Church of the Nativity – Bethlehem’s Original Crèche

For  more  than  17  centuries,  Christian  pilgrims  have  flocked  to  the  city  of  Bethlehem to see the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Though  it’s  only  8km  (5  miles)  south  of Jerusalem, Bethlehem is in the West Bank, that political tinderbox torn between Israel and Palestine, so I’d opt for a guided day trip from Jerusalem. Let a tour guide sort out the hassles so you can focus on sorting out Jesus’ humble birth from the chaos of busy, modern Bethlehem.

Join   the   faithful   crowds   at   Manger Square, site of the ancient Church of the Nativity.  Built  in  A . D .  326  by  the  Roman emperor  Constantine,  it  was  rebuilt  200 years later by Emperor Justinian and again by  12th-century  Crusaders  (blame  them for its fortresslike facade). Point out to the kids the different priests walking about, all protecting their sects’ claim to this sacred site—Franciscan  priests  in  brown  robes, Armenians  in  purple  and  cream-colored robes, and bearded Greeks in black robes with long hair tied into a bun. After being fought  over  for  centuries,  it’s  no  surprise the  church  looks  clunky  and  dilapidated. The  stately  Corinthian  pillars  that  line  the basilica’s  naves  bear  faded  paintings  of apostles, bishops, saints, and kings; gilded lamps hang from the oak ceiling, and trapdoors  in  the  stone-and-wood  floor  give mere  glimpses  of  old  Byzantine  mosaic glories beneath.

On  either  side  of  the  ornate  gold-andsilver  main  altar,  narrow  staircases  lead down to a marble grotto, draped in tapestries.  Ancient  tradition  claims  Mary  gave birth to Jesus in this shallow cave, as was the  custom  of  those  times;  altars  mark nearby spots where the manger stood and where the Magi bowed to the baby Jesus. Historically  accurate  or  not,  after  centuries of adoration this hushed grotto is full of  spiritual  aura.  For  a  more  authenticlooking relic, go to the grand Franciscan church  just  north  of  the  Church  of  the Nativity;  a  stair  from  the  back  of  its  nave leads  to  an  underground  maze  of  rockhewn  rooms  and  chambers  that  supposedly includes the stable where Joseph and Mary stayed the night of Jesus’ birth.

Your group may also take a 2-hour walk to  the  Shepherds’  Fields,  where  tradition says angels proclaimed Jesus’ birth to simple shepherds. There are two competing Shepherds’ Fields, one Roman Catholic and the other Greek Orthodox—whichever you visit, you’ll see real shepherds still tending  their  flocks  on  this  rocky  landscape. And that makes the story come real.