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The Nativity Church Nave

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The Mysteries Under the Church of the Nativity

This site is always part of our live Octagon Tour.

Location - The Church of the Nativity

Map Coordinates - 31.704261, 35.207363

The Church of the Nativity marks the birthplace of Jesus Christ, and it’s the oldest active church building in the Holy Land – one of the three original churches commissioned by the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine, in the early fourth century.

To be clear, this is not just the birthplace of Jesus. This is where the divine Son of God came into the world, which means that this church is not just a historic site, but the location of the most miraculous birth in history – where the world first looked into the face of its Creator.

Three denominations run this church – the Greek Orthodox, the Catholic Church, and the Armenian Apostolic Church. Every year, millions of people come here to touch the place where the Savior of mankind was born.

On the inside, the Church of the Nativity seems dilapidated and battered. Still, for a building that has survived destruction by two hostile armies, an earthquake and several fires, its dignity remains intact. The largest room in this church is called the nave, which is akin to the word navel, telling us that this is the main worship hall at the center of the church.

The Church of the Nativity in the 19th Century

Why does this church look like a fortress?

On the outside, the Church of the Nativity doesn’t look much like a church, but rather like a fortress. That was done deliberately. In the 12th century the Crusaders from Europe, who were warriors, designed the church in a way that made it look more defensible, during a time when both the Muslim and pagan worlds were becoming more intolerant of Christianity

Why was this church built? 

In the year 325 AD, at the council of Nicaea, Macarius, who was the Bishop of Jerusalem, spoke to Constantine the Great, and Macarius encouraged him to build churches in the Holy Land.

A shrine to Adonis

As a result, Constantine’s aged mother, Empress Helena, made a pilgrimage to this part of the world to build monumental churches to commemorate the principal events of Jesus' life. She came to Bethlehem in 326 AD, and saw both a grove of trees and a shrine to Adonis (a shrine probably similar to the one below), who was the Roman god of vegetation and physical beauty.

Working under the supervision of Helena and Bishop Macarius, architects started the project that following year, and the church was in use six years later.

The Door of Humility

It may surprise you to know that this little door, which is only four feet tall, is the main entrance to the church. People call it the Door of Humility because virtually all adults must bow to enter the church. After all, this was the place where God humiliated Himself by leaving His throne in heaven and becoming one of us.

The entrance to the church hasn’t always been this small. There used to be three massive doors that allowed worshipers to enter the church.

Why did that change?  Around the year 1500 AD, the Turkish Ottoman empire, which controlled the Holy Land at that time, created this small single door to be the only way that someone could access the church. This prevented looters from coming in with their carts and animals to steal items from within. It also kept the church from becoming a temporary stable for horses. 

What did the original doors of the Bethlehem church look like? In the year 380 AD, shortly after the church was built, an Italian artist constructed a mosaic depicting the face of the church, showing three massive doors. This mosaic (shown below) is currently displayed at the Church of Saint Pudenziana in Rome.

The three doors which use to provide entrance to the Church of the Nativity, illustrated on a mosaic at the Church of Saint Pudenziana in Rome.

The Huge Justinian Doors.

In the year 565 AD during a time of reconstruction, the doors of the church changed again. In the picture below you can see a dark mantle 20 feet high up on the wall. That was the top of one of three large doors marking the entrance to the church. Today you can only see one mantle, but on the inside of the church it is obvious that there were three doors, and all three remained in use until the twelfth century.

After all, this was the birthplace of the Ruler of the universe, and so little expense was spared to give His birthplace a presence of grandeur.

The entrace to the Church of the Nativity. The dark mantle at the top shows the height of the Justinian doors. The arched Crusader door is in the middle, and the small Ottoman door at the bottom is currently in use.

The Small Vaulted Crusader Door.

The vaulted door in the middle is a renovation by the Crusaders from Europe, to conform to a style that made the church more secure. Once again, the Crusaders were soldiers, so this alteration made sense to them. This faintly-visible arched Crusader door is in the middle, and the modern “Door of Humility” is at the bottom.

Just to the left of the visible door is a large column of stone that forms a support structure called a buttress, and buttresses were built to support forts. This buttress conceals the evidence that there were previously other doors in the facade of this church.

The entrance to the church changed as Christianity in the Holy Land changed, going from being just a church with unrestricted worship to a fortress that needed to be protected against hostile armies and local thieves.

The Narthex - The Room Inside the Door.

Going through the Door of Humility we find ourselves in what is called the narthex of the church. A narthex is the entry or receiving room of a church. However, there was no narthex in the original Constantinian Church of the Nativity that was commissioned in 326 AD. In this Byzantine church when people entered they walked directly into the nave, which was the large worship hall of the church.

