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Bethlehem – That Famous Little Town

In Hebrew beth means “house” and lehem means “bread,” so the famous Christmas City means House of Bread, situated just six miles from Jerusalem, this tiny prophetic spot has over 22,000 residents today.

It drips with biblical history, from Ruth and Boaz to the birth of David’s father, Jesse, to Samuel’s selection of Jesse’s shepherd son to be Israel’s second king. East of town is the traditional area where the shepherds learned of the Savior’s arrival and they still “keep watch over their flocks” today, even on Christmas day!
Besides a visit to Rachel’s Tomb, the real attraction is the Church of the Nativity built over the top of the cave where Mary and Joseph stayed with their baby. A short walk from your bus station brings you to Nativity Square where Christmas is celebrated every year (on three different dates depending on whether you are Catholic, Armenian, or Orthodox). At the far end is the famous entrance to the church known as the “Crusader Doorway.” It was lowered in 1500 A.D. to stop Muslims from riding their horses inside the church and preventing looters access with their carts. Now all visitors have to bow to go through the “Door of Humility.”

The present structure has parts that are over 1500 years old, but most of what you will see was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian the First in 565 A.D. The Church of the Nativity was spared during the Persian invasion (614 A.D.) because the mosaic walls had the Magi on them. Their Persian garb convinced Shahrbaraz to leave it standing, but most Christian shrines were decimated.

When you visit this impressive building today you’ll notice scaffolding and protective wraps around her massive nave pillars. This is a multi-million dollar refurbishment project to fix the leaky roof and preserve the building for future generations. It should not deter you from a visit, as most of the church is accessible.

The spot where Jesus was actually born is located below the Byzantine Church (accessed by a stairwell near the church altar) and marked by a 14-point star in a large rectangular cave. In total irony to “peace on earth,” this very spot may have led to the start of the Crimean War over disputes of national authority for the site. Greek and Latin monks even came to blows with crosses and candlesticks!

There are a lot of traditional religious distractions in the building, but it still makes for a must-see stop on your trip to the City of David. Your Christmas will never be the same, and as John recorded in his Gospel, this House of Bread brought all of us truly eternal food:

‘Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty (John 6:35).’”

• Judges 12:8-10; 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Micah 5:2; Matthew 2:1ff; Luke 2:7-20