A Renovated Church for Christmas
This Christmas, Bethlehem is getting a special gift…a renovated Church of the Nativity, the birthplace of Jesus.
Renovations on the Church in Bethlehem began back in July 2013 and were long overdue. As one of the world’s oldest functional churches, it has withstood centuries of extreme weather, conflict, and change; worn and in serious need of repair.
Growing up with the Church as my parish as a child in Bethlehem, I never realized just how special a place it really was until I was much older; and only then, when I took my tour guiding courses and began learning of its history.
Built over the place that holy tradition confirmed was the place of the birth of Jesus in the Bible as told in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, it was Saint Helena who constructed the first Church in the 4th century after her famous pilgrimage in 324-326 AD. While the original structure was destroyed during the Samaritan Revolt in the 6th Century AD, the Church was rebuilt and its essential structure relatively unchanged until the present; with the noticeable addition of the Franciscan Church of Saint Catherine sharing the north wall of the Church, built over the caves of Saint Jerome, in the 19th century, with some additional renovation work on the cloistered courtyard by the renowned architect Barluzzi in the mid -20th century.
What we see today!
The Church as we see it today is laid out in crucifix form on an east-west axis; the design is actually nearly identical to the original Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome. The famous Door of Humility, the primary entrance to the Church of the Nativity, is all that remains of a traditional three-door archway leading into the large double-columned nave of the Church. The columns themselves are adorned with painted images of saints and include some Crusader graffiti, but of primary interest is “Mary’s Column” on the southern side of the interior column which includes five finger-sized holes. One tradition from the Mamluk and Ottoman Era is that once when the church was threatened by a hostile force, the Virgin Mary sent out a swarm of wasps from the five holes to attack the invaders and save the Church. At one time the upper walls of the Church were covered with mosaics from the Crusader Era, of which now less than a tenth survive, as well as beautiful geometric mosaics patterns on the floor, which while still in existence, are now almost entirely covered with large slabs of stone save for a few sections which have been cleared for the benefit of pilgrims to examine. The principal altar of the Church is under the control of the Greek Orthodox, while a side chapel for the Armenian and Syriac Churches is supplemented and is to be found on the right side of the altar. Under the primary altar is the grotto itself; thirty-three steps representing the thirty-three years of Christ leading to the birth of Jesus descend down to where the star of Bethlehem shone down, illuminating the infant Jesus, “the Light of the World,” (John 8:12) and the adjacent manger where Christ was first laid after the Virgin Mary gave birth to Him. Among the symbols of Bethlehem are the fourteen-point star symbolizing the three times fourteen generations of ancestors of Jesus from Abraham.
Now nearing the end of 2019, the Church has been restored to much of its former beauty, structurally sound and scrubbed of centuries of soot and grime. The renovation efforts have been so successful, in fact, that UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) removed the Church of the Nativity from its list of endangered world heritage sites this past July.
Treasures Have Been Discovered
Some amazing treasures have been discovered during the renovations. In 2016, the “Seventh Angel” of Bethlehem was discovered in the upper portion of the rear northern side of the nave; a beautiful mosaic covered for centuries with soot and plaster. And earlier this year, a spectacular Baptismal font from the Byzantine Era (5th to 6th century AD) was discovered hiding in plain sight, embedded in a stone block that hid its exquisite ornate carvings.
All of us in Bethlehem are excited to share our beloved Church, still the same ancient house of worship so important to the Christian faith, but now in better condition to welcome the millions of pilgrims and tourists who come each year.