The Grotto Where Jesus Was Born

Come with me to Bethlehem and take this virtual Christmas visit. I have been there approximately 50 times so let me have the joy of being your guide. Let’s start this surreal tour in Nativity Square, the center of the old city, and the courtyard to the church that stands over the designated sight of the birth of Jesus Christ.  

The massive church when viewed from above is shaped like a cross. 

Originally the entrance was much larger. During one period of occupancy horsemen and horse drawn wagons mockingly entered and degraded the building. Under the cover of night villagers used large blocks of stone to make the entrance so small you have to bow to enter. It is now considered an appropriate way to show humility approaching the building.

Today’s basilica, the oldest complete church in the Christian world, was built by the emperor Justinian in the 6th century. It replaced the original church of Constantine the Great, built over the cave venerated as Christ’s birthplace, and dedicated in AD 339.

The cavernous basilica has massive red limestone columns, many of which have paintings left by the Crusaders. The walls are adorned with 12th century mosaics depicting Church councils, angels, and saints. Sections of the current false wooden floors are removed to reveal the original tile floors from the time of Constantine. There are no pews.

The iconostasis, a large carved screen adorned with icons, draws interest to the altar. To the right of it are steps leading down to the Grotto of the Nativity which is immediately below the altar. This is the long reputed sight of the birth of Jesus. It is marked with a silver star around which is inscribed, “Jesus Christ was born here to the virgin Mary.”

In the cave is a small area representing the sight where the Wise Men met the Christ child.

Instead of quibbling over whether these are the actual spots of the historical events, this is a meaningful place to commemorate the events.

Don’t expect a private visit. They are few.  We have had such at off hours. We have worshiped in the church on Christmas eve with the basilica packed body to body. The grotto is always compacted with groups of tourists.

On Christmas Eve the square outside is filled with tourists and choirs from all over the world singing. We once carried a 108-voice youth choir to sing there.  My favorite Christmas Eve visit resulted in the youth group leaving Bethlehem late at night and driving into Shepherds Field where an olive wood campfire awaited us. By the light of the full moon we watched as an old shepherd led his sheep nearby. This proved for us shepherds are in the fields watching over their flocks by night in December.

From our vantage point we could see Bethlehem silhouetted on the hill and hear a choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus.

It was about as ideal a Christmas Eve setting as could be designed.

The fact none of us are there this season does not mean the spirit engendered by what happened there that first Christmas can’t be enjoyed here as fully as we enjoyed it there. Focus not on the place, but the one whose birth there makes this possible as a Merry Christmas.