Location - Jerusalem
Map Coordinates - 31.739213, 35.212744
On our live tours, we always drive by and identify this site. However, on foot you can explore this location in much greater detail.
The story of the birth of Jesus doesn’t begin with the words that are written in the Gospels. It begins with the land itself. There is virtually nothing in the Bible that describes the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, and everything we know about His birth that comes from the Bible is found in the Book of Luke.
From the early second-century book called the Protoevangelium of James, we learn a lot more – including the fact that Mary rode a donkey to Bethlehem – and that she delivered the Holy Child immediately after she arrived at the cave that we know today as the Grotto of the Nativity.
According to this book, Mary rested during her journey to Bethlehem, and that she did so at a place that we call the Kathisma, located just south of Jerusalem. When you are there what you see are the ruins of a once-great octagonal church that was built on this site.
An artist’s rendition of the Kathisma Church.
This church was built in 456 AD, and it was dedicated to the mother of Jesus, whom the Byzantines called Mary Theotokos (meaning “the bearer of God”). There were many churches built during the Byzantine era in honor of Mary Theotokos, but this was the first church to be so dedicated.
After the Muslim conquest in the seventh century, this church was converted into a mosque, but it was destroyed sometime after that, abandoned and forgotten. From that point on, all memory of this church was buried under just a few feet of soil and an olive grove that eventually claimed this site.
For the next 1200 years all we knew about the Kathisma Church was what we could read in Byzantine literature, but its actual location of it was a total mystery. Then in 1992, while trying to build a road through this property, the construction workers’ excavators struck these very stones. Within a matter of months, the eyes of the world once again gazed upon the resting place of Mary.
The word Kathisma is a Greek word, meaning “seat”. The entire church was built around a rotunda, and at the very center was a rock, upon which Mary is believed to have sat toward the end of what was probably a five-day journey from Nazareth.
The rock on which it is believed that Mary rested.
But is the place authentic? Did Mary actually sit here? The Kathisma could be easily written off as an invention of Byzantine legendary if it weren’t for a very obscure reference in the Protoevangelium of James.
From the 17th chapter of Protoevangelium of James, we read
“And when they had come within three miles (of Bethlehem), Joseph turned and saw her sorrowful… And again, Joseph turned and saw her laughing. And he said to her, “Mary, how is it that I see in your face at one-time laughter, at another sorrow?” And Mary said to Joseph, “Because I see two people with my eyes. The one weeping and lamenting, and the other rejoicing and exulting.
In the Protoevangelium of James there is no mention of Mary dismounting the donkey, or of her sitting on this rock. But take note of the distance cited in this passage - three miles from Bethlehem. No doubt this is a reference to Roman miles, which were slightly shorter than today’s miles.
Remarkably, the distance between the Church of the Nativity, and the Kathisma is exactly three Roman miles.
What does this vision mean?
Her words are a foreshadowing of what was told to her and Joseph at the dedication of Jesus on the Temple, which is also recorded in Luke 2:34, when Simeon prophesied and said, “Behold, this One is appointed for the falling and rising of many in Israel.”
In her recorded vision Mary saw those who would either rejoice or mourn at the final advent of her Son - not in this life, but in the next life. In her vision, we see, in the faces of two individual people, the myriads of earthly citizens who will meet Jesus at the close of all time – people clearly divided into two groups - those who will rejoice, and those who will weep.
Mary’s words, whether or not they are authentic, are an accurate reflection of truth, because our universe is destined for closure, and the fate of billions rests on one simple condition. Did you love God as Jesus said, with all your heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30)? And does that love emanate from you, so that even the unlovely could benefit from the effect that it has on you?
In the Protoevangelium of James, we see evidence that the Kathisma is an authentic site. Adding to its credibility is the fact that Mary was still alive well after Jesus died. And her quotation in the Protoevangelium of James might well be sourced back to the time that she was alive. In other words, the location of her resting place, and the conversation that she had with Joseph, may be sourced back to Mary herself.
And then there’s the distance of the three Roman miles that makes the Kathisma a definite place of interest – perhaps the place where Mary received this vision.
The placement of the Kathisma church was not accidental. It wasn’t based on wishful religious folklore. It was built here because it was three Roman miles away from the Church of the Nativity.