Highlights of the Church of the Nativity
The Church of Nativity receives international attention annually at Christmas Eve during Christmas celebrations with participants coming from all over the globe to be at the actual spot where Jesus was born on that special night. The Church is overflowing with people and the outside courtyard is usually packed with visitors from all over the world. Events also occur in other Christian institutions in Bethlehem like convents and schools
One of the most Ancient Surviving Churches in the World
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke both discuss the birth of Jesus and each infer that Mary and Joseph were from Bethlehem. Matthew infers that Mary and Joseph only later moved to Nazareth because of Herod’s decree, while Luke indicates that Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth but only traveled to Bethlehem because of a special census. In both stories, however, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, possibly according to the Gospel of Luke, in a manger because there was no room at the inn.
Christianity was declared as a lawful religion of the Roman Empire by Constantine in 313 AD. After Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, the Emperor and his mother Queen Helena ordered construction of three churches honouring great events of Christ’s life. The Nativity Church in Bethlehem was one them, beside the churches which mark the sites of Resurrection in Jerusalem and Ascension on the Mount of Olives.
The cave, where Jesus is believed to be born, was a sacred place for early Christians. In 135 AD, Emperor Hadrian converted the grotto into a worship place for Adonis – Greek pagan god of beauty and desire. It was likely done to make people forget about Christ. In 327, the pagan temple was destroyed and construction of the monumental Christian basilica began. The church consisted of three main parts: the octagonal sanctuary, built over the Nativity Grotto, a long atrium and forecourt.
The earliest church built where the Church of Nativity stands today was built by Queen Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother in the 4th Century. The Church is the church in longest continuous use in Israel, from the 4th Century until today. The location has strong traditions as the birth place of Jesus dating all the way back to the 2nd Century, and beautiful mosaics of the original church can still be seen under the floor of the present building. The church has undergone major changes through the centuries and its rich history is worth special attention for any visitor. Today this church so central in Christian lore is shared by several denominations, a cause for friction concerning its upkeep and use.
Samaritan Revolt of 529 AD
Construction of the Basilica was finished after 333 AD, which means that the Queen Helena had never seen it in a completed form since she died in Rome in 330 AD. In 529 AD, the church was burnt during the Samaritan revolt against the Byzantine Empire.
Miracle of 614 AD
The basilica laid in ruins for more than thirty years. The existing church was built by the Emperor Justinian in 565 AD. But this time, the basilica was constructed on a plan of a cross with three apses, replacing the octagonal structure over the grotto. The altar was repositioned in a new eastern apse, following the belier that Christ will come from that direction on the Judgment Day.
Afew years later, in 614 AD, Sassanian army from Persia invaded the Holy Land and decided to destroy all the churches. The Nativity Church, miraculously survived intact. The legend says that Persians recognized images of their ancestors in one of the mosaics or paintings above the entrance to the basilica and that these images represented the Magi, who came from the East to celebrate Christ’s birth.
From 1099 AD and forward, during the Crusader period, the Nativity Church underwent multiple additions and repairs. The church also hosted the coronation ceremony of the first Latin King of Jerusalem, Baldwin I, who took his title on the 25th of December 1100 AD. His successor, Baldwin II, followed did the same when he took the throne in 1122.
Disputes over the Church
In 1347 the Franciscans were given authority over the Basilica. But during the 16th century bthe period of conflict between the Franciscans and the Greeks for the position of the sanctuary began. Consequently the church passed alternatively from one to the another according to the will of the Ottoman government. In 1690 the Franciscans retook the possession of the Grotto, and in 1717 they replaced its silver star with a new one that is inscribed in Latin with “Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est” meaning “Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary”.
In 1757, the Greeks took the possession over the Basilica once again. Between 1810 and 1829 the Armenians succeeded in establishing themselves in the church, getting the left arm of the transept.
In 1847, the silver star was gone. Its disappearance is cited by many to be possibly the direct cause for the French involvement in the Crimean War (1853 – 1856) against Russia. Later, the Franciscans designed another star to place it in the grotto but a replique of the previous star was put there by the Greeks in 1853.
The Holy Land came under the Ottoman rule in 1517 AD. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Greek Orthodox and Catholic Churches were still in continual struggle over a number of sanctuaries in the Holy Land including the Basilica of the. Other shrines in dispute at the time include the well in the Holy Sepulcher, the Tomb of the Virgin, Chapel of the Ascension and Deir al Sultan.
In 1852, Ottoman Sultan Abdul Mejid issued the “status quo” – an important document, which discusses the relations between the Christian communities of the Holy Land and describes their ownership and rights within the previously mentioned sanctuaries. It also decides on the times and durations of services, movements and their routes, and the method of implementation, whether by singing or by reading.
These days, the church is administered jointly by Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian authorities, however you will also see there a local presence taking care of the order.
Unfortunately, nowadays, the church is in need of redevelopment and repair. In 2012, the church became the first site located in the area under the Palestinian Authority inscribed on the World Heritage List UNESCO. And hopefully, its presence on the list will encourage and speed up funding for its preservation. However, the common administration of the three denominations makes it harder to decide anything regarding the renovations as any redevelopment requires their common agreement.
The Orthodox Convent keeps the key of the main entrance to the Basilica of the Nativity. However, the door opees and closes ever day immediately after the Latin bells ring. The time varies according to the season of the year.
