Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity is believed to be the oldest complete church in the world, owing its longevity to the power of the Biblical wise men from the east. Although Christmas has come and gone for most Christians, the Christmas Eve service in the church commemorating the birth of Jesus is still at least a week away.
After Roman Emperor Constantine had accepted Christianity, he sent his already-Christian mother, Helena, to the Holy Land to find important Christian sites. She claimed to have found in Bethlehem the cave in which Jesus had been born, at the time covered by a temple to Adonis, the lover of Venus. Under orders from Rome, the temple was razed and replaced by a church in about 339. After the original church was destroyed during a revolt by Jews and Samaritans against the Byzantine Empire, Emperor Justinian rebuilt the church in essentially its current form in 565, with two rows of columns on each side of a long main floor. A fourteen-point silver star in a basement cave marks the traditional spot of Jesus’ birth.
When the Persians invaded what is now Israel in 614, they destroyed all the churches they could find. However, at least according to legend, they spared the Church of the Nativity because they concluded the wise men pictured inside were Persians and could not destroy a tribute to their countrymen.
The Crusaders refurbished the church’s interior, but an early mosaic floor can still be seen through an opening in the current floor. In the 1500s, the height of the main door was lowered to less than four feet, reportedly to prevent people from riding their horses into the sanctuary.
Greek Orthodox and Armenian Christians control most of the Church of the Nativity. Since they celebrate Christmas on January 7 and 19, respectively, the famous Christmas Eve service held in Bethlehem every December 24 is held in the nearby Roman Catholic Church of St Catherine of Alexandria. So you still have time to make it to Bethlehem for Christmas Eve in the Church of the Nativity, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.