen in the flickering candlelight.  

Inside the Church of the Nativity (Eastern Orthodox). The marble flagstone floor is not the original; there is supposed to be a trapdoor that lifts to show the original mosaics of the Justinian-built church, but it was not open for us the day we visited.

We were advised by our Palestinian Christian guide that the gold screens behind the altar had tarnished to a dull grey over the years but were being restored to their original gold & silver especially in the past couple years while there were few, if any, tourists during the Covid pandemic… that we were lucky to see everything “gold” again.

A closer view of the gold & silver panels at the altar. On the left side of the photo, you can see three people (one standing just left of center and two others sitting on the floor) working to restore the patina on the panels. At the far left on the bottom, you can see the tarnished panel not yet restored.

There were sanctuary lamps of gold and silver hanging everywhere…. hundreds of them. I was quite fascinated by all these lamps…. they appeared to be lit with candles or, maybe oil. I have read that the lamps signify the eternal flames and everlasting light that is Jesus.2 Who lights these lamps every morning…or whenever they go out? Does some priest come in with a very tall ladder every morning to ensure the lights never go out? If the lights do go out, does some poor caretaker get fired? There were just so many of them and I saw no hint that anyone was actively monitoring them while we were there. (This is the way my mind works.) And, yes, there were electric lights too.

The walls near the ceiling were covered with mosaics depicting saints or scenes of the life of Christ and there were many old paintings and other gilded icons everywhere. The marble columns also included life-size portraits of saints although many were covered with graffiti from crusaders, Ottomans, pilgrims, etc.2 We humans seem to have a need to leave our mark everywhere we go – you know adding our own “Kilroy was here” – even in places where we know we shouldn’t.

The Grotto of the Nativity is behind and underneath the altar. To descend to the cave, we were directed into a line to the right of the altar, past the charity box, and back to a narrow stone stairway down to the lower level and into the cave.

Probably the most ornate “Poor Box”
that I have ever seen.

The actual place of the birth is curtained off in a little marble lined alcove with ornately embroidered curtains. The “nativity” marked by a 14-pointed silver star. The star was placed there by the Catholics in 1717 and is inscribed in Latin – “Hic De Virgine Maria Jesus Christus Natus Est – 1717” which means “Here Jesus Christ was born to the virgin Mary – 1717”.2 The 14 points symbolize 3 sets of 14 generations in Christ’s genealogy (see Matthew 1 for more on the lineage of Christ).  The 1st set of 14 generations are from Abraham to David, the 2nd set is from David to the Babylonian captivity/diaspora, and the 3rd set from Babylon captivity to Jesus’ birth.2 Fifteen (15) silver sanctuary lamps hang around the star – 6 representing the Greek Orthodox Church, 4 for the Roman Catholic church, and 5 for the Armenian Apostolic.2 In the middle of the star is a circular opening so that pilgrims and worshippers can reach down inside the star to touch the actual stone floor of the cave where it is said that Mary actually laid down to give birth.

The Nativity where (per tradition) Mary laid on the cave floor and delivered the baby Jesus. Although visitors are no longer permitted to do so, the hole in the star would allow visitors in the past to reach through and touch the floor of the cave.

But not today – no touching anything or reaching into the opening is allowed. As I bent down to see into the nativity alcove and get a photo, I was advised to bow down before the nativity.  I certainly didn’t mean to be disrespectful, but bowing was out of the question (I would have had some trouble getting back up at my age) so I squatted down as low as I could and got as much of a look as I could before I was hurried along so the next person could do the same.

Directly across from the nativity is another spot that is called the Grotto of the Manger where it is said that the manger stood where Jesus was laid after he was born.2 Across from that is the Altar of the Magi where the wise men were to have stood to see the newborn king.2 I will admit that I am not really sure where the Altar of the Magi was (is) or even if I noticed it. Per my recollection of scripture, the wise men visited Jesus and the family sometime after the birth in a different location altogether (Matthew 2:11).  Perhaps, the altar there is just symbolic of the visit. So, I have little recollection of that third altar being pointed out in the short time we were in the grotto which is very small and crowded and the line of people waiting is long and the actual time for each person to view the nativity is very short. (Bow down, look, get up and move on.) After only a few minutes, we departed the grotto via the stone stair directly opposite and identical to the one we used to come in.

