Paul Calvert looks at it's history and current use
Bethlehem is the town the Prophets talked about; it's the place where Jesus the Messiah was born. Many believe Jesus' birth place was on the site of the Church of the Nativity. With Christmas approaching Paul Calvert decided to find out more of the history of this famous church, so caught up with Jerius Contolini, a local tour guide.
Jerius: Bethlehem is a very important town; I'm happy to be living in Bethlehem as one of the Christian families. It's very important to us because it's the most important place in the Holy Land because it's the place where Jesus was born. To me its a special place, it carries a very special meaning and most of the people from all over the world every day they come here and we are happy here and most of the people are friendly here.
Paul: Is there a special feeling Christmas time when tourists come from around the world? What's it like at Christmas time here?
Jerius: When people come here at Christmas we feel like we share together the birth of Jesus. It's a very nice occasion. You can see people from all over the world and they come to the Church of the Nativity. They come looking for forgiveness, they ask for peace for all over the world because in the whole world we miss peace.
This for me as a Christian is the exact place where Jesus was born. The church was built in 326 ad by Helena the mother of Constantine. She built it because she found the place where Jesus was born and because of that she decided to build a church over the holy place. After that there was a Samaritan revolt in 529ad, unfortunately the church was burned with fire and after that it was rebuilt again between 531 and 539 ad by Justinian; Justinian was the grandson of Helena. The church is around 1500 years old; it's the most important place because it's where the Lord Jesus Christ was born and at the same time the oldest church in the Holy Land. Now in the year 614 ad there was a Persian invasion. The Persians at that time destroyed all the churches in the Holy Land; they burned monastery and the only church that was not destroyed was Nativity Church, for that reason we tell people that this is the oldest church in the Holy Land. The reason why this church was not destroyed is because there was a piece of mosaic at the front of the church; on the mosaic was a picture of the three wise men - the Kings that came from the East. So one of them was from Persia, one from India and one from Arabia. There were Persian people and when they saw the Persian guy and they saw he was in the traditional clothes of the Persians, then this was something holy for them and they said don't touch it just leave it. So that piece of Mosaic saved the church from destruction.
Today the church has three churches in one. The main part belongs to the Greek Orthodox, another belongs to the Armenian and then we have the Roman Catholic Church and this is the only church where we celebrate Christmas three times because of a different calendar. The 24th of December we have Christmas for the Catholics, the 7th of January for the Greek Orthodox and 6th of January for the Armenian.
We have many things inside the church; you can see the original floors, its mosaic made by Queen Helena in 326 ad and then you find the pillars inside the church. The pillars are red limestone from Bethlehem, six metres and one piece of stone. Then you will find lots of mosaics on the wall. These mosaics were made by the Crusaders in the 12th Century when they came to the Holy Land.
Now the most important thing inside the church is the birth place which is the Holy Cave, the Grotto. That is where you will see a star; the star marks the exact place where Jesus was born. The star has 14 points on it. These represent the 14 generations of Jesus Christ from Abraham to David, then from David to the Babylonian captivity and after that from the Babylonian captivity to Jesus Christ.
Another thing about the 14 points, we believe that they represent the 14 stations of the cross; Jesus carrying the cross in the Old City of Jerusalem, we call it the Via Delarosa, it has writing written on it which translated says "here Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary". Opposite the star we can see the manger; the Holy Manger is where the Virgin Mary laid the baby Jesus. After she gave birth she wrapped him in swadling clothes and laid him in the manger. Opposite the manger we see the Holy Alter; this belonged to the three wise men where the three Kings put their presents, the Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.
Paul: In one area of the church there are a lot of human bones, where are they from?
Jerius: These bones and skulls belong to the holy innocent children and families. We consider them Christian Martyrs who were killed by Herod the Great about 2000 years ago. When Jesus was born here, we remember the story; the holy family came from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census registration. They knocked on many doors and they found no help open for them because there was no room. After that they found the holy cave, this place used to be a stable for animals. When they came to Bethlehem they found no place, the Virgin Mary was pregnant and when the hour came she went down into the cave and she gave birth to Jesus. After that Helena came and decided to build a Church over the holy cave. Now at that time Herod the Great wanted to kill the baby Jesus, but he didn't know which one was Jesus, so he gave an order to kill all baby boys two years and under and also the mothers and pregnant women. About 1400 baby boys with mothers and pregnant women were killed by Herod and his soldiers. Those bodies were buried in the whole surrounding area. When Helena the Mother of Constantine decided to build the Church over the site where Jesus was born, at that moment she ordered to bring all these bones and collect them, to bring them beside the birth place. For that reason you will find them in the church and we call the place the Holy Innocent Cave.
Paul: I understand that Jerome came here and translated the Bible here, is that true?
Jerius: Jerome lived in Italy. He started his work in Italy to translate the Bible. After that he was sent to Bethlehem in the year 384 ad. He came to continue his work; his work was to translate the Bible. He chose a cave and lived inside the monastery under ground. He lived here for 30 years and translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Latin and the New Testament from Greek into Latin. This is a very special place for the Catholics and also for all Christians. Why? Because we believe from that spot the Bible was spread to the whole world. People started to read and learn more about the life of Jesus and understand more about Christianity and that has helped many people to believe in Jesus and become Christians because they translated the Bible into a different language.
You can also see the cave of St Joseph. We call it St Joseph's Chapel. It is also a very important place. It goes back to the first Century. It's very important to us as Christians because according to the Bible and according to Christian tradition we believe that that spot is where St Joseph used to sleep. At the same time we believe this is the place where the angel appeared to St Joseph and told him he should take the baby and the Virgin Mary and go to Egypt because Herod wanted to kill the baby Jesus. So from that spot the holy family started their flight into Egypt, so it is a very important place.
Over the holy caves was built the Church of St Catherine which belongs to the Catholics. It was built in the year 1881 and St Catherine's Church is very important because we consider that Church the most famous Church here, because this Church is where people from all over the world come and celebrate Christmas mass on the 24th of December. From that spot they televise the whole mass. It is also the place where the Pope took mass in the year 2000, President Clinton and Chairman Arafat had mass in St Catherine's church too.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
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