Bethlehem: The Church of the Nativity

Only six miles south of Jerusalem in the West Bank stands the oldest continually used place of Christian worship in the world, Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. Originally built in the fourth century on the spot Christians hold as the birthplace of Jesus, historical sources reference the site as early as the second century.

Today, the Church of the Nativity is one of the most important sites of Christian pilgrimage, alongside Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Earlier this month, I led a group of thirty pilgrims to visit Bethlehem and its beautiful Church of the Nativity. Visiting in December took on special meaning as the birthplace of our Savior. Leading up to our visit and during our time there, I learned the extensive and powerful history of the Church of the Nativity which will inform your next (or first) visit to this incredible church.

Preserving A Holy Cave and Constantine’s Church

Commissioned by the Roman emperor Constantine in the fourth century, the first church built at the site was consecrated on May 31, 339. However, by the mid-third century, the site had already taken on a sacred position. Early church Father Origen writes about a cave in Bethlehem that was known to be the place of Jesus’s birth.

Thus, Empress Helena journeyed to the Holy Land in 327 AD and a basilica was constructed above the cave, parts of which still exist today. This church consisted primarily of an octagonal altar located directly above the cave, with a five-aisle nave and an atrium.

Intricate mosaic tile floors were part of the original Byzantine church, and they can still be seen today. Wooden floors have been built over the mosaic flooring for its protection, but at certain spots, special hatches have been installed that can be lifted to view the original fourth-century mosaics. There was a collective audible gasp when our group was able to view them. They are stunning, to say the least!

Justinian’s Church of the Nativity

Constantine’s original Church of the Nativity stood until the early sixth century when it was partly burned down. Although it is uncertain what event caused the fire, many believe that it was a result of the Samaritan revolts, which were responsible for the burning of several other churches in the region. Nevertheless, Emperor Justinian reconstructed the church soon after. It is this Justinian basilica that still stands today, although numerous modifications have been made through the centuries.

Many modifications and refurbishments occurred during the Crusader period (1099–1291 AD); however, some sections of the church still preserve Constantine’s original fourth-century construction. The Justinian church changed the octagonal altar area into a cruciform (cross) shape. The nave was extended and the atrium was covered to construct a narthex. Justinian erected fifty, 18-foot tall columns along the nave and transepts constructed from local stone quarried near Jerusalem’s Old City.

The courtyard and columned walkway offer beautiful places for reflection, prayer, and simply sitting and pondering what happened here over 2,000 years ago. The key is to never forget the history and miracle of the Christ child’s birth as you walk through the church and grounds.

The Crusader Period

Unlike most other churches in the region, the Church of the Nativity remained relatively unscathed between the time of Justinian and the modern day, avoiding destruction during the periods of instability and turmoil that accompanied the Sassanid, Islamic, and Crusader conquests.

Part of this was due to the church’s distance from Jerusalem, and the relative insignificance of Bethlehem for the region’s strategic defense. The church’s survival even led to stories and legends that it was miraculously protected from such events.

Islamic Rule

During the early Islamic period (c. 634–1099 AD), a Muslim prayer space was introduced into the church alongside the traditional areas of Christian worship. The site remained a pilgrimage destination for western Christians during this time. In 808 AD, Charlemagne sent a mission to the church to record its various details and possibly even carry out some repairs.

On June 7, 1099, the Crusading Franks conquered Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity. The following year, Baldwin of Boulogne’s coronation as king of the Kingdom of Jerusalem took place inside the church. Baldwin II would likewise be crowned king at the site in 1119.

During its years under Crusader control, extensive repairs and modifications were made to the church, mainly to bring it into conformity with the Latin rite. The basic plan of the Justinian church was left in place, however, as well as many of the various architectural features, including the columns. The Crusaders further encircled the complex in a large wall, parts of which were later incorporated into various monasteries that still stand today.

Beginning in the Crusader period, numerous murals, mosaics, and paintings were added to the church, including the lavish wall mosaics that are still partially preserved today, and the column paintings of various saints and supplicants, which were likely a joint venture between the church leaders and wealthy pilgrims.

