Depart for Bethlehem (city of bread), hometown of Jesse, father of King David (I Sam 16:1), and birthplace of Jesus (Mat. 2:1). A short walk across Manger Square brings us to the well-preserved Byzantine Church of Nativity. First built in the 4th century and enlarged in the 6th, the original mosaic floor is revealed through trapdoors in the later floor. Unlike most churches in the Holy Land the Church of the Nativity was not destroyed by the Persian and Moslem conquerors but the entrance was lowered forcing us to crouch as we enter.
If we look carefully we can see the faint Crusader decorations on the columns. Descending to the Grotto of the Nativity we see the star indicating the place of the birth, with the words “Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary” in Latin. Opposite are the Manger and the altar dedicated to the three Wise Men. Both the Church and Grotto are Orthodox.
As we exit we pass the small Armenian Chapel of the Kings (Magi) and enter the Crusader Church dedicated toSt. Catherine. Once again we descend to the grotto which adjoins the Grotto of the Nativity but is separated from it as this part is Catholic. It is here that St. Jerome translated to Hebrew bible into Latin, the Vulgate. We pause a minute to sing at least one of our favourite Christmas carols.
During the centuries after the expulsion of the Crusaders little was done to maintain the Church of Nativity, which suffered both earthquake damage and a fire. Partial restoration was undertaken during the British Mandate and since 1967 extensive repairs have been carried out under Israeli auspices.
We stop briefly at the Franciscan church built over the Milk Grotto where tradition tells that while Mary fed the infant Jesus a drop of milk spilt to the ground turning it chalky white.
Although we do not know exactly where the Angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds (Luke 2:8-11) we stop at Shepherd’s Fields, a tent shaped chapel designed by Antonio Berluzzi and enjoy the panels depicting scenes from the early life of Jesus.