The Grotto of the Manger. Per tradition, the is the spot where the manger stood and where Mary placed the baby Jesus. If you look to either side of the altar, you get a glimpse of the original cave walls.

We spent some additional time in the church taking photos (yes, everyone needed a selfie in front of the altar) and admiring the mosaics, paintings, and carvings.

Madonna and Child. Note that the hands and halos in the painting have been covered with actual silver.

We exited the church to the left of the altar and entered the small courtyard garden just outside the Catholic church, St. Catherine’s. It is a newer church dedicated to Catherine of Alexandria in 1347.12 It was closed to the public on the day that we visited although I believe that parishioners could enter for services.  I would certainly have liked to see inside the church. St. Catherine’s building is directly connected to the Church of the Nativity and built over the series of caves that include the Nativity of the Grotto.2

The caves underneath the two churches are connected via a tunnel that is kept locked.2 St. Catherine’s is noteworthy in that St. Jerome is said to have lived there during the years when he was compiling the Latin Vulgate translation of the Christian Bible. His “office” is said to have been in one of the caves under the church.1

I’d like to say that I had some deep abiding spiritual experience when we visited the site of the Lord’s birth in Bethlehem, but I didn’t really that I recall. I found the Church & Grotto of the Nativity extremely ancient and interesting from a historical sense and a religious sense. All the lamps with candles and the bright shining silver & gold of the altar screens gave the place an ancient and eternal feel and made it easy to believe that this was, indeed, a sacred place where the birth of Jesus had occurred; but it was all a bit foreign to me with my simple country church background. And there just wasn’t really any time to stop and meditate on the significance of the place, which might have made it more enlightening and spiritual for me.

Crucifix over the altar in the Church of the Nativity

Then again, maybe my emotional response is just evolving slowly over time. I marvel that I was there – in Bethlehem – where Jesus was born – not at that specific place maybe but we know he was born somewhere in the city. And I actually walked through the Church of the Nativity, entered the cave, and saw the spot – quite possibly the actual spot – where he was born and laid down to sleep in a manger while a star shone brightly overhead and angels sang to shepherds out tending their flocks in nearby fields.  

I am left with a thought that brings me back to David and God’s promise to him. David – a shepherd boy born in Bethlehem who was raised up by God to become King of all Israel….and just as promised, some thousand years later, a King – the King – Jesus – gave up his throne above to become a lowly shepherd to his followers… the birthplace of a shepherd who became a king and a king who became a shepherd.

The Good Shepherd – Jesus – who was raised up in death to forgive us all and give us eternal life…born in Bethlehem, the City of David.

“Rejoice in the Lord Always.

I will say it again.


Mosaic of an angel near the ceiling in the Church of the Nativity

Sources for Information:

  1. The Holy Land for Christian Travelers, John A. Beck, 2017, Baker Books, Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, MI, www.bakerbooks.com , USA, Dan, pages 89-91
  2. Church of the Nativity – Wikipedia
  3. Mosque of Omar (Bethlehem) – Wikipedia 
  4. O Little Town of Bethlehem – Wikipedia
  5. Bethlehem – Wikipedia
  6. O Little Town of Bethlehem > Lyrics | Phillips Brooks (timelesstruths.org)
  7. Rachel’s Tomb – Wikipedia
  8. Micah 5 (biblehub.com)
  9. Philippians 4:4
  10. Biblical Israel: Bethlehem – CBN Israel
  11. Currier and Ives – Wikipedia
  12. Church of Saint Catherine, Bethlehem – Wikipedia

O Little Town – A Little History (Part 1)

Series: Israel 2022

O Little Town of Bethlehem6.

This song has been rolling through my mind regularly since the start of the Christmas season. That and a good dozen other Christmas carols that speak (sing?) to the birth of Christ. So, it’s Christmas and I figure I just about have to write about visiting Bethlehem and seeing The Church of the Nativity, the place where it is said that Jesus was born.

But what comes to mind when I sing these carols is not the Bethlehem we visited, but something out of a Currier & Ives inspired event depicting a quaint and very small foreign village with lots of snow, twinkling stars, and an old wooden open-fronted shed with Mary, Joseph, 3 (exactly 3) wise men, maybe 4 shepherds, an angel hovering overhead underneath a big star, and a variety of farm animals. Everyone (and every animal) is standing around reverently adoring the wee baby Jesus wrapped up and asleep in a feeding trough (aka manger) with bits of hay sticking out the sides. Just so you know how important the baby is, there is sometimes a halo encircling his head or a bright light beam shining down directly on him from that giant star outside. A good and proper portrayal of the birth scene for Christians everywhere.

