The birth place of Jesus, Bethlehem is located five and half miles from Jerusalem. No town in the world has such a glorious history as Bethlehem. I was fortunate to visit this Holy land few months back and would like to share my memories during this beautiful season…….
Nazareth – The home town of Jesus
It is the birthplace of Jesus Christ, is three times holy, being revered by the followers of the three heavenly religions. It contains the shrine of Rachel, it is here that the Prophet Muhammad prayed on his way to Jerusalem. He is reported as having said, “When I was taken on the Midnight Journey to Jerusalem, Gabriel took me to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Alight and pray two raq’as, for here is the birthplace of your brother Jesus, peace be upon him’, and then I was taken to the Rock”. In New Testament times Bethlehem was the birthplace of Jesus. Luke relates that Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth, but went to Bethlehem to register during a census because Joseph was a descendant of David. There Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable, because there was no room in the inn (Luke 2). Matthew says that a star led wise men from the east to Bethlehem to visit Jesus. When King Herod learned of the birth of a new king, he ordered that all the male children in and around Bethlehem be slain; but Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt with Jesus (Matt 2). since that event which marked the transition between the Old Testament and the New, Bethlehem has won eternal renown, becoming sacred and dear to the hearts of millions of Christians.
Bethlehem, which is in Hebrew means “house of bread”, was originally called Ephrath, and has many biblical associations reflecting a tranquil, pastoral existence. Here Jocob buried his beloved wife Rachael (Gen. 35-16) and here was enacted the story of Ruth. Bethlehem is revered as the birthplace of David (1 Sam:17:12) and of Jesus, “born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King” (Mat. 2-1). East of Bethlehem, in the village of Beit Shur, is the Shepherd?s Field where the Angel appeared to the shepherds and announced the birth of Jesus: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people, For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).
Church of the Nativity – Bethlehem
Bethlehem was the original house of the family of David. For this reason, Joseph, who was from the branch of David, came to Bethlehem to be registered. “So Joseph set out from the town of Nazareth in Galilee and traveled up to Judea to the town to David called Bethlehem. In order to be registered together with Mary his betrothed who was with child. While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to a son, her first born. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn (Luke 2:1-20) since that event which marked the transition between the Old Testament and the New, Bethlehem has won eternal renown, becoming sacred and dear to the hearts of millions of Christians.
THE CHURCH OF THE NATIVITY IN BETHLEHEM ? THE MANGER WHERE JESUS WAS BORN
STAR MARKS THE PLACE OF JESUS’ BIRTH
The Church of Nativity is built above a cave which is believed to be the manger where Jesus was born. The cave includes two small lobes, one with a star to mark the place of Jesus’ birth. The other to mark the place of the manger and the repose of the holy family. The church of the Nativity in Bethlehem ranks amongst the most important Christian Holy Places throughout the Christian World – perhaps it is even its holiest. Millions of Christians around the globe relate to this place through the One, Jesus Christ, who was born here. Throughout the centuries, millions of Christians have visited the Holy Land to affirm and deepen their faith. In the coming year, should peace prevail, many more will make the journey. Most churches in the holy Land were destroyed during the Persian invasion the seventh century, but apparently the Church of the Nativity was saved from desecration because of the mosaic then on the fa?ade of the Church, which depicted the Three Wise Men who came to pay homage to the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:2) in Persian clothing.
They restored the interior of the church, but its basic shape remained the same. The lower parts of the walls were covered with marble panels, while the upper part was decorated with mosaics On the limestone columns were paintings of the Apostles. Over the years, the Crusader decorations were destroyed and today the two rows of red limestone columns stand starkly in the austere church beneath the oak ceiling that was presented by Edward IV of England and Philip Duke of Burgundy in 1482. Remains of the original mosaic floor from Helena?s church can be seen through trapdoors in the floor. Over the centuries the Church changed hands many times and today it is shared by the Greek Orthodox, the Latin?s and the Armenians.
In the Grotto, under the central alter, is a silver star commemorating the “Nativity”, the birth of Christ. Christian tradition and art in all forms is inextricably linked with the star. Indeed, St. Matthew?s Gospel, recalling the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem says:..”We have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him?And lo, the star went before them, till it came over the place where the Child was..”
THE MILK GROTTO
The Milk Grotto
The milky-white Church of the Milk Grotto is a Franciscan chapel built over the cave in which the Holy Family sheltered during the flight to Egypt. Tradition holds that a drop of milk that fell from Mary?s breast while she was nursing Jesus caused the white color of the chalk in the Milk Grotto. New mothers collect the chalk and mix it with their food to ensure a plentiful supply of milk.
SHEPHERD’S FIELD CHURCH
East of Bethlehem, in the village of Beit Sahur, is the Shepherd?s Field Church where the Angel appeared to the shepherds and announced the birth of Jesus. “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people, For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). There is a Greek Orthodox Church built over a cave and another church was built for the Franciscans by the Barluzzi in 1950.
