A high point of 2017 for me was an opportunity to visit Bethlehem. On my first trip to Israel about 20 years ago, my group was not allowed to go to Bethlehem because of ongoing tensions with Palestinian Arabs. Checkpoints for the West Bank still have signs posted warning Israelis that is dangerous to enter there. Even so, I was eager to see Jesus’ birthplace on the trip in March led by Kentucky Baptists.
But everything was not as I expected. The Bethlehem of today is far from what I had pictured in my mind’s eye. “O little town of Bethlehem” that we sing of in Christmas carols is not a small, quiet, pastoral hamlet. Bethlehem is a bustling town center of 35,000 about five miles outside of Jerusalem, surrounded by a very congested, twisting, narrow streets. The vast majority of residents are not Christians, as one might expect, but Muslim Arabs. In fact, sharing Manger Square is the Mosque of Omar, the oldest and only mosque in Bethlehem.
The Basilica of the Nativity is the oldest church still in service, dating back more than 1,500 years. The sanctuary belongs to a Greek Orthodox congregation, but the site is also shared with Catholics and Armenians. To enter, one must bend down to go through an unimpressive door that is only about four feet high and appropriately called “the Door of Humility” for one must bow.
The original octagonal church was built around 325 AD by Constantine, who believed it to be the site of Jesus’s birth. The first building was destroyed by Samaritans in 529 AD, but Emperor Justinian rebuilt the church in the 530s. In 614 AD when the Persians conquered Jerusalem and destroyed much of the city, the church apparently was spared because, according to legend, they found depictions of the Magi from the East.
Most of us probably grew up with nativity scenes of a stable. Underneath the church, however, is a cave that according to tradition is the place where Jesus was likely born. Nearby is another cave where St. Jerome translated the Latin Vulgate in the late 4th century, choosing to work near where His Savior was born. One theory holds that although Joseph could have had relatives staying nearby, Mary would not have been allowed inside the house since Jewish custom considered women unclean for 40 days after giving birth.
A 14-point star signifying the three groupings of 14 generations from Abraham to Christ’s birth marks the spot where Jesus is said to have been born. A few feet away is the possible location of the manger. Our group sang “Away in a Manger” and “O Holy Night” in Jesus’ cave. One of the most moving experiences I had in Israel was hearing various nationalities sing carols in their native tongues before the manger.
The fields where shepherds still keep watch over their flocks today are only a couple of miles east of Bethlehem. For some reason, I had pictured their walk to have been much farther, but it might have been a short, uphill jaunt to town. Several caves on the hillsides, which perhaps provided shelter from the elements for shepherds, are now places of worship. Our group paused to sing “O Come All Ye Faithful.”
A perfect lamb was valuable because lambs were needed for sacrifices at the Jerusalem Temple. Lambs had to be without blemish, so shepherds took special care of them—even wrapping newborns in swaddling cloths to keep them safe and warm. Don’t miss the wondrous significance that the angels told the shepherds that they would find the Messiah wrapped in swaddling cloths—like a baby lamb—and lying in a manger.
On a hillside today stands the Chapel of Angels to commemorate the heavenly hosts that sang Allelujah. Beautiful paintings on the walls and ceiling depict this incredible event, and written high above our heads was “Gloria in Excelsis Deo.” Our group sang “Angels We Have Heard on High” inside, and the amazing acoustics made our voices reverberate all around.
Although things are very different from that first silent night, what remains is the unchanging message of “Immanuel, God with us.” Through faith, we are able to return to the little town of Bethlehem, rejoicing in our hearts with the carolers: “Yet in the dark street shineth the everlasting light, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”