It’s the oldest place of Christian worship in the world still in daily use. Its preservation over the centuries, however, clearly has the Lord’s fingerprints all over it. For even before a church was erected over the particular cave in Bethlehem where Christians believed Jesus was born, the Roman emperor Hadrian had a pagan temple dedicated to the Greek god Adonis constructed there in 135 AD, hoping to wipe out any lingering association with the memory of Jesus among those who lived in the region.
The irony, though, is that what Hadrian actually did was simply to mark the spot until two centuries later when Helena, the eighty-year old mother of another Roman emperor, Constantine, was able to tear down Hadrian’s shrine and build the first Christian church there while on her spiritual pilgrimage to Palestine. Enlarging the cave to accommodate more pilgrims, she surrounded it with a church in the shape of an octagon, installing a silver manger and dedicating it on May 31, 339 AD.
Unfortunately, that building was largely destroyed by fire during the Samaritan revolts of the sixth century, and so a new and larger basilica was built over its foundations by yet another emperor, Justinian, in 539. But when Persians invaded Palestine seventy-five years later, conquering nearby Jerusalem, it looked as though the Church of the Nativity might suffer the same fate as other Christian buildings across the land.
At least according to tradition, however, Justinian’s basilica in Bethlehem avoided destruction because of a singular piece of artwork which had been painted just above the doorway, a depiction of the three Magi wearing the garb of Persian Zoroastrian priests. For the invading commander is said to have been so moved by that imagery of his own countrymen that he ordered the building be spared.
Other challenges emerged in the years after that, of course. The entrance to the church was lowered around 1500 to stop looters from simply riding in to conduct their raids, making visitors even today have to stoop to go inside the four-foot “Door of Humility,” perhaps appropriately so. And the rafters in the roof were damaged by both water leaks and earthquakes, leading an English king, Edward IV, to send English oak and tons of lead in 1482 to rebuild it, until the Turks looted the lead to melt into bullets two centuries later, that is.
Likewise, most of the original mosaics, including that of the Magi, have been lost to the ages. And there have frequently been actual fistfights over which Christians—the church is divided between Armenian, Catholic, and Greek Orthodox believers—have the rights to what parts of the building. There’s an unwritten system known as the Status Quo, in fact, which stipulates that things must be done as they were always done, including who can even clean what.
But since becoming a World Heritage Site in 2012, restorations agreed upon by all have uncovered not only some of the artwork on the walls, but even the original mosaic floors of Helena’s basilica, visible through trapdoors in the current flooring several feet above. In short, one way or the other this special place has survived everything for almost eighteen hundred years.
And so too has the Christian story that was born in that cave long ago. Indeed, neither the friends nor foes of our faith can defeat it, and all the efforts to do so only serve to remind us of that fact. For as St. John expressed it, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Just ask those Magi who made the trek to find the newborn king of the Jews. For I rather suspect that they never could have dreamed that a painting showing their garments would protect the church built over the site of His birth centuries later.
(Special note: if you’d like to know more about the Church of the Nativity, join us on Sunday, December 20, at five p.m. CST, for a special video visit there led by Bible geographer and scholar, Dr. Jack Beck. You can log onto the session via our website, christchurchsl.org, or on the Christ Church Sugar Land YouTube channel.)