Interiors of Shepherd’s field church
Nazareth is one of the main Christian holy cities of the Holy Land, is where the story of Jesus’ home life begins. Mary grew up in Nazareth. Joseph grew up here, too. And then, so did Jesus. Today, as it is throughout the Holy Land, there is always something under construction. Stands at height of 1,230 feet above sea level. This city, enriched amongst hills was the place chosen by God for the annunciation of the birth of His Son and where He grew to manhood (Luke 1:26-35). Here “the word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Here Jesus spent his childhood playing in the streets and on the hills with nothing to distinguish him from the other children of Nazareth. Here he spent his hidden thirty years working probably as a carpenter with Joseph. St. Luke calls him the “The Carpenter” The streets of Nazareth which must have looked like the present narrow ones, its hills which are the same, had been the scene of the life of Jesus for thirty years. At that time of Jesus it seems that Nazareth, as a little town had a bad reputation, which made Nathanael from the neighboring village of Cana, hearing people talk of Jesus of Nazareth, exclaim: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Jesus himself was not understood in his home city. “Amen I say to you that no prophet is accepted in his own country” (Luke 4:24). The first attempt on Jesus life was made in Nazareth. Hearing his criticism and his speaking as a teacher of authority “They were filled with wrath, rose up and thrust him out of the city, and led him into the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong” (Lukd 4:28-29). The hill has long been identified as the Mount of Precipitation. After his attempt Jesus abandoned Nazareth and went down to Capernaum, which became his city.
There is no definite date when Nazareth came into being. The spring, which still supplies the well (Mary?s well) with water, must have attracted inhabitants since very ancient times. At the time of Jesus, Nazareth was larger than a village and was always called a city. Nazareth did not have any dramatic history. In 66 A.D. the city was destroyed by Vespasian, and, after the defeat of the Bar Kokhba revolt, it was inhabited by the same Jews who fled to Galilee. In 629 the Jews were expelled from Nazareth by Heraclius as they had joined the Persians in 614 to flight against the Christians. During the Crusader period the city revived and prospered. Tancred, “Prince of Galilee” rebuilt the city churches and monasteries. In 1187 the city was taken by Saladin; In 1263 it was destroyed by Beybars and after that the city remained Moslem for 400 years. In 1620 Christian families began settling here. The town grew little by little and today Nazareth houses the largest Arab community in Israel , the majority being Christians.
Alter at St. Cathrine’s Church
Nazareth, inhabited by Jews after the great Jewish revolt, became accessible to Christians only in the 4th century. At the beginning of the 5th century, a church was built over the grotto of the Annunciation, and was probably destroyed in 614 by the Persians. Tancred rebuilt the monastery and the church in Roman style. In 1263, the Crusader church was razed to the ground by Beybars. In 1730 the Franciscans had always wanted to erect a church worthy of the great mystery of the Annunciation, and their dream was realized in 1960-68. They built a magnificent church, which is one of the largest Christian sanctuaries in the Middle East. Before the Franciscans built their church, they excavated the entire area. Remains of the previous buildings were discovered. Among the discoveries, the base of a column from the Byzantine church was found with the invocation of “EX MARIA”, Greek for “Hail Mary”
THE BASILICA OF THE ANNUNCIATION
Interiors of Shepherd’s field church
The city of Nazareth lies in a valley in the southern Galilee. Here the Angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would bear a child, and here Jesus spent His childhood with His parents Joseph and Mary: “And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, he shall be called a Nazarene” (Matthew 2:23).
The basilica of the Annunciation, built on the spot where Gabriel appeared to Mary, was completed in 1969 and dominates the city. It is the fifth church built on the spot where the Angel Gabriel stood when he prophesied to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive a child, and remains of the earlier churches can still be seen.
In the first centuries A.D., Nazareth was populated only by Jews, but with the strengthening of the Roma Empire, the number of Christians living there grew. From the fourth century onwards, churches were built on the sites that were connected Jesus and Virgin Mary. Today the population of Nazareth comprises Christians , Moslems and Jews. The Christians belong to various denominations: Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Greek orthodox, Maronite, Anglican, Copt, Armenian, Baptist and other Protestant sects. There are many churches, monasteries and convents, hostels, hospitals and schools maintained by various denominations.
This magnificent church was designed by the Italian Architect Muzio, who achieved great architectural renown. He conceived a plan of two interconnected churches, one above the other, preserving in full the remains of the ancient churches. The outer walls of the lower church followed the lines of the Crusaders? Basilica, except that they were moved a few yards from the west to separate the building from the busy main road. The two churches are 80 feet high and 130 feet long. The western and southern facades are decorated with statues illustrating the Incarnation and the stone. Its roof is covered with copper and the cupola is surmounted by a lantern.
The grotto of Annunciation is situated at what was the extreme southern end of the ancient village. This grotto is believed to be the traditional site of the Annunciation.
Mary?s well is one of the most authentic sites in the Holy Land. It was; and still is, the city?s only water supply. There is no doubt that Jesus, with his mother, came here to draw water as the women and children of Nazareth have always done. The spring gushes out of the mountain and runs through a conduit to a public fountain where women still draw water all day long. The Greek Orthodox claim that the Annunciation took place while the Virgin Mary was drawing water from the fountain, over which they eventually built their own church.
The first miracle! in Cana – Galilee
It was in Cana that Jesus performed His first miracle changing water into wine at a wedding where He, and His mother and His disciples were guests (John 2). “This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth His glory; and His disciples believed on Him” (John 2:11)
There two churches in Cana, a Greek Orthodox church and the Franciscan church of the Miracle, which was built in 1879 over the ruins of a sixth century sanctuary. This was the site of the village synagogue where the wedding is believed to have taken place and young couples still come today to celebrate their marriages here. Excavations have revealed an inscription of a dedication written in Aramaic, buried in the mosaic floor, proving that this was indeed the site of the site of the synagogue. In the crypt is an ancient pitcher reputed to be a replica of one of the six original jars used to hold water at the time of the miracle.
The chapel of St. Bartholomew is dedicated to Nathaniel, a native of Cana who was initially skeptical of Jesus, saying: “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Cana is known throughout the entire Christian world, as it was the scene of Jesus? first miracle when “He changed water into wine” (John 2:1-11).
Article compiled from various sources
Author: Maizy- Kuwait