Both GOSPEL ACCOUNTS OF CHRISTMAS state that JESUS was born in the town of Bethlehem. Bethlehem is located in the Palestinian Authority, within the modern nation of Israel. The city of Jerusalem lies just five miles to the north. The town’s name means “house of bread” in Hebrew, reflecting its location in a fertile zone of the Judean desert.
The Birthplace of Jesus
One of the greatest heroes of the Old Testament, King David, was born in Bethlehem. Both gospel accounts of Christmas assert that Jesus was a descendant of David. In fact, in the GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LUKE this ancestry indirectly caused Jesus to be born in Bethlehem. In Luke’s account, the Romans wanted to conduct a census and ordered everyone to return to their ancestral home in order to be counted. This decree forced JOSEPH and his pregnant wife MARY to travel to Bethlehem. Shortly after they arrived, Jesus was born. The GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW does not mention the census and implies instead that Jesus’ parents lived in Bethlehem. Matthew’s and Luke’s claims that Jesus had been born in Bethlehem were especially significant to those who knew Jewish scripture, since the Jewish prophet Micah had declared that the Messiah would be born in that town (Micah 5:2).
The Church of the Nativity
According to early Christian tradition, Jesus had been born in one of the caves that local people used to shelter animals. As early as the second century A.D., pilgrims began to visit the cave where Jesus was said to have been born. The Roman emperor Hadrian (76-138 A.D.) constructed a shrine to the pagan god Adonis over this site. In approximately 325 A.D., after the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity, the empress Helena (c. 248-c. 328 A.D.) had the temple to Adonis destroyed and built the Church of the Nativity over the presumed site of Jesus’ birth. Almost nothing of this original church remains. It was severely damaged in a war that took place several centuries after its construction. According to legend, Persian invaders were about to destroy the church completely when they noticed a mural depicting the Three Kings, or MAGI, wearing Persian dress. Recognizing that the church in some way honored Persian sages of the past, the invaders spared it from total destruction. The great Byzantine emperor Justinian (483-565 A.D.) rebuilt the Church of the Nativity in the sixth century A.D. It has been repaired many times since then, but its basic design remains the same. The main door to the church, called the Door of Humility, was built so low that people have to bow down to enter. The original purpose of the design was to prevent Muslims from riding into the church on their horses. Because entering through this door requires one to bow one’s head, which also serves as a gesture of reverence for this Christian holy site, Jews have traditionally objected to using the Door of Humility.
Today the Church of the Nativity is an Eastern Orthodox shrine. The cave in which Jesus was born lies underneath the church. Known as the “Grotto of the Nativity,” this underground chamber is a site of intense religious devotion for Christians of many different denominations. In the nineteenth century friction arose over which denomination would exercise the most control over the Grotto. In the midst of this conflict, the star marking the spot where Jesus’ manger had lain mysteriously disappeared. Each faction accused the others of the theft. Some writers claim that tensions caused by the star’s disappearance helped to provoke the Crimean War. The Sultan of Turkey eventually assisted in resolving this dispute by placing a new four-teen-pointed star in the Grotto. Pilgrims to Bethlehem today can still see this large silver star covering the spot on the floor where, according to legend, Mary gave birth to Jesus. The star bears an inscription in Latin, Hie De Virgine Maria, Jesus Christus Natus Est, which means, “Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.”
Eastern Orthodox officials share the Grotto of the Nativity with Roman Catholic and Armenian Orthodox clergy. At Christmas time Roman Catholic clergy oversee the NATIVITY SCENE, while Orthodox clergy control the altar.
In the spring of 2002, Israeli military forces invaded the West Bank town of Bethlehem as part of Israel’s campaign to eliminate Palestinian terrorism. Dozens of people sought refuge in the Church of the Nativity, hoping that such a holy site would not be attacked. Among them were ordinary townspeople, Palestinian gunmen, and clergy members. The Israeli soldiers surrounded the church and prevented people, food, and medical supplies from entering. After a dramatic five-week standoff, the gunmen agreed to go into permanent exile, and the Israelis called off their soldiers. A few windows were damaged during the siege, but no permanent harm was done to the church.
Christmas in Bethlehem
Bethlehem attracts many Christian pilgrims, especially during the CHRISTMAS SEASON. The biggest crowds gather on December 24 and 25, when most Western Christians celebrate the Nativity. On December 24 Roman Catholic priests celebrate MIDNIGHT MASS in St. Catherine’s Roman Catholic Church, which lies inside the grounds of the Church of the Nativity. The event begins with a motorcade procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, led by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, the highest-ranking Roman Catholic official in Israel. Those practicing Roman Catholics who have obtained advance tickets for the Midnight Mass crowd into St. Catherine’s church. This service includes a procession to the Grotto of the Nativity, where the figurine representing the baby Jesus is placed in the Nativity scene. The throng that remains outside can watch a televised broadcast of the service on a screen set up in Manger Square.
Other opportunities for Christmas Eve worship include an Anglican service held at the Greek Orthodox monastery attached to the Church of the Nativity and a Protestant carol service, which takes place at a field just outside Bethlehem. The crowd that assembles in the field sings Christmas Carols, commemorating the evening two thousand years ago when a small band of SHEPHERDS received a miraculous announcement of Jesus’ birth and witnessed a host of ANGELS singing praises to God (see also Gospel According to Luke). No one knows the exact location of the field mentioned in the Bible. At least three different groups have laid claim to their own shep-herds’ field. The Christmas Eve carol service takes place at the Y.M.C.A.’s field. The Orthodox Church, however, maintains its own shepherds’field, as does the Roman Catholic Church.
Bethlehem hosts somewhat smaller celebrations on January 7, when many Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas, and again on January 19, when Armenian Orthodox Christians observe the holiday (see also CHRISTMAS IN ARMENIA).
Jewish and Muslim pilgrims come to Bethlehem to visit another holy site: the Tomb of Rachel. Rachel’s death and burial are mentioned in the Bible (Genesis 35:20). Folk tradition declares that Rachel was laid to rest in Bethlehem, although biblical scholars deny that this is the correct site.