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A Bethlehem Grotto from The First Christmas
Dr. Paul L. Maier

While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. LUKE 2:6-7

Some critics doubt that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and argue instead for Nazareth or elsewhere. Such opinions, however, are based only on scholarly conjecture, and no source has been discovered to date that disproves Jesus' birth in Bethlehem.

It is almost certain that Joseph and Mary reached Bethlehem in the late afternoon or early evening. Had they arrived earlier, lodging would not have been so difficult to find, although Bethlehem would have been crowded enough with the many descendants of King David returning to register at their ancestral home.

The picture of Joseph going from door to door, desperately begging shelter because Mary was in labor, has always struck a poignant chord amid the joy wreathing the rest of the Christmas story. And the nameless innkeeper who refused them refuge is usually associated with Judas Iscariot in the popular mind. But probably he - or was it his sympathetic wife? - remembered the cave behind the inn, where animals were sheltered, and he threw it open to the hapless couple. The hills around Bethlehem are perforated with such caverns, and they are still used to shelter cattle and sheep. Grateful for any refuge in the crisis of his wife's birth pangs, Joseph carefully led the donkey and its precious burden down a steep path behind the caravansary to the cave below it.

From all accounts of the Nativity, it seems that no one assisted Mary at the birth of Jesus - not even Joseph, for husbands were not to play the role of midwives. Self-delivery was by no means uncommon at the time. The women of Palestine, unlike neighboring mothers, prided themselves on delivering their babies rather easily and were quite able to take care of themselves in the absence of a midwife, though physicians and midwives were also regularly used. Luke simply relates that Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him in bands of swaddling cloth, and laid him in a feeding trough, which must have had the sweetish, grainy smell of hay, barley, and oats.

And so the incredible paradox happened at Bethlehem: history's greatest figure was born, not in a palace or mansion, but in a cavern-stable. For Joseph and Mary, the holiest moment of all must have come before the shepherds paid their famous visit as they gazed at the extraordinary baby whose mission even they could scarcely comprehend. Small wonder that this has been the most familiar scene in all the florid history of art. Each generation, each school has attempted to portray the Nativity, with backgrounds ranging from Oriental to Italian to Flemish, and yet the tableau of the Holy Family in the Bethlehem grotto has remained an unconquered artistic challenge.

There is evidence that someone in Bethlehem relented and offered more normal accommodations to Joseph, Mary, and the newborn Jesus. For by the time the Wise Men arrived to present their gifts, the Holy Family seems to have been living in a "house" (Matt. 2:11). Or, as happens on any vacation trip today, the motel vacancies that are nonexistent on the night of arrival because the traveler failed to call ahead for reservations quickly materialize the next day.

All Bethlehem must have rustled with news about "that poor girl from Galilee" who had no sooner arrived in town than she bore a child, since the shepherds and, later, the Magi had no trouble finding the Holy Family. Clearly, they must have been directed by the townspeople.

Jesus' birth in this particular town had vast implications for the people of Palestine. Bethlehem, which means "House of Bread," was not only the setting for the story of Ruth, but it became the birthplace of David, and here the prophet Samuel anointed him King. Later it became the expected birthplace of that great "Son of David," or "Messiah," who was supposed to liberate the land from foreign control. It was no accident that over in Jerusalem, King Herod's priests came up with Bethlehem as the logical place to send the Wise Men for any newborn Christ, the Greek translation for the Hebrew Messiah.

The Site Today
"O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie . . . ." The lyrics fit not only the village of the first Christmas, but also the town of today. For two millennia seem to have brushed few changes into the Bethlehem scene. It remains a comparatively small town, six miles southwest of Jerusalem, and quiet enough - although the more than 30,000 who now live there have considerably increased its population from Jesus' day, and confrontations between the Arab population and Israeli authorities disturb the peace periodically.

Today, the tourist almost always approaches Bethlehem from the north - as Joseph and Mary had done - on a curvy road that twists along a bleak ridge. From a final bend, just outside the city, the so-called Shepherds' Fields are pointed out. This is the presumed place where the herdsmen were watching their flocks at the time of the angelic announcement. The rolling slopes are covered with tawny grasses and dotted with drab scrubby bushes and some pines. Individual fields are fenced off by low stone walls or rows of silver-green olive trees.

The city itself is a maze of twisting cobblestone lanes, all of which seem to lead into the past. But they find a hub in the centrally located Manger Square, where the crowning sanctuary is the ancient Church of the Nativity, erected by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. This basilica is a less-than-impressive structure of whitish stone that seems to contrast too fiercely with the deep and often cloudless blue sky hanging over the town. A low, partially walled-up doorway compels a visitor to bend down upon entering the sanctuary.

The interior of the church is cool, dark, and hardly imposing, but parts of the nave date back to the time of Constantine, making this Christendom's oldest church in continuous use. Forty-four rose-colored columns with Corinthian capitals divide the nave from its two side aisles, and a round, shiny Christmas tree ornament dangles from each of its lighting fixtures.

