It may be one of the two ugliest churches in the world, but the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is a special place. It is a UN World Heritage Site – the first in Palestine and Israel. Constantine the Great’s mother, Helen, was responsible for building it in 339 A.D. Since then it has been rebuilt, survived destruction by the Persians (614), a mad caliph (1009), earthquake (1834) fire (1869) and an Israeli army siege against suspected Palestinian militants who had taken refuge there (2002). The Church of the Nativity was constructed over the traditional site of the birthplace of Jesus, a cave below the church.
If we were to climb down into the cave by the circular staircases on either side of the altar, we wouldn’t recognize the grotto below the church as a cave. Today it is hung with tapestries and lit with lamps. There is a simple altar and there on the floor, supposedly over the very spot of his birth, is a fourteen pointed Silver Star. While it is likely that Jesus was born in a cave (they were used as stables in those days), it is highly unlikely anyone would remember exactly which cave much less exactly which place in the cave was the exact location of the birth of a carpenter’s son almost 400 years earlier!
That Silver Star itself became one of the reasons for the Crimean War (1853-1856, famous for the charge of the light brigade and Florence Nightingale). There have been hostilities between the Roman Catholic Church (West) and Greek Orthodox Church (East) for centuries. Different churches control various parts of the shrines of Christendom in Israel. For example, the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, Coptic and Ethiopic churches control the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. These groups have often fought with each other (literally – imagine a brawl of monks using crucifixes and candlesticks as bludgeons). In fact today the keeper of the keys to that church is a Moslem!
In 1845 the Roman Catholic Silver Star, which supposedly marks the very place where Mary gave birth to Jesus, was stolen. Napoleon III of France proclaimed himself protector of Catholics and insisted that he was the protector of the holy sites in Israel as well. The Russians had already claimed to be the protector of the holy sites in Israel and of the Orthodox Church through the Turks. Napoleon demanded the keys to the front door of the Church of the Nativity be given to the Romans who were having to use a side door to get in and he also demanded the silver star be returned. This became one of the causes for the Crimean War. The irony breaks my heart: people fighting over the right to protect the birthplace of the Prince of Peace!
Perhaps now, more than ever, we need the “peace that passes all understanding” to take control! With thousands of warring factions each claiming to be the true church, I want nothing to do with “religiosity.” I am neither Protestant, nor Catholic, nor Jew. I am just a Christian. Want to know more? Drop me a line: john@CanyonView.org.
(For more information about the Star, please see my previous article: Jan. 6, 2014.)