The Church from Saladin until Today

Upon Saladin’s conquest of the Holy Land (around 1187 AD), much of the Roman Catholic clergy left the Church of the Nativity. Nevertheless, the church suffered very little damage and Christian worship continued at the site under the Greek Orthodox, Armenians, and other Christian traditions. Eventually, the Roman Catholics returned. The Church would continue relatively unaltered until the Ottoman period (1516–1917 AD).

Under the Ottomans, much of the marble, which had once decorated the Church of the Nativity, was plundered, possibly to be used in refurbishing Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock. Since graven images are strictly forbidden according to Muslim law, many of the faces of the images on the columns were removed and unable to be restored properly.

Although still in use, the church would enter a long period of decay. Likewise, the central nave of the church was used for non-worship purposes, including legal proceedings and even housing Ottoman troops in the middle east when required. Eventually, church officials regained control over the church although, over the next several centuries, it continued to fall into disrepair.

The Modern Church of the Nativity

In 2012, the Church of the Nativity was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site. At the time of its listing, it was considered in danger due to its poor state of preservation. However, in 2013, church officials and conservators began massive renovation projects on the church, restoring it to much of its former glory, Today, nearly two million visitors and pilgrims visit the church every year.

The entrance into the church is called “the Door of Humility” and was constructed during the Ottoman period. This small rectangular doorway is less than five feet high. In order to pass through this door, visitors are forced to bow down as they enter the church. The fact that visitors and pilgrims have to bow down in order to enter the Church of the Nativity has a theological significance: We must humble ourselves in order to approach God.

Accessing the Site Where Jesus was Born

The cave area where tradition holds that Jesus was born is located underneath the church’s altar area. Access is gained by descending steep marble steps into a grotto-like area. Various religions have donated ornate oil lamps that clergy and priests ensure are kept burning around the clock all year long.

The traditional place of Jesus’ birth is marked by a 14-point star, which signifies that Jesus is the son of David. Why a 14-point star? The Hebrew name for King David, dwd, has a numeric value: (d = 4) + (w = 6) + (d = 4) = the number 14. Also, three sets of fourteen generations separate Abraham and the birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:17).

Visiting Bethlehem in December

Visiting Bethlehem in December is magical, to say the least. As the birthplace of Jesus, Bethlehem is a must-stop this time of the year during the holiday season. I lead private groups on tours of Israel and this “Christmas city” where the birth of Christ took place is always a favorite. The low temperatures are in the 40s, while the average temperature in the daytime is in the 60s. December is not the coldest month and I have never encountered inches of snow during this time; however, snow has been known to happen in December.

This first month of the winter season means that winter shadows create excellent opportunities for taking beautiful photographs. December is one of the lowest UV index months, as well, and the average rainfall is minimal. Winter conditions requiring snow removal are exceedingly rare. Cold winds and snow showers are rare this time of year, as well. Cloud cover and the dew point are low, though a wet day may happen (as it rained briefly when our group was there).

The Bottom Line

It is important to understand the historical and traditional significance of Christian holy sites. However, we cannot leave out the spiritual significance. Bethlehem, according to God’s Word, was the place hand-picked by God before the beginning of time to welcome His Son into the world.

Bethlehem was intentionally chosen by our Creator. And our Creator intentionally created you.

If you ever have a chance to visit Bethlehem, do not let the physical beauty of a church diminish the spiritual significance of that beautiful place.

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Tidbit Thursday: Beekeeping at Notre-Dame

Visiting cathedrals around the world is a passion. I love their centuries-old architecture, Bible stories captured in stained glass, and their stunning beauty. As I work on a special 2022 ministry project involving cathedrals, my favorite one came to mind: Notre-Dame in Paris, France.

The first time I visited Notre-Dame was in October 2008. While my friend headed to the Louvre, I spent an entire day absorbing every inch of that magnificent cathedral, inside and out. I could have easily spent a week.

When Notre-Dame was engulfed in a devastating fire on April 15, 2019, I watched the television coverage with tears streaming down my face. The original stone had been laid on December 12, 1163. The world was witnessing almost 900 years of history going up in smoke.

But like a phoenix rising out of the ashes, so is Notre-Dame. Over $1 billion in worldwide contributions sparked one of the most famous and expensive restorations in history.

During my research process about Notre-Dame, I discovered a delightful tidbit. Since 2013, 35,000-40,000 honeybees have called Notre-Dame Cathedral home. The bees are of the Brother Adam Buckfast variety, and they live in three hives on the sacristy roof. The bees miraculously escaped the fire and are thriving.