From the choir, stairways lead down to a thirteen-by-thirty-three-foot cavern underneath the high altar of the church, known as the Grotto of the Nativity, presumed to he the very cave in which Jesus was born. The place of birth is marked by a low, semicircular niche of white marble surrounding a polished silver star on the floor, illuminated by a collection of overornate lanterns suspended from above. Around the inner hub of the fourteen-pointed star is an inscription: "HIC DE VIRGINE MARIA JESUS CHRISTUS NATUS EST," Latin for "Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary." Rich curtains and tapestries adorn the sacred precinct, as well as the little adjacent niche containing a stone manger where, supposedly, the infant Jesus was laid.

Visitors are often struck by conflicting impressions. There is reverence for the holy place, certainly, and some form of Christian worship is usually taking place at the shrine, led by a Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Greek Orthodox, or Roman Catholic priest. But there is also aesthetic disappointment: the potpourri of garish votive lanterns, icons, and candelabra that cluster about the shrine offend Western tastes. Yet this is a trifling and parochial objection, for the grotto is, after all, in the hands of Eastern Christendom.

But the dominant question in the mind of any thinking contemporary visitor to the shrine must be this: Did it all really happen here - at this spot? Though final proof is necessarily lacking, the surprising answer lurks closer to probably than possibly.

Where there is no direct archaeological evidence - and there could be none in the case of the birth of Jesus - nothing is more important in establishing the authenticity of an ancient site than antiquity: the place must have been regarded as such from earliest times. If the Church of the Nativity had been built here in 600 A.D., for example, its claims to mark the authentic site of the birth of Jesus would be almost worthless. But Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome, erected the original Church of the Nativity at this place in 326 A.D., over the very grotto that had been identified as the true site by the early church father Origen and, before him, Justin Martyr, writing in 150 AM. Justin stated that Jesus was born in a cave that was used as a stable - not the typical stone or wooden stable so familiar in Christmas art.3 Earlier still, in the 130s, the pagan Roman emperor Hadrian tried to desecrate the Jewish and Christian holy places in Palestine, but, ironically, thereby preserved their identity!

After he had put down an insurrection by the Jewish nationalist and would-be Messiah, Bar-Kokhba, in 135 A.D., Hadrian expelled the Jews from Jerusalem and paganized all known holy places of Jews and Christians, erecting a temple to Venus at the site of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and a grove dedicated to Adonis over the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

After visiting the latter in the early 200s, Origen later wrote: "In Bethlehem the grotto was shown where Jesus was born . . . . What was shown to me is familiar to everyone in the area. The heathen themselves tell anyone willing to listen that in the said grotto a certain Jesus was born whom the Christians revere" (Contra Celsum, i, 51).

"How still we see thee lie. . . ."
Having hosted the birth of the individual who would change history, Bethlehem seemed content to rest on its laurels, for nothing spectacular has happened there in the two thousand years since. One prominent exception, of course, was the sojourn of Jerome, who lived in the Church of the Nativity complex about 400 A.D. and translated parts of the Old Testament into Latin, which, with other translations, eventually became the famed Vulgate. The Vulgate has remained the official version of the Bible for Roman Catholicism ever since.

And in the modern era, it was a Syrian-Christian merchant in Bethlehem who first received the original Dead Sea Scrolls from the desert Bedouins who had discovered them in the early spring of 1947. The merchant brought them to the attention of religious authorities in Jerusalem, who alerted the entire scholarly world. Today, Bethlehem turns a brisk trade in religious items - candles, crucifixes, and sacred mementoes of olive wood and mother-of-pearl - for the many tourists from all parts of the world who throng the site where Christ was born. The town also bristles with churches representing all principal branches of world Christianity, while the environs of the Judean wilderness are dotted with monasteries, some quite ancient.

Each Christmas, Bethlehem decks itself in colored lights, glass lanterns, glittering stars, and illuminated crosses, while it swells in size because of the influx of Christian pilgrims. On Christmas Eve, a Protestant carol service is conducted at twilight on a hillside at the Shepherds' Fields, and again at 9 pm. in an outer court of the Church of the Nativity. Meanwhile, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem leads a colorful procession from the Holy City to Bethlehem in order to conduct a midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity, a celebration transmitted by closed-circuit television to a large screen in Manger Square for the benefit of the thousands who cannot crowd inside the basilica. At the same time, the Grotto has been filled with humanity for most of Christmas Eve, as groups from all over the world read the Christmas story in a babble of foreign tongues.

Exactly at midnight, a silver bell tinkles in the Grotto, heralding Christ's birthday, and many of the pilgrims are overcome as they spirit themselves back two thousand years and try to find a place between the shepherds at the mangerside. A few move forward to try to press their lips to the metallic star marker. Then church bells peal forth throughout the city, since the people of Bethlehem are predominantly Christian.

Taken from The First Christmas by Dr. Paul L. Maier, copyright 2001. Used by permission of Kregal Publications Grand Rapids, MI 49501.

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