“When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us'” (Luke 2:15 ESV).
Robin and I had the privilege of visiting the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem this past summer while touring in Israel.
The church was originally built in 327 AD by Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine I. The church sits over the grotto that early Christians believed to be the place where Christ was born. Early Christian writers Justin Martyr (c.100-165 AD) and Origen (c. 185-254 AD) attest to this as the location of the manger in Bethlehem.
The original building was destroyed by fire in the Samaritan revolt in 556 AD. It was rebuilt in 565 AD by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. It survived the invasion of the Persians in 614 AD, but fell into disrepair after the invasion of the Turks in 1244 AD. The roof was rebuilt and the church repaired in 1480 AD by a combined effort of King Edward IV of England, who supplied the lead for the work, the Kingdom of Burgundy supplied the wood and the Republic of Venice, the labor.
Visiting the Church of the Nativity, we saw that the church has again fallen into disrepair. According to our tour guide, one of the problems is that the building is shared by three different Christian sects: the Catholics, the Greek Orthodox and the Armenians, which often can’t agree on who should be responsible for the upkeep of the building. Add to this the political complexities of the church being located in an area of Israel that is now under control of the Palestinian Authority and the future of this 1500 year old building is at risk.
Even the city of Bethlehem is at risk. Once a city made up of 70% Arab Christians, the city has been separated from Israel by a security wall and its resident’s dependence on Christian tourism has been greatly hampered. We heard many Arab Christians despair of the way the world’s Christians have seemingly forgotten them.
Yet, there has been some good news recently concerning the Church of the Nativity. As strange as it may seem, the Palestinian Authority has helped broker a deal with the three Christian sects, and repairs on the roof have finally begun. The Palestinians have raised millions for its repair and in spite of political resistance, they finally received recognition for the church to be a UNESCO World Heritage site.
And just in time too. Just a couple of weeks ago the Middle East was hit by one of the most powerful storms in a century, dumping several inches of snow on Bethlehem. The storm caused some leaks at the Church, but the water damage was relatively minor, thanks to the cooperative venture already underway to repair the basilica’s roof.
“David Nour, a Palestinian Christian who lives in Bethlehem, praised the efforts to salvage the church, but said that without jobs and the ability to traverse Israeli checkpoints, the tiny community of West Bank Christians — whose numbers have been decimated by emigration over the decades — will eventually disappear, leaving only the churches” (Huffington Post).
And that would be the real loss in Bethlehem– not the loss of this ancient basilica built in the city of Christ’s birth– but the loss of the true church, the members of the body of Christ.
Yet, there is hope in Bethlehem. As the news of the Church of the Nativity being repaired is heard, there is also good news that there is a movement among Palestinian Muslims considering the claims of Christ. While I was there, I met some of them. And just as Jesus was born in Bethlehem, so these new believers are being born again in the city of Christ’s birth.