Screen shot of picture I took in the basilica at the Church of the Nativity, 2012

Scholars are not altogether certain that Jesus was born in Bethlehem — they advance different hypotheses reconciling the birth narratives in Luke and Matthew — but we can be quite certain that the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, pictured above, has as good a claim as any to be the birthplace of Christianity. Wikipedia (my summa theologica or summary of all knowledge) notes that it is “the oldest site continuously used as a place of worship in Christianity, and the basilica is the oldest major church in the Holy Land.”

This much we know for certain: In 325-26 CE, St. Helena, mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, visited a grotto “that was traditionally considered to be the birthplace of Jesus,” and soon thereafter Constantine commissioned the church there. It was dedicated May 31, 339, one of the few hard dates we have from a period so early, and worship services have been held there continuously ever since.

North American visitors today often complain that the church is crowded and noisy, anything but meditative and uplifting. When Debi and I were there in 2012, it was packed with pilgrims from all over. I especially remember a tour group from West Africa wearing matching dashikis (instead of the backpacks or ballcaps European and American groups wear to help them stay together), and a bunch of pilgrims from Eastern Europe purchasing candles and jostling each other as they crowded into a grotto traditionally held to be the site of the baby Jesus’ manger.

But in spite of the noise and confusion, I couldn’t help but be touched by their devotion and I had the sense that we were on holy ground.

[Published Aug. 14, 2022]

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