But the new world images of the Holy Land are maybe just a little skewed towards our culture and not that of the middle east.  Nativity scenes that I see at Christmas time certainly do not bring to mind the Bethlehem that we visited in the Judean Mountains just south of Jerusalem (maybe 5 miles). The Bethlehem that gets chilly in winter (if indeed Jesus was born in the winter season) but not really snowy although I’ve read that it can snow and does sometimes. It certainly didn’t snow when we were there in February.  In fact, it was rather hot, and Bethlehem isn’t a little village, it’s a good-sized city; and there was neither hide nor hair of a stable anywhere that I could see.

So, what is true about Bethlehem? Today it is located in the West Bank in the Palestinian Governorate of the State of Palestine. It is Israel but not really.  If you visit, you have to enter through checkpoints, and you have to show a valid passport just like any other border crossing anywhere in the world. (Fortunately, being on a bus as part of a tour, we were allowed to pass through without any serious issues or delays.) Today, Bethlehem’s economy is primarily tourist driven and right at the center of the city is The Church of the Nativity, a site now deemed sacred for Christians throughout the world which attracts thousands of Christian tourists every year.

How can you go wrong with Gospel Travel?

Like many middle eastern cities, Bethlehem is a city within a city. There are the ancient portions and then there are the 21st century modern parts. The “old city” in Bethlehem includes about 8 quarters (sections) with a “mosaic style” layout with Manger Square being at the core.  To the Arabs, the city was Beyt Lahm or “house of meat”; to the Hebrews, it was Bet Lehem or “house of bread”; to the ancient Greeks, it was Bethleem. But even older still is the Canaanite name, Beit Lahmi, which refers to the House of Lahmi, a Canaanite god of fertility worshipped by the Canaanites.5

The city is indeed ancient with some archaeological dates going back to the 14th century BC/E where it was mentioned in the Amarna Letters as a Canaanite city.5&10 But, our visit was primarily focused on Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity and events related to the birth of the Christ (Messiah) somewhere around 1BC give or take a couple years.

Bethlehem…. the place where Jesus was born…. the place that was prophesied in the Old Testament (Christian Bible) in the Book of Micah (5:2):

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, 

Though you are little among the thousands of Judah, 

Yet out of you shall come forth to Me

The One to be Ruler in Israel,

Whose goings forth are from of old, From everlasting.”8

This little town – little among thousands. While no one really knows where Jesus was born and laid in a manger by Mary, his mother, there is a long tradition that associates the event with caves in the city at the site of The Church of the Nativity.

But, let me back up a minute. Bethlehem is also known as the “City of David” …. for good reason. David, the second and some would say greatest King of Israel, was from Bethlehem. David, the son of Jesse of the tribe of Judah who was anointed by Samuel to be king when he was but a young shepherd boy (1 Samuel 16:13).  David, the ancestor of Joseph, who was betrothed to Mary, the mother of Jesus. David, who was promised by God (2 Samuel 7:16) that the Messiah would be born of his lineage.

David’s line. You know the basic nativity story, right? If not, it is all laid out in the New Testament in the Christian Bible in Luke Chapter 2.  The Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, called for a census, and everyone in Palestine had to travel back to the home of their ancestors. Since Joseph was of the “line of David”, he had to go to Bethlehem to be counted. And, so he did, taking a very pregnant Mary, his betrothed, with him.  (I’m leaving out quite a bit of the whole story so a little review by reading Luke Chapter 2 and Matthew Chapter 1 might be helpful to you.)

Bell Tower at the Church of the Nativity overlooking Manger Square

Now, back to the Church of the Nativity and those caves. As noted above, Bethlehem is in the hills of Judea and those hills include many limestone caves and the people built their houses over the caves. I suppose it is possible that, in even more ancient times, they originally lived in those caves and building their homes over them was a natural evolution. We know that young David took refuge in caves when he was hiding from King Saul (the first king of Judah, and that, in more modern times, the Dead Sea Scrolls were found stored in caves near the Dead Sea. Suffice to say, there are lots of caves in Israel and they were used for various purposes by the people living there. Even today, you can see houses built over caves in Israel. According to our Israeli tour guide, today the caves are used primarily for storage but have been used in the past for graves and, yes, as stables for sheltering their farm animals.