The beautiful connection between God and honey appears throughout Scripture.

  • The Promised Land was described to the Israelites as a land flowing with milk and honey – a sign of abundance, ease, and prosperity (Exodus 3:6-8).
  • Honey was often given as a special gift between friends (Genesis 43:11).
  • Two places describe God’s Word as sweeter than honey (Ezekiel 3:3 and Revelation 10:9-10).

Notre-Dame is a stunning house of worship. God’s praises have been sung there for nearly nine centuries. That is what makes any cathedral truly beautiful: God’s people lifting their voices in prayer and praise to our triune God.

If you enjoy Advent calendars, Notre-Dame Cathedral is offering a free Advent calendar online that reveals interesting facts about the cathedral each day through December 25th. You can find it here.

This Christmas, as we enter our beautiful houses of worship to celebrate the birth of our Savior, I pray that God’s light shines bright in your soul as you hear His sweetest words:

For to us a child is born, to us a Son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder, and His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

One Night Lit the World (Advent, Week 3)

Have you ever been in a situation where you were too terrified to speak? Shocked into frozen immobility?

Imagine for a moment the night of Jesus’ birth from the shepherd’s point of view. Suddenly their peaceful, starry night sky lit up with the glory of the Lord! And if that wasn’t enough, then an angel of the Lord dropped in with a heavenly message.

Can you even imagine? No wonder the angel’s first words were, “Do not be afraid.”

That shekinah glory of the Lord that Luke records here refers to the splendor and brilliance that radiates from God’s very presence. Scripture tell us that the shekinah glory manifested in the pillars of cloud and fire that led the Israelites out of Egypt. It shone from the burning bush for Moses. It appeared in the brightness of the cloud at Jesus’s Transfiguration.

The glory of the Lord was quite an attention-grabbing, heart-stopping manifestation, indeed. It was a sign of both God’s nearness and His remoteness.

And the Levitical shepherds of Bethlehem were completely surrounded by it. After 400 years of God’s silence where His glory never visibly shone over His people, God made His mighty presence unmistakably known.

Though the shepherds were likely terrified, the angel’s announcement did not foreshadow gloom and destruction. He trumped the Good News that the Savior promised by God had finally arrived!

And the angel’s Good News was not limited to the shepherds, but intended for all people. Not just those who are good for goodness sake. It was the Good News of the Gospel that Jesus Christ had arrived into this world to save all who believe from eternal separation from Him.

God’s plan of salvation promised in the Garden of Eden had finally been put in motion that night. That one, extraordinary, life-giving night. And God tasked those shepherds to get the word out.

It was an announcement of great joy that we are privileged today to share with others — especially during this beautiful Advent season. It is God’s message of love, reflected in the innocent eyes of a Baby.

The shepherds didn’t realize that they would be hearing the heavenly announcement that night which would change the course of eternity. That it was a night like any other in all of history before or since.

Those stunned shepherds were privileged to be part of one extraordinary night that changed the history of the world and become bearers of a story full of wonder.

So, like the shepherds, the angel reminds us, “Do not be afraid.”
Don’t be afraid to receive the Good News.
Don’t be afraid to believe that it is for you.
Don’t be afraid to celebrate with great joy that your eternal address has changed from lost to found, because of the sheer grace and vast love of God almighty.

Joy to the world, the Lord has come!
Let earth receive her king.
Let every heart prepare Him room,
Let heaven and nature sing! 

 


We would be honored for you to join us on this life-changing tour.

 

The Lamb Wrapped in Swaddling Clothes (Advent, Week 2)

And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. {Luke 2:6-7}

Knee deep grass covering the hills gently waved in the desert breeze as the sun rose over Bethlehem. My eyes strained to see Jerusalem, but it was too far away.

As our group made its way toward the Church of the Nativity (built over the place believed to be Jesus’ birthplace), we walked through a small, beautiful garden just beyond the courtyard colonnades. As we approached the church, I took a picture of this plaque hanging on the wall near the entrance.

Those words of John 1:14 brought tears to my eyes. Not simply because of the city in which I stood, but because of the meaning behind what I was reading: the Word became flesh.

