If you like Christmas, you should go to the only church that celebrates it three times. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is the world’s oldest church structure. It was first built by Helena, the mother of Constantine, completed in A.D. 333. It burned in 529 but was rebuilt in 565. Crusaders made additions and repairs to the structure.
For centuries it has been home to three denominations, each with its own date for Christmas. Roman Catholics celebrate the day with a midnight mass on December 24, extending into the traditional December 25 holiday. Greek Orthodox celebrate Christmas on January 6, while Armenians observe Jesus’ birth on January 18.
Now the church is in the morning news because of a fourth group composed primarily of Muslims. The roof of the basilica has long been a problem. One visitor noted: “In the roof the timbers which were constructed in ancient times are rotting, and this structure is falling daily into ruin.” That was in 1461. Its roof has now fallen into such decay that water leaks are destroying mosaics and something must be done.
So the Palestinian Authority, the governing body in Bethlehem, has come forward with a proposal to fund roof repairs. They are concerned with preserving this historic site, as well as maintaining the income generated by two million visitors a year. Renovations are expected to cost between $10 and $15 million.
I have two favorite spots in the Church. The first is the Grotto of the Nativity, the cave below the main altar which very early tradition located as the place of Jesus’ birth. The second is the entrance into the basilica from Manger Square, commonly called the Door of Humility. It was constructed at the beginning of the 16th century to keep thieves on horseback from ransacking the church. It is a low rectangular opening; each time I visit the world’s oldest church, I must bow down to enter.
Is there any other way to approach a king?
Jesus’ call to our consumer culture is clear: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). When John the Baptist announced Jesus’ coming he stated, “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie” (Mark 1:7). When Magi found the infant King “they bowed down and worshiped him” (Matthew 2:11).
Have you joined them yet today?