Bethlehem’s main attraction centers on the oldest standing church in Israel. The ancient structure marks the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, and yet, it isn’t much to look at.
Built in the sixth century by the emperor Justinian, the Church of the Nativity sits on top of the location of the original octagonal church Constantine’s mother, Helena, constructed just a few centuries after Jesus.
When I went there earlier this year, it looked altogether uninspiring and unassuming.
To me, that’s appropriate.
Was Jesus Really Born Here?
Early and strong tradition supports that Mary gave birth to Jesus in the cave beneath the church. A star on the ground today even marks the traditional spot of the Nativity, which means “the Birth.”
Tradition is far from infallible, but we have no reason to doubt it without good reason. The location of Jesus’ birth remains one of the oldest and strongest traditions:
- In the 2nd-century, Justin Martyr and the Protoevangelium of James both mention Jesus’ birth as occurring in a cave.
- In the 3rd-century, Origin saw the cave where Jesus was supposed to have been born. This represented the same place where the present Church of the Nativity stands today.
- The floor of the modern church has panels removed revealing an earlier floor with beautiful mosaics from the original church Constantine constructed.
- As tradition goes, the church survived the invasion of the Persians in AD 614 because they saw images of the Magi on the walls.
- Again the church survived destruction by the Egyptian al-Hakim in 1009 because of the relationships between Christians and Muslims among the locals.
- More recently, the church has been threatened by age and the elements, badly needing repairs.
Today’s Church of the Nativity
Today, Bethlehem claims more than 30,000 residents—hardly the “little town” of Jesus’ day.
In front of the church today, a large courtyard called Manger Square accommodates pilgrims who gather every Christmas Eve. The traditional Western celebration begins on December 24, followed by the Greek Orthodox Christmas on January 6 and the Armenian observance almost two weeks later.
When I first saw the exterior of the church, it looked anything but inspiring. Then it hit me: Jesus came into the world the same way: unassuming, humble, as one who serves.
Until He comes again, we should adopt the same attitude.
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. —Philippians 2:5–7