Note: In January 2011 my wife and I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This post is part of a series of blogs I have written to convey what I learned while on this life changing trip. You can read about the entire trip in the devotional book Touching the Footprints of Jesus.
While in Bethlehem, we visited the oldest continuously operated Christian church in the world, the Church of the Nativity. The church was built in 326 AD and though it has been renovated many times and even completely rebuilt once, the site has been in continuous use as a Christian place of worship the entire time.
Almost from the time of Christ Himself, local tradition has held that the cave over which the church is built is the birthplace of Christ. The earliest historical reference that that particular cave was venerated as Christ's birthplace can be found in the writings of Justin Martyr around 160 AD. The same cave was also identified by Origen and Eusebius in the 3rd century as being the birthplace of Christ. Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother, visited the Holy Land in 326 with the goal of identifying various Christian sites. Some were easy to identify because of such historical references, while others were more difficult to identify. The cave in Bethlehem was one of the easiest to locate because of the historical writings of people like Justin Martyr, Origen and Eusebius. No serious scholar refutes the location of this cave as being the most likely birthplace of Jesus Christ.
In order to enter the Church of the Nativity, pilgrims must first pass through a low narrow door called the Door of Humility. Pilgrims must bow down in order to get through the door, which is fitting for a place of such sacredness. Like many Christian churches in the Holy Land, the Church of the Nativity is shared by four different Christian denominations. This is obvious as pilgrims pass through the church because each denomination has their own section and they also share various common areas. After walking through the large but simple sanctuary, pilgrims descend a set of stairs into the cave itself.
I must confess, as I entered the cave it just felt HOLY. I know that our faith is not built on feelings or emotions, but the feelings and emotions I felt in that place confirmed my faith as much as any scripture I have ever read, any prayer I have ever prayed or any hymn I have ever sung. I can think of no other word to describe the place but HOLY.
The cave itself was small, much as one would expect a cave to be. A portion of it had been expanded to allow pilgrims and worshippers to congregate to one side. The walls were draped with tapestries to make it look a little less stark than an underground cave would naturally be. Pilgrims can touch the spot where Jesus was actually born, which is identified by a star under an altar. Pilgrims are also welcome to touch the stone manger in which Jesus was laid.
After touching these places, our group moved over to the side of the cave. The Spirit led us to sing three Christmas carols. Though our group was not a trained choir, I think we sounded heavenly as we praised the birth of our Savior in the place where it happened. I think every Christian should visit this spot. For me, Christmas will never be the same.
I would be dishonest with my readers if I did not share about one sad aspect of the cave. I was deeply disturbed by the wall that had been built through part of the cave to separate the Roman Catholic side of the cave from the main part of the cave which was shared by the other three denominations. There is a long history of conflict between the four Christian groups that share the cave and the church. Since the Catholics have the most money, many generations ago they built a lovely chapel off to the side of the main church and also walled off part of the cave as “their” section. Though I realize the wall was built a long time ago and may not represent the current view of many of the world’s Catholics, it remains a powerful symbol of separation between Christians. I am not Catholic, nor do I espouse Catholic doctrine. But I would love to see that wall taken down as a symbol of the unity all true Christians have in the Lord Jesus. I look forward to the day with all genuine Christians will worship Christ in Spirit and in Truth without any man made divisions or barriers.