Christ's Nativity in Context

By Rev. David Wilson Rogers |  November 27, 2013

‘Twas the season before Christmas and all through the land, visions of wise men, angels, shepherds are hat hand. With the star in the sky and humble visitors on bended knee, the birth of Jesus Christ is easy to see. 

Yet for all its nostalgic quality, the traditional Christmas Nativity scene that we all know and love does not really mesh with the story of scripture, or the reality of what really happened. Bethlehem has a different story to tell. 

It is most likely that Jesus was born in a small cave. During those times, the many small caves around Bethlehem were used as stables. Tradition has supported the idea that one particular cave was the actual site of the birth. For centuries the site has been preserved by the Church of the Nativity

The site, considered sacred very early in the Christian era, was marked by the construction of a church as early as 339 and has remained a Christian church ever since. The present church building replaced the original in 529. Although it bears the scars of its many years, It continues to testify to the tremendous miracle of faith symbolized in the cave beneath its foundations.

The humble entrance, clearly enshrined in the stonework of an older, much larger entrance, is evidence of the Church’s tragic history—recalling a time when marauding armies would loot and pillage the church—a scene that has been all-to-common in this beleaguered church. For centuries, it has been a scene of political and military tension. The present door, some 1000 year old, is only four feet high and was constructed to make the church easy to defend against hostile forces.  As recently as Easter in  2002, the church continued to dominate the international spotlight as Palestinian resistance fighters sought sanctuary within its walls.

Considered one of the most sacred sites in the entire Christian world, the original cave is ornately decorated in the rich style of the Eastern Orthodox tradition so when worshipping inside this cave, it is difficult to fully grasp the humble nature of this ancient earthen stable or fully grasp the magnificent birth that took place inside this subterranean shrine. 

The walls are adorned with beautiful Persian rugs, the floors and stairs with marble, and the ceiling with ornate oil lamps.

A small alcove where tradition holds that Mary actually gave birth is marked with a 14-point star on the floor, each point representing one of the generations listed in Matthew’s gospel. 

Scripture also tells of the star and wise men in Matthew, but makes no mention of a stable, shepherds, or having no room at the inn. It is likely that Matthew’s story takes place as much as 2 years after Jesus was born. Luke’s story of the birth tells of the Angels, Shepherds, Stable and crowed inn. It is most likely that the Wise Men and the Shepherds were never together in the stable. 

Regardless of what really happened, we are reminded that Jesus was born in Bethlehem according to the prophetic word. While the details of his birth and some of the incredible visits surrounding his birth may be the subject of nostalgic legend, they never replace the fact that Jesus Christ was born of Mary and lived to bring hope and salvation to God’s world.