Bethlehem (“house of bread”) is about seven miles south of Jerusalem. Today the city is inside the West Bank and under control of the Palestinian Authority. Entering and exiting this territory requires passing through a barricade guarded by armed soldiers. What happened to “Welcome to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus and Peace on Earth”? Everything I imagined Bethlehem to be was shattered. “Come to Bethlehem, experience the disappointment firsthand” may be reality, but isn’t a good slogan for the Chamber of Commerce.
Micah prophesied some 700 years before Jesus was born that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem in Judah. “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”?(Micah 5:2). Matthew records the part of Micah’s prophesy that was fulfilled, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king…” (Matthew 2:1).
The architecture of the Church of the Nativity reflects popular styles from the periods of construction. An opening in the floor of the 6th century Basilica showcases a portion of the mosaic floor from the 4th century church, which was destroyed. Additional Chapels, Convents, and Monasteries were added in the 12th century.
The theology of the three “Christian” groups that occupy the Church of the Nativity is diverse. They all agree “this is the spot” where Jesus was born. There is reasonable support for this tradition. Around 140 AD, Justin Martyr wrote in his “Dialogue with Tryphon” about the place of Jesus Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. Jerome confirmed this site as Christ’s birthplace between 370 to 400 AD. In the cave where Jerome worked on his translation of the Scriptures in Latin known as the “Vulgate” is etched a star and an inscription in Latin.
However, the “Christian” groups vehemently disagree on the day of Jesus’ birth. The Roman Catholic Church holds firmly to December 25. The Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic Churches defend January 6. The Bible does not establish a date, nor even the season of the year for Jesus Christ’s birth.
Below the Basilica is the Grotto where a 14 point silver star is embedded in the marble floor. An inscription on the star reads, “Here of the Virgin Mary Jesus Christ was born.” Suspended above the star are 15 silver lamps. In 1853 the Silver Star was stolen. ?This act became an important reason for the start of the Crimean War between France, the Ottomans and Russia. Also displayed in the Grotto on “the very spot” where Jesus nursed, is a wooden manger, plastic doll, and glass case. The Grotto is often filled with smoke from incense and the oil lamps.
Part of the Christmas story we seldom tell is the “Massacre of the Innocents,” two years old and under. “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, Refusing to be comforted, Because they are no more’” (Matt. 2:17-18).
Disappointing? All but this: “Bethlehem. He was born there…”—that’s truth. “…I believe. I believe!” And you?