“All across the land dawns a brand new morn
This comes to pass when a child is born”
The birth of Jesus changed the world or so the words from Johnny Mathis’ hit “When A Child is Born” seek to testify.
On the spot where it is alleged that Jesus was born stands one of the oldest churches in the world: the Church of the Nativity. Interestingly, the Church is built over a cave that is believed to have been where Jesus’ birth took place informed by a tradition goes back to the Christian apologist Justin Martyr (c.100-165). In one of his early writings, he stated that the Holy Family had taken refuge in a cave:
Joseph took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him.
A half decade or so later, Origen of Alexandria (circa 185-254) wrote:
In Bethlehem the cave is pointed out where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes. And the rumor is in those places, and among foreigners of the Faith, that indeed Jesus was born in this cave who is worshipped and reverenced by the Christians.
It seems strange that whilst the Gospels clearly do not mention that Jesus was born in a cave (see my earlier post here), early Christian theologians believed that he was. This is important because so much we think we know about the Nativity Story is built around the ‘no room at the inn’ scenario whereas the Church marking the site is not.
Over time, the Church has had an important role in history. The first basillica on the site was begun by Saint Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine I who was the first first Christian Roman Emperor. Constantine himself supported the Church financially and granted various privileges to Christians lay and clergy. Constantine was also the first Christian to lead an army against another Christian community and in 325 CE, he summoned the Council of Nicea that dealt with the heresy of Arianism, the establishment of the Nicene Creed, and codified the separation of the celebration of Easter from the Jewish Pesach (Passover) amongst other things.
Elsewhere in history, the Church has been re-built and added to by those such as the Crusaders and has fought off numerous invaders, raids and battles of one shape or another.
Today the Church is administered jointly by Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic religious authorities, each of which maintains a monastic community there. The building is a combination of two churches, with a crypt beneath—the Grotto of the Nativity—where Jesus is said to have been born. Unlike other parts of the Church, the main altar in the Grotto – marked by a 14-pointed silver star – is denominationally neutral. However, another altar does stand in the Grotto which is maintained by the Roman Catholic Church that is believed to be where Mary laid the newborn baby Jesus in the manger.
Whilst the Church is central to Christians throughout the world of all denominations at this time of year, in recent years the Church has also been the centre of attention for the news watching world. Being situated in the West Bank in Palestine, in 2002 Bethelehem was advanced upon by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) as part of Operation Defensive Shield in an attemnpt to root out militants or so the IDF stated. As part of this, the Church became a refuge for approximately 200 Palestinian Muslims who were looking to avoid the advancing Israelie forces. In the siege that ensued, the bell-ringer and nine Palestinians inside the Church were killed: many more were wounded.
I remember watching the end of the siege live on BBC News 24 on the 22nd May 2002. As the Palestinian Muslims left the Church, they were warmly embraced and hugged by the various Christian monks that had offered them protection throughout. For a Church that was established to mark the birth of Jesus – a time when we repeatedly hear the rarely acted upon message of ‘peace and goodwill to all men’ – the images broadcast on that day captured that message perfectly. It was quite overwhelming.
As Johnny Mathis put it:
…a child that will grow up and turn tears to laughter,
Hate to love, war to peace and everyone to everyone’s neighbour
And misery and suffering will be words to be forgotten, forever
‘The 12 Posts of Xmas’ are a series of posts that will be published between 1 December and 25 December 2008. From tales of woe through humour to mere rants, each post is based around a classic Christmas song – however tenuous that may be…!!!
Everything on this site by Chris Allen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. www.chris-allen.co.uk