Katholikon is the main church of the complex, which belongs to the Greek Orthodox. This means that a Catholic or Armenian monk should not enter this part of the church while wearing a sacerdotal dress at any time. However, there are assigned spaces and times when it is possible. For example, there is a daily (except Sundays) Franciscan procession to the Nativity Grotto. The monks can walk only along a narrow passage connecting the St. Catherine Church and the grotto.
The Nativity Grotto
The Grotto of the Nativity is accessed from the Katholikon by two stairways, one from the north (left) and one from the south (right).
The southern door is used exclusively by the Orthodox and no other clergy can enter the grotto from this side while wearing a sacerdotal dress. Privately, however, any person can use the staircase at any time. The curtains along the steps belong to the Orthodox as well and there are two lamps that are suspended above these – the one nearer to the door is Latin and the other Orthodox. There are also two ikons on the east wall – one Orthodox and the other Armenian.
The hanging canvas around the main walls are under the Latin property. There are also paintings hanging on the canvas- six Orthodox (on wood) and six Armenian (on canvas). Grotto’s floor is cleaned every Thursday after closing the church, once by the Orthodox and once by the Latins.
The northern entrance is used principally by the Latins and Armenians, so the steps leading down to the entrance are cleaned alternately by the Latins and the Armenians. The hangings along this staircase are Latin and the Latins clean this set of steps daily. Above this door are two ikons and two lamps, belonging one each to the Orthodox and Armenians.
Down in the Grotto, the actual shrine consists of two parts, the Altar of the Nativity with the previously mentioned silver star, belonging to the Orthodox and the Armenians, and at which the Copts and Syriac also officiate, and the Altar of the Manger which is exclusively in Latin use. In front of the Manger are three candlesticks belong one to each rite.
Planning your visit the Church of the Nativity:
Holy Masses in the Nativity Grotto
The timing of the Holy Masses in the Nativity Grotto follows the solar schedule. It is very useful to know the timing of the religious ceremonies held in and around the grotto before arranging a visit.
3 am – Catholic prayer and cleaning
4 am – Greek Orthodox Ceremonial incense
4:30 am – Armenian prayer
4:55 am – Catholic mass 5:30 am – Greek mass (opening of the small door)
7:30 am – Catholic mass
8:10 am – Armenian mass
9 am – cleaning of the grotto (only Catholics and Orthodox are allowed to clean the exact grotto, Armenians however take part of their property like paintings or icons)
9:15 am – From that hour the grotto is available for the pilgrim groups
9:15 – 11:30 am – There is a possibility of 2 Catholic masses for the visiting pilgrims, the grotto has to be previously reserved.
12:00 pm – Catholic procession from the St. Catherine Church to the Nativity Grotto; Ceremonial incense of the grottos of the Nativity and of St. Heronimus. The Franciscan have the keys to the door in the passage connecting the two grottos.
1:30 – Armenian Mass Next to the altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary (in the northern apse)
2:30 – 3:30 – Greek Orthodox Vespers
On Sundays, the Catholic mass in the grotto takes place at 9:30 am and the Armenian one at 11:30 am, because of the main Greek Orthodox mass, up on the altar of the Nativity Church from 7:30 till 9:30 am, the grotto is available for the pilgrim groups only after 11:30 am.
There are also three Catholic masses in Arabic in the St. Catherine’s Church at 7:30 am, 9 am and 11 am.
Basilica of the Nativity: Summer (April – September) 6:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. Winter (October – March) 5:30 a.m. –5:00p.m. Note: Grotto is closed on Sunday morning.
St. Catherine Church: Summer (April – September) 6:00 a.m. – 12:00 a.m. 2:00 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. Winter (October – March) 5:00 a.m. – 12:00 a.m. 2:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. Notes: Sunday morning, open for Holy Masses (7:30 am, 9 am, 11 am). Grotto opens in the afternoon.
Book a Mass:
To reserve a catholic mass in the Grotto of the Nativity or the St. Catherine Church for Catholic priests Pilgrims’ Certificates and Catholic groups, contact the Franciscan Pilgrim Office: Tel. +970-2-6272697 Fax: +970-2-6286417 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org . Office hours: Monday – Friday 8.30 a.m. – 5.30 p.m. / Saturday 8.30 a.m.- 12.30 p.m. / Sunday closed.
Travelujah Tips: – Travelujah-organized private group tours accompanied by a parish priest have private mass arrangements made at venues around the Holy Land, including the Nativity Church in Bethlehem, depending on the group itinerary.
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Beata Andonia works for the Bethlehem tourist bureau and blogs regularly about Bethlehem for Travelujah-Holy Land Tours. She is originally from Poland and moved to Bethlehem in 2010.
To reflect on the story:
Luke 2: 1-7: In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. Whil e they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
The Church is open all week, with free admission. To attend Christmas in Bethlehem can easily be a disappointment to the religious traveller due to large crowds and very limited access to the Church itself. Much of the life in the rest of the town on that evening is entirely business focused and carries little reverence with it, like the Christian participant might expect. Be aware that access to Bethlehem requires carrying a passport since the town is a part of the Palestinian Authority since 1994 and outside Israeli jurisdiction.