The Church of the Nativity marks the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. When Emperor Constantine of Rome became a Christian in the 4th century, his mother, Helena, visited the Holy Land. She commissioned a number of basilicas (churches) to be built over sacred sites, including the Church of the Nativity.
“O little town of Bethlehem” is not so little anymore. The population of 25,000 hosts 2 million tourists annually. Figures of celestial beings, stars, and shepherds fill the small city a few miles south of Jerusalem.
Commerce rules at Manger Square where merchants prey on religious pilgrims. Tourists can purchase postcards, scarves, crosses, mangers, angels, camels, and more. Forests of carved olive wood figures fill the stores’ shelves. If a herald angel appeared today, no one would hear the natal news above the din of engines, horns, and crowds.
The basilica’s low entrance causes congregations to duck. Church officials lowered the entrance to prevent people from riding horses, camels, and donkeys into the building. The trivia tickled my sense of humor; but it felt fitting to humbly bow while entering the ancient sanctuary.
The Church of the Nativity precariously balances sacred and secular, grandeur and gaudy, touching and tacky. Crimson glass-blown balls hang from the ceilings and cloying incense perfumes the air. In an odd anachronism, energy-saving, curly florescent bulbs provide modern light from ancient fixtures.
Forget Christmas card, manger scenes complete with barn and stable—Jesus’ birth probably occurred in a cave. A stairwell descends to a small grotto guarded by a priest. A 14-point silver star beneath an altar marks the traditional site of Jesus’ birth.
I have visited the Church of the Nativity several times and always felt underwhelmed. The ornate setting of the nativity feels like a visual oxymoron—the humble scene of Jesus’ birth overlaid with gilded with glitter and glitz.
I prefer the Shepherd’s Fields south of town. A peaceful garden overlooks the green slopes ascending to Bethlehem. In the foreground, shepherds tend their flocks as their ancestors did millennia ago. The simple scene reflects the Biblical story of Jesus’ birth much more than the bustling business of Bethlehem.
For those with ears to hear, the angelic message still echoes over the plains. “Good news . . . great joy . . . for all people . . . born to us today . . . a Savior . . . Christ . . . the Lord.”
Like the shepherds, may we say to one another, “Let us go see this thing which the Lord has done.”