This week's church is among the oldest in Christendom, because it rests atop the grotto that has been revered since the first century by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus. It's the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem. (I've featured this church a couple times before on this blog, but thought it would be good to revisit it, in honor of the coming Feast of Christmas).
Below (in a photo taken in 2000, one of the four times Robin and I have so far visited this church), my kids (Aubrey and Aaron) prepare to enter the church (behind their cousin, Elissa) through the Door of Humility, a small rectangular entrance to the church which was created in Ottoman times to prevent carts being driven in by looters, and to force even the most important visitor to dismount from his horse as he entered the holy place. The doorway was reduced from an earlier Crusader doorway, the pointed arch of which can still be seen above the current door. The outline of the Justinian square entrance can also be seen above the door.
The Basilica is a rectangle 177 ft. long, the nave is 86 ft. wide, and the transept is 117 ft. Entering the Church, one can notice 4 rows of pillars, 44 in total, 20 ft. high, and made of the white-veined red stone of the country with white marble Corinthian capitals.
A short history of the church: In 326, Constantine and his mother St. Helena commisioned a church to be built over the cave where Jesus was born. This first church, dedicated on May 31, 339, had an octagonal floor plan and was placed directly above the cave. In the center, a 4-meter-wide hole surrounded by a railing provided a view of the cave. Portions of the floor mosaic survive from this period. St. Jerome lived and worked in Bethlehem from 384 AD, and he was buried in a cave beneath the Church of the Nativity.
The Constantinian church was destroyed by Justinian in 530 AD, who built the much larger church that remains today.The remnants of the octagonal building which covered the Grotto of the Nativity can still be seen in the Armenian Chapel.
In 1852, shared custody of the church was granted to the Roman Catholic, Armenian, and Greek Orthodox churches. The Greeks care for the Grotto of the Nativity, pictured below, where a silver star marks the birthplace of Jesus.