A Child is Born

In the Hebrew culture of Mary’s day, a new mother usually remained secluded for forty days following the birth of a son. Then she would enter the tabernacle or temple to offer a sacrifice of purification (Leviticus 12:1-8; Luke 2:22).

Forty is a significant number throughout Scripture that usually symbolizes a period of testing or trial before bringing forth something new.

For instance, God caused rain to flood the earth for 40 days and nights before bringing forth Noah from the ark to a new beginning on dry land. Moses spent 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai before bringing forth God’s law to the people. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years before God brought forth His people into the promised land. Jesus spent 40 days in the desert being tempted by the devil before bringing forth His earthly ministry.

What a blessing forty days of secluded peace must have been for a new mother to gaze uninterrupted on the gift of life. Feelings of wonder, awe and excitement often accompany a birth. Yet the process can be painful.

There is a letting go before embracing the new.

In God’s strength we let go of our imperfect dreams to embrace God’s perfect plan. Let go of past ambitions to welcome future blessings. Let go of life as it was to discover life as it unfolds. This letting go may take 40 days, 40 years, or a lifetime.

Yet birth evokes hope.

At Christmas we celebrate when God temporarily let go of His Son to birth His plan of redemption for all mankind. Mary’s natural birth was an emblem of new birth. That virgin birth brought forth the Light of hope into a dark world.

Love and hope birthed in a manger. 

Manger and Swaddling Clothes

That day in Bethlehem profoundly affected my spiritual journey. Gazing across the soft hillsides where such wonders occurred so long ago stirred my soul. I cannot wait to return there next year.

Yet perhaps that historic church does not mark the actual spot of Jesus’ birth.

Known as the “Tower of the Flock,” Migdal Eder was located just outside the city of Bethlehem (in Bethlehem’s suburbs, if you will). Migdal Eder was the tower from which Levitical shepherds carefully watched over the lambs on the hills around Bethlehem. The shepherds’ sole purpose was to raise unblemished (paschal) lambs that would be offered as sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple a few miles away.

Migdal Eder is first mentioned in Genesis 35:21 in the account of Rachel’s death after giving birth to Benjamin (Jacob’s youngest son). Then the prophet Micah also referred to Migdal Eder: “And you, O tower of the flock, … to you it shall come…the kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem.

Scripture tells us that Jesus was born in a manger, but it does not necessarily denote a dark and dirty cave near an overbooked inn. The definition of a manger (Luke 13:15, Proverbs 14:4) often means a stall or crib where animals are kept. Like that of Migdal Eder.

It was a settled question that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. In fact, according to Jewish tradition, the first revelation of the Messiah would come from Migdal Eder, in the vicinity of Bethlehem.

Why is that significant to the Christmas story?

As the sacrificial lambs were born, those Levitical shepherds in the Tower of the Flock would wrap them in birthing cloths to protect their unblemished state. So when the amazed shepherds (recorded in Luke 2) hurried to see the great wonder that the heavenly host proclaimed, they arrived to gaze upon a baby born in the place where Passover lambs were born, swaddled like a Passover lamb.

The spiritual significance would not have been lost on those Levitical shepherds: Jesus’ birth pointed to Jesus as the Messiah, the paschal lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

God did not make the message of redemption complicated or intimidating. He invited everyone to behold the sacrificial miracle of Christmas in the perfect face of His Son, the Lamb of God, wrapped in swaddling clothes.

As our group prepared to depart Bethlehem, dozens more groups arrived to view the church and experience the wonder. As I surveyed the blur of faces, I thought about the massive crowds that would have gathered to register in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago following Caesar Augustus’ decree.

As I recall the streets of Bethlehem filling with people, I ponder the significance and location of Migdal Eder, the Tower of the Flock.

The Lamb swaddled.

The Son sleeping.

Perhaps, just perhaps, God never intended there to be room in the inn.

 


We would be honored for you to join our tour. Information here.

Can Anything Good Come Out Of Nazareth? (Advent, Week 1)

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.” (Luke 2:4-5)

Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

That’s what Nathanael asked Philip in John 1:46 when Philip announced that they had found the One about whom Moses and the prophets wrote.

Rather than take offense at Nathanael’s skeptical question, Philip simply invited Nathanael, “Come and see.” Moments before, Jesus had invited Philip to follow Him. Now Philip invited Nathanael to see Jesus with his own eyes.