Old Houses built over caves in Jerusalem near Kidron Valley

The Church of the Nativity was built over a series of caves where tradition says that Jesus was born because there were no more rooms available in the house. Yes, the King James Version Bible says “inn”, but the koine Greek (New Testament language) word refers to a house or abode. The translation issue is not something I’m going to delve into with this blog. Suffice to say, some sort of building was built over the caves which, it seems, were being used as a stable with a manger available. Again, there is no recorded history – no neighborhood maps from 1BC, no birth certificate showing the date, time, & place of the birth of Jesus – only oral tradition that provided the basis for the location of the church.

Now a little info on the building of the church – very short version: Early Christians had identified these particular caves (or grottoes) as the site of Christ’s birth as early as the 2d century AD/CE. Yes, that’s over 100 years after the birth but it’s not known how long the early Christians had been going to the site. The Roman emperor Hadrian had gotten a little concerned about Christians gathering here. He didn’t like it since he wanted everyone to worship Roman gods so, in 135 AD/CE took over the site and had a pagan sanctuary to Adonis built over the caves.1&5 Interestingly enough (and ironically), Hadrian’s decision actually preserved the site which would later come to the attention of Helena (mother of Emperor Constantine) in 330 AD/CE or thereabouts when she came to the Holy Land seeking out sites associated with Jesus.  She found (?) and identified this site as the birthplace and the first Christian Basilica was built at the site over the caves in 339 AD/CE.1&2

Manger Square at the Church of the Nativity

Fast forward. The original church was one of those octagonal ones (remember the one built over Peter’s house in Capernaum – read about our visit there here). Octagonal shapes were customary for use in basilicas at the time. The original basilica was destroyed by fire in the Samaritan revolts in 529 AD/CE2 and replaced in 539 AD/CE by order of Emperor Justinian with a more modern (for that time) church in the cruciform transept style – shape of a basic Greek cross, 4 apses, 44 Corinthian columns, 5 aisles – basically the footprint the church has today.2  I could go on and on with this history – that church (like the city and the country) has been through a lot since Jesus was born…held by the Romans, conquered by Persians, conquered by the Crusaders twice, back to Muslims, and then the Ottomans, then much, much later, after World War I, the British, and so on and so on. The history of Bethlehem is pretty much also the history of the Church of the Nativity itself. Sometimes the Church of the Nativity was under the management of the Roman/Catholic church, sometimes the Greek Orthodox, sometimes used by the Muslims, sometimes nobody really taking care of things – back & forth it went for the past two centuries.

Today, as noted above, Bethlehem is a part of Palestine in the West Bank. The Church of the Nativity is managed in joint by a series of documents and understandings called the “Status Quo”.2 Major ownership is divided between the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic, and the Roman Catholics (St. Catherine’s next door is connected to the Church of the Nativity and also built over the system of caves); minor rights are also given to the Coptic Orthodox (Egypt) and the Syriac Orthodox (the Church at Antioch) denominations. The city of Bethlehem was once predominantly Christian but today is primarily Muslim or secular with a very small minority being Christian. (In 1947, the population was 85% Christian; in 2016, 16%.5)


So what did I see there? Tune in Tomorrow for Part 2 – Our Visit

Sources for Information:

  1. The Holy Land for Christian Travelers, John A. Beck, 2017, Baker Books, Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, MI, www.bakerbooks.com , USA, Bethlehem and Shepherds’ Fields, pages 87-91
  2. Church of the Nativity – Wikipedia
  3. Mosque of Omar (Bethlehem) – Wikipedia 
  4. O Little Town of Bethlehem – Wikipedia
  5. Bethlehem – Wikipedia
  6. O Little Town of Bethlehem > Lyrics | Phillips Brooks (timelesstruths.org)
  7. Rachel’s Tomb – Wikipedia
  8. Micah 5 (biblehub.com)
  9. Philippians 4:4
  10. Biblical Israel: Bethlehem – CBN Israel
  11. Currier and Ives – Wikipedia
  12. Church of Saint Catherine, Bethlehem – Wikipedia