In 565 AD, after the church was destroyed in a Samaritan uprising, Emperor Justinian rebuilt the church with a separate narthex, which still exists today.

The original carpet of mosaics filling the nave of the original church are seen in this 1932 photograph.

A Carpet of Mosaics Hidden for Centuries.

As shown in the photo above, a British archeological team in 1932 AD discovered that beneath the current flagstones covering the entire nave was a carpet of intricately laid mosaic tiles containing geometric images, as well as floral decorations and birds.

One can only imagine what this church must have looked like with such a huge carpet of intricate patterns.

However, this same team also discovered ashes and debris, indicating that the church had been mostly destroyed by fire.

A Fire in the Church.

Under Byzantine rule, the Samaritans in the north felt that they were being persecuted by the Church. As a result, many churches in the Holy Land, including the Church of the Nativity, were badly damaged during two Samaritan uprisings (529 AD and 556 AD). It was the fire of 556 AD that destroyed the church, and badly damaged the floor.

At that time there was a very popular monk in Judea named Saint Sabas, the founder of the Monastery of Mar Saba. He went to Constantinople and appealed to the emperor Justinian in around 536 AD, who provided the money to erect a larger church on the site. This Justinian construct, with later modifications, has remained in use to the present day.

Justinian’s builders noticed that the original mosaic floor was uneven throughout the nave. And because much of it was damaged his builders created a newer floor for the church consisting of simple flagstones that were about two feet higher than the mosaic-covered Constantinian floor. These are the same flagstones that tourists walk on every day as they visit the church. Today there are several openings in the floor, each revealing a portion of the original fourth-century mosaic pavement.

The ancient mosaic tiles (called tesserae) on the original floor are about half the size of normal mosaic tiles, allowing these images to appear with much greater detail.

The World’s Oldest IXTHUS Mosiac.

Another interesting part of the mosaic decoration is a monogram bearing the Greek letters that spell the word IXTHUS. IXTHUS means “fish” in Greek, but to the early Christians this word was also an acronym for the phrase “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior”. Remarkably, this small square is the only distinctly Christian feature in the entire mosaic, and it is the earliest mosaic of the IXTHUS ever discovered.

The Three Altars in the Transepts.

Justinian redesigned the church in a crucifix pattern; that is, in the shape of the cross. The horizontal part of this cross configuration creates arms that are called transepts. On the right or southern transept there is the Altar of the Circumcision, remembering Jesus’ circumcision eight days after His birth (Luke 2:21). This altar is owned by the Greek Orthodox Church. On the left or northern transept is the Armenian Altar of the Magi, who are believed to have tied up their horses nearby. Just to the left of the Altar of the Magi is the Armenian altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Wall Mosaics Everywhere You Look

The mosaics on the walls were completed in 1169 AD, with their gold background and silver inlaid mother-of-pearl. At one time they completely covered the walls of the church. The tiles are tilted downward to enhance the beauty of the mosaic when observed from the floor of the church. While most of the mosaics have been lost we know what all of them were, because a detailed description of each scene was described by Father Quaresmi in his book, The Enlightenment of the Holy Land, published in 1626 AD.

The visible mosaics in the nave commemorate both the genealogy of Jesus, and multinational, regional and local Church councils. Between the windows there are angels all around facing the Grotto of the Nativity, celebrating the birth of the Son of God. Scholars have concluded that the mosaics have both a Catholic and an Orthodox influence, indicating that the western and eastern churches cooperated to create these works of art.

On the left or northern transept there are mosaics displaying the disbelief of the Apostle Thomas, and both the Ascension and the Transfiguration of Jesus. On the right or southern transept there is a mosaic showing Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

What happened to the missing mosaics?

In the 15th century King Edward of England donated lead to both cover and water-proof the roof. However, in the seventeenth century the lead was pulled off by the Ottoman Turks, who melted it down for ammunition to use in their war against Venice. As a result, the roof rotted, and it’s because of a leaky roof that rain water destroyed the parts of the mosaic that are now visibly absent. 

A mosaic at the Cathedral of Saint Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, probably similar to the one once hanging in the Church of the Nativity

The Mosaic that Saved the Church.

While the Church of the Nativity was destroyed by the Samaritans in 556 AD it narrowly escaped being destroyed a couple of other times after that. 78 years after it was rebuilt by Justinian, in the year 614 AD, the Sassanian army from Persia attacked Palestine, destroying churches and killing many of the Christian inhabitants. The Persian army was persuaded to tear down anything Christian, but they did not tear down this church.

