So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
Another long walk and this time Mary is heavy with child. It had been prophesized in Micah 5:2 that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem which was known as Ephrata in the Old Testament:
“But you Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from old, from ancient times.”
Joseph was required to register his family in Bethlehem, the town of his origin, to comply with Caesar Augustus census decree. He was from the house and line of David since Bethlehem was where King David had been born. Bethlehem at that time was a small agricultural town. Today it is a Palestinian town of 25,000 in the West Bank. It’s economy is driven primarily by the millions of pilgrims who come here each year.
The Church of the Nativity is the oldest major Christian church in the Holy Land still in use every day. This church was specifically spaired from destruction during the Persian invasion of 614 CE. This church along with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are regarded as Status Quo churches – i.e., their custody is shared with other designated Christian religious communities. This can make change and upkeep difficult as each community must agree.
The original church built by Constantine was destroyed in a fire, but Emperor Justinian restored it in 565 CE. In its crypt under the altar is the Grotto of the Nativity, the place where Jesus is said to have been born and the ultimate pilgrim pitstop in the Holy Land. It is accessed by a tiny staircase. A 14 point silver star marks the spot. Right opposite is the Grotto of the Manger marking the spot where Mary laid Jesus in the manger. The grotto does not look at all like a stable now as it has been built over. It was very crowded and we all had to funnel through the small chamber and keep on moving. Someone collapsed on the way out and we were surprised to see that it was a young man, apparently suffering from dehydration. We would have liked to spend much more time here but it is simply too popular a site with pilgrims.
Whether or not this is the exact birth location, it is certainly one to the most moving experiences a Christian can have to walk through this grotto to be with the baby Jesus, even if only for a moment. It is one we will never forget and makes for us the accounts of Jesus birth in Mathew and Luke, really come alive.
It is at this church that the world-televised “Midnight Mass” on Christmas Eve takes place each year. That should make it 5 PM EST. Hopefully it will be easy to find on your TV dial this Christmas. Don’t forget to watch!
We then drove by the fields where the shepherds were watching their flock by night. First one angel of the Lord and then a whole multitude appeared and told them of the birth of Jesus. So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger, in swaddling clothes. And we left Bethlehem with a feeling of joy and much renewed hope for the world.
Update Dec 25/18
Did you catch midnight Holy Mass from the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem yesterday? It was hard to find but I found it live on UTube. Mahmoud Abbas, President of the State of Palestine and Palestinian National Authority, was the guest of honour. There were 3 Bishops present but I cannot determine who they were. The principal celebrant made a short political speech about washing off the thin layer of dirt to find the beauty lying underneath of their local and of the world society in general. His homily addressed the birth of Jesus and the immense hope for world salvation. After Mass they all descended to the Grotto of the Nativity and continued with a prayer and song ceremony. Hard to believe we were in the same spot less than a month ago. Cheers, Dave