It comes down to inviting.

In the heart of today’s bustling City of Nazareth, the Church of Annunciation sits over the site believed to be Mary’s house. Originally built in the mid-4th century by Constantine, the church invites visitors to see the place where the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that God had chosen her to be the mother of the Messiah.

In Nazareth, Mary received a holy invitation to be a key player in an epic story that re-wrote history.

Christmas and invitations go hand in hand. God invites us to receive by faith the most priceless Gift ever given. You and I invite others to see the hope of the world reflected in the holy eyes of a Baby.

And then there was Bethlehem.

The word “Bethlehem” likely brings to mind nocturnal shepherds watching over their flocks. However, its meaning extends far beyond a pin on a map.

The word Bethlehem comes from two Hebrew words: (1) beth and (2) laham. Beth, roughly translated, means house. It does not necessarily denote a specific kind of building, but rather its function. Laham is a masculine noun which means bread (Genesis 18:5; Numbers 21:5). In fact, Leviticus 21:6 refers to laham as sacrificial bread.

So what is the significance? Bethlehem means House of Bread. What is a house of bread? A bakery. How did Jesus self-identify in John 6:35? “I am the bread of life.

Some may scoff and dismiss it as a cutesy coincidence that God introduced the Bread of Life to the world from a bakery. But wait. What is a bakery’s function? To provide food. Time and again Jesus fed the multitudes, both physically and spiritually. And the Word made flesh continues to feed us through Word and Sacrament today.

Advent is a time for us to praise God for the gift of the Bread of Life, who taught, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).

Then there was Mary.

Mary’s betrothal time should have been filled with happy preparation for her new life as Joseph’s wife. Instead she grappled with the staggering news that she was pregnant. Not because their passion raged out of control, but pregnant like no other woman before or since ─ by the Holy Spirit.

A virgin conception? Incredulous at best, blasphemous at worst.

Yet Mary believed God’s angelic messenger. She trusted by faith and set the holy standard for surrender and submission: “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Even though people could legally stone her to death? Let it be.

Even though Joseph could divorce her? Let it be.

By God’s amazing grace, Mary’s womb carried the One who conquered our tomb. Let it be!

And finally there was Joseph.

Chosen by God among all men on earth to be the guardian of our Lord. In steadfast faith, Joseph believed God’s message in a dream. Unwavering, he stood by Mary when culture dictated that he shun her.

With relentless perseverance, Joseph traversed miles on foot to become a midwife on the fly. He followed Caesar Augustus’ census decree and registered with the lineage of David — from which would birth the Divine.

Joseph adopted the Father’s Son and safeguarded the Light of the world.

Mary and Joseph were handpicked by God to nurture the Cherished of God. They didn’t ask for it. They likely faced persecution over it. They could have given in to fear and trembling, yet God strengthens those who turn to Him in faith.

Even though God’s plan turned their quiet life chaotic, Mary bowed low to lift His praise high: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

So, can anything good come out of Nazareth?

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

 


Coming in 2019:

New 8-week DVD Bible study series based on the book of Nehemiah
(Published through Concordia Publishing House)

O Night Divine! Advent Devotions

This Sunday, December 2nd, begins our Advent season. The most wonderful time of the year!

Advent, from the Latin word for coming, initiates the church year. Even though you and I tend to think that Advent and Christmas wrap up the year, Advent celebrates the year Jesus’ earthly life began.

Advent focuses on Christ’s coming — past, present, and future. The past contained Old Testament prophecies that pointed to His birth at Bethlehem. The present focuses on His presence among us today through Word and Sacrament. And the future focuses on Christ’s second coming at the end of time.

Perhaps 2018 has been a banner year for you. Perhaps you are waving the surrender flag. Some years are filled with unforgettable memories; others are inundated with memories you’d rather forget.

Either way, Advent celebrates a beginning. 

As you begin Advent on Sunday, what is your prayer?

As we walk through these four weeks of Advent together focusing on Luke 2, my prayer is for you to see Christ and the significance of His birth with fresh eyes.

Beginner’s eyes, if you will.

I pray that you experience the wonder of Advent as we celebrate the coming of our Savior. And before 2019 rings in, I pray that you, like Mary, will treasure up all these things and ponder them in your heart (Luke 2:19).