Why? It’s because they were impressed by a certain mosaic inside the church of the three Magi (or wise men), who were all wearing Persian attire in this picture. After all, the Magi were originally from Persia. Unfortunately, the mosaic of the Magi that the Persians saw has never been discovered, but it was probably similar to a mosaic that was built around the same time, which is now at the Cathedral of Saint Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy.

How do we know this? There was a church council meeting in Jerusalem, and the attendees in this council used this historical event to stress the importance of religious images, and how they affect people.

This Church was Spared a Third Time.

Starting in the year 639 AD, when the Holy Land was first occupied by the Muslim Caliph, Omar, this church allowed Muslims to worship in the church in the south transept (see the picture below). 

The south transept of the Church of the Nativity, where Muslims used to worship

You see, Muslims believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, and, as a result, Mary is revered in Islam. In fact, Mary is the only woman named in the Quran. This is important, because in the year 1009 AD there was a decree from the mad Caliph Al-Hakim from Egypt to tear down all Christian places of worship. But Al-Hakim did not tear down this church. There are three reasons for this:

1. Muslims were allowed to worship here.

2. This church celebrates an event that Muslims embrace - the miraculous birth of Jesus.

3. Jesus is a prophet in Muslim theology, and this church celebrates the birth of this prophet.

These three facts saved the Church of the Nativity from being destroyed in 1009 AD.

However, Muslims do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus, which is what the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem is all about, and that’s why the Holy Sepulcher church was destroyed in 1009 AD.

A mosaic in the Church of the Nativity, showing the Apostle Thomas inspecting the wound on Jesus' side.

Who is the most celebrated Apostle in this church?

Thomas is the most celebrated Apostle in the Church of the Nativity. One of the most fascinating mosaics in the north transept (shown above) is a picture of Thomas inspecting the hand and side of the resurrected Christ. In contrast to being thought of as the “Doubting Thomas”, the Apostle Thomas is remembered throughout church history as being the great confessor, the first person to declare that Jesus is both Lord and God (John 20:28). For this reason he is held in very high esteem. 

The Main Altar.

In the very center of the church, in front of the iconostasis (icon wall) is the presbytery, sometimes called the choir area, which is controlled by the Greek Orthodox Church. This presbytery is directly over the grotto in which Jesus was born, and in the original church this presbytery was octagonal in shape.

The iconostasis in the Church of the Nativity

What is an Iconostasis?

A wall displaying icons of Biblical scenes or saints is called an iconostasis. The one pictured above dates back to 1764 AD, and it is crowned with gilded angels, chandeliers, icons and lamps. This wall is in keeping with a Greek Orthodox tradition that separates the main congregation area from the high altar (or sanctuary) behind the iconostasis, much like the Holy of Holies was hidden in the Jerusalem Temple.

The iconostasis represents our separation from heaven, and the high altar behind it is symbolic of heaven itself. In Orthodox tradition, icons are not simply pieces of art. They are windows through which the worshiper finds true communion with God and all those who have labored for the faith.

The Forgotten Saints.

In the nave 44 polished red limestone columns were brought in from a local quarry. Most of them date back to the original church that Helena commissioned here. It is believed that this room used to also have rows of pews, but now there are just empty aisles.

If you look up at the top of these 44 columns, you can see that 30 of them have paintings of saints, kings, the virgin and Child, and members of the church hierarchy. 20 of these people are identified by inscriptions on the paintings themselves, but some of these individuals are unknown. These columns were painted by both Catholic Crusaders and Orthodox artists sometime during the 12th century. Only one painting has a date on it – 1130 AD.

Several artists produced these paintings, and at different times. There is no doubt that all of the images date from the Crusader period. Some of the saints on these columns are recognized only by the Orthodox Church, and some are recognized only by the Catholic Church. This confirms that there was cooperation between the two religious groups regarding the ecumenical relevance of the Church of the Nativity.

Inscriptions on the sixth-century baptismal font in the Church of the Nativity.

The Ancient Baptismal Font.

A sixth-century baptismal font was discovered in the church, dating from the 6th-century church of Justinian. There is an inscription on this font (shown below) that reads, "For remembrance, rest and remission of sins of those whose names the Lord knows.”

When is Christmas in the Holy Land?

Three denominations have custody over this church – the Greek Orthodox, the Catholic Church, and the Armenian Apostolic Church. While Christians in the Western world, and even the Catholics here in Bethlehem, celebrate Christ’s birthday on December 25th, the Greek Orthodox church celebrates Christmas on January 7. The Armenians celebrate Jesus’ birth on January 19, whereas in other parts of the world, the Armenians celebrate Christmas on January 6th. Why the difference in dates? To put it simply, it has to do with which calendar is being used to mark Jesus’ birth, and that accounts for the discrepancy. Each group uses a different religious calendar, which accounts for the different dates of Christmas.

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