Sing: What Child Is This?, UMH 219
The most popular tourist attraction in Bethlehem is, of course, the birthplace of Jesus Christ - The Church of the Nativity. We left our bus in a parking garage about four blocks from the church and walked up to Bethlehem Square. Though our walk was all sidewalks or streets and surrounded by buildings we did see a few patches of snow left from last night.
We also noticed that there were still quite a few Christmas decorations still displayed, including a very large Christmas tree in Bethlehem Square, even though today is the 10th of January. Because of differing traditions and different calendars most Christians in the Holy Land leave their Christmas decorations up until the middle of February.
If there were no signs a first-time visitor would not be able to pick out the entrance to the Church of the Nativity except by watching where people are going. The very modest entry-way was created around 1,500 to prevent looters from driving carts into the church. Most folks need to duck to enter through the short doorway but once you are inside you realize that it really is a church. It may take a moment for your eyes to adjust to the darkness but you can soon see the two rows of columns, the highly decorated altar, and the glass panels in the floor.
Through these panels you can look down to see the ancient mosaic floor of the original sanctuary from the time of Emperor Constantine and his mother Queen Helena (339 AD). This is the oldest complete church in the world and it sits above a site which had been venerated by Christians for centuries before this building was constructed. Below the altar there is a cave which the Romans tried to desecrate by planting a grove dedicated to Adonis and using the cave as his temple.
Our guide led us down the right side of the sanctuary to a place where others were gathering to move down a few steps and through a doorway down into the lower level of the church. As our group shuffled along with the crowd we made our way down the steps and to our right we could see the Star of Bethlehem – the place where Jesus was born. It has now been covered with marble and embellished with religious decorations but we could kneel and pray and touch the place where God entered our world.
After we each had a chance to kneel at the Star our group gathered at the back of the grotto. We read out loud the Christmas story from Luke 2 and the prolog to the Gospel of John. This is a special place, it is the place where the Word became flesh and lived among us! The reality of this brought a song to our lips and we sang together: Joy to the world . . .