Thursday, December 11, 2014
Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity
The history of Bethlehem goes back to the time of Jacob and Rachel. The town is important to Jews, Muslims and Christians.
Bethlehem is situated eight kilometers (five miles) south of Jerusalem in the Judean hills and is 2361 feet above sea level. Today it is a Palestinian territory with both Muslims and Christians seeing themselves as Palestinians.
Bethlehem means ‘house of bread,’ in Hebrew and ‘house of meat,’ in Arabic. ‘House of Bread’ is meaningful to Christians who believe that Jesus is the Bread of Life. For Catholics and Orthodox Christians, the Eucharist (the bread shared in Communion) after consecration is the real body of Jesus.
'I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh' John 6:51
Not far away is Rachel’s Tomb, revered by Jews, Muslims and Christians. Rachel was Jacob’s most beloved wife and the mother of Joseph and Benjamin.
“So Rachel died and was buried on the road to Ephrath, at Bethlehem.” Gen 35:19
Ruth, the Moabite Woman
We also read of Bethlehem in Scripture in the Book of Ruth, a story that takes place during the time of the Judges. Ruth, a Moabite woman, was the daughter-in-law of Naomi. Naomi and her husband had fled Bethlehem in the land of Judah during a famine. After her husband and sons died, Naomi returned to Bethlehem and Ruth went with her, accepting her mother-in-law’s country and God as her own. Ruth married again, this time to an important landowner of Bethlehem, Boaz, and they became the ancestors of King David and eventually, Jesus.
“So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife ... and she bore a son ... and they named him Obed. This was the father of David’s father, Jesse.” Ruth 4:13 ff
The City of David
Bethlehem was King David’s birthplace and is called ‘The city of David’. David was the second King of Israel in c.1000 BC.
“David was the son of an Ephrathite from Bethlehem of Judah whose name was Jesse.” I Sam 17:12
Years later, the prophet Micah, who lived in the 8th century BC, prophesied that a ruler would be born in the small, and by then, unimportant town of Bethlehem.
“But you Bethlehem, Ephrath, the least of all the clans of Judah, out of you will be born for me the one who is to rule over Israel.” Micah 5:2
Birthplace of Jesus
The Gospel writers, Matthew and Luke, report that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, even though Joseph and Mary were from Nazareth in Galilee, in the north. The Romans had called for a census and everyone was to travel to his ancestral city to be registered.
“So Joseph set out from the town of Nazareth in Galilee and traveled up to Judea, to the town of David called Bethlehem, since he was of David’s House and line in order to be registered together with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.” Luke 2:3
Two Church Fathers attest to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, Justin Martyr (c. 100- 165 AD) and Origen (185-c.254).
“Joseph took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth Christ and placed Him in a manger and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him.” Justin Martyr. Dialogue with Trypho. chapter LXXVIII)
“In Bethlehem the cave is pointed out where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes. And the rumor is in those places, and among foreigners of the Faith, that indeed Jesus was born in this cave who is worshipped and reverenced by the Christians.” (Origen Contra Celsum. book I, chapter LI)
The Church of the Holy Nativity
St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, travelled to the Holy Land to find places which had been significant in the life of Jesus. She had the grotto, where people said Jesus had been born, made into a chapel and in AD 333 construction was completed on the basilica. This structure was destroyed by fire in AD529 during the Samaritan Revolt and the present Basilica was built in AD565. The entrance to the Basilica is a very low doorway known as the Door of Humility. Some say that the real purpose of the low door was to prevent enemies riding their horses into the sacred place,
The actual place that is believed to be the site of Jesus' birth is marked by a 14-point silver star set in marble on which are written the words Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus est (Here the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ). The Church is now administered by Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic (Franciscans) and Armenian Apostolic authorities and is visited by thousands of pilgrims each year from all over the world.
Today the town of Bethlehem is under the control of The Palestinian Authority and has been since 1995. The present mayor is a Christian woman, Vera Baboun. Both Christians and Muslims count themselves as Palestinian but the majority are Arab Muslims. Many of the Christian Arabs have left in the past few years depleting the population of Christians. The total population of Bethlehem is 27,000.
Citizens of Bethlehem, including Muslims, depend on tourism and Christian pilgrimages for their livelihood.
The New Jerusalem Bible New York: Doubleday & company, Inc. 1970.
The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version.
Website of BBC News Church with a Turbulent History. 4 April 2002. Accessed December 14, 2010.
Website of New Advent – Catholic Encyclopedia. article on Bethlehem accessed December 15, 2010.
Website of Wikipedia – article on Bethlehem. accessed December 15, 2010.
Terra Sancta, Documentary (2009) by the Franciscan Media Centre aired on Salt and Light Television, December 17, 2013.
Photos by L. Shelstad