Christmas in the Holy Land
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From the very beginnings of Christianity, the grotto where Jesus was born has been revered as one of the most sacred places in the world. Today it has been designated a World Heritage Site and Roman Catholics from all over the world gather here every Christmas Eve for Midnight Mass at 12 a.m.
When you visit there as a pilgrim, you travel back in time to the first Christmas. You look up at the same stars and out at the same shepherds' fields. You enter the same cave-grotto and touch the same spot where the Christ-child was born incarnate.
The history of this place of the Nativity is fascinating and the hand of Providence can be seen guiding and protecting it every step of the way.
In 135 AD Christian places of worship in the Holy Land were obliterated under the anti-Christian Emperor Hadrian, and shrines dedicated to Roman gods were erected in their place. A pagan shrine was thus constructed atop the grotto where Christ was born. This seeming tragedy later proved a blessing in that these pagan temples helped Christians to locate and identify exact locations of the revered sites associated with the life of Christ after the anti-Christian persecutions subsided.
When the first Christian Emperor, Constantine, arrived in the Holy Land, it was this pagan shrine which helped to lead his mother, St. Helena, to locate the site indelibly as the place of the birth of Christ. Constantine ordered Hadrian's temple removed and the cave was found intact below.
At the direction of his saintly mother, Constantine further ordered a magnificent basilica constructed over the site in 325 AD. Known as the Basilica of the Nativity, it was richly decorated with marble mosaics and frescoes. No expense was spared in its construction. It was so elaborate and permanent, that the original octagonal altar along with the foundations can still be seen to this day.
Over the centuries, however, the Basilica of the Nativity would be looted and sacked on numerous occasions. Just two-hundred years later, in 529 it was badly damaged by the Samaritans who were revolting against the Byzantine Empire. Thankfully, it was immediately rebuilt by the Emperor Justinian in 530. The Justinian church is the one still standing today.
The fact that this ancient church still stands is a miracle. In 614 when the Persians destroyed all churches in the locale, the Basilica of the Nativity was the only church which evaded destruction thanks to a mosaic scene of the Nativity representing the wise men who were depicted in ancient Persian costumes. This deterred the marauding Persians from destroying this single church and so the Church of the Nativity the oldest church in the Holy Land.
Over the years, the Justinian and later the crusader decorations that adorned the walls and columns of the church were destroyed. Today what remains are the two rows of red limestone columns standing starkly in the austere church beneath an oak ceiling that was presented by Edward IV of England and Philip Duke of Burgundy in 1482. Remains of the original mosaic floor from Constantine's church can be seen through trapdoors in the floor.
When you approach the church, you first see the exterior, which appears as a fortress. The front facade, upon inspection, clearly had three original doors, two of which you can see were walled up. Of the third middle door, there remains a low narrow entrance which admits into the Church. The entrance was lowered twice to prevent armed invaders from entering the church on their horses. Overshadowed by the massive stone walls of the Basilica of the Nativity, this is called the door of humility. When you enter, you have to bow your head while leaning over and step up. Only children enter with ease. It is quite the entry into the darkly lit, sixth century place of worship.
Entering the church, you recognize the distinct rectangular shape, the Roman basilica style. The basilica has the shape of a cross, 170 feet long and 80 feet wide. 44 Corinthian columns in four rows of local stone divide the Basilica into five aisles. On the upper part of the church and transept walls, mosaic fragments can be seen, which are all that is left of the Crusader wall decorations. The beautiful Greek Orthodox choir and altar stand above the cave in the area of the sanctuary.
Once you have approached the sanctuary on the right, you descend the stairs into the dark and crowded grotto where Christ was born. The grotto is small, rectangular in shape, about 35 feet by 10 feet and lit by 32 lamps. The walls and floors are covered in worn marble. The original ceiling has been replaced by one made of masonry in the 4th century. The walls of the grotto are covered in asbestos - guaranteed against fire, donated in 1874 by the President of the French Republic.
The grotto cave is divided into two parts: the place of birth and the holy manger. Beneath the altar of the Nativity is a silver star placed on the floor in 1717 which marks the actual birthplace of Christ.
This is the main attraction in the room. The star is surrounded by a Latin inscription which reads: "Here Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary." You wait in line, enter the room, and kneel atop rich oriental rugs. Leaning over the star with your palms on the cold marble amid the smell of rose petals and sweet oil lamps you touch the center of the star and quickly make your prayer. It is just you and Christ in that moment - a powerful experience.
In the same grotto is also the place where Christ was laid in the manger. Here came the three wise men from the East guided by a star to worship Jesus (Mat 1:1-11), and so did the shepherds. Opposite the manger, an altar has been erected and dedicated to the Magi. The original rock of the cave, today blackened by the smoke of candles and oil lamps of the centuries, may be seen above the site of the holy manger. As you touch it, you feel you have indeed made the right decision in traveling to the Holy Land. Walking up from the grotto, you hear a voice in your heart, truly "We have found the Messiah" (Jn. 1:41).
John Paul Sonnen is a tour operator and history docent with Vancouver based Orbis Catholicus Travel.
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