Ever wonder why Bethlehem was the stage where Jesus was born? Why was it here, in this small Judean village, where God’s redemptive plan would unfold? The prophets foretold of it, yet it is hard to imagine that the birth of the Savior would take place here. What’s so special about this town of about 30,000 today?
Driving into Bethlehem today takes on a rather non-dramatic feel to it. The ambiance of being in a quaint small town takes a back seat to entering this tourist town filled with vendors trying to sell you their postcards and trinkets. In fact, there is nothing particularly spiritually impacting with what is called today Manger Square. While this section of town gets all the TV coverage o Christmas Eve, there’s really nothing spectacular about it. The only impressive aspect of Manger Square is the Church of Nativity. What the church represents, however, is far more grand! After all, it’s not about the place but the person, that is, God’s Son who was born perhaps in this very area of Bethlehem.
At first glance, this almost 1,600 year old church has a bell tower and a long outer wall. The entrance to the church today is through a narrow opening. It’s so low that one needs to duck down low, almost bend really, in order to get inside. Built in the 320’s AD by orders of Helena, the mother of the Christian Emperor Constantine, and later destroyed only to be built again in the 5th and 6th centuries, the inside of the church is rather dark. Controlled in part by the Greek Orthodox, the Armenians, and the Catholics (their chapel is actually the newer addition added on much latter), the sanctuary of the church even smells eastern orthodox, with the smell of incense. The many hanging light ornaments make it feel more like a junky flee market than a royal church. But the Christmas event is not about the place but rather the person.
The sanctuary of this ancient church is also flanked by 4 rows of impressive columns. The one set of 2 rows of columns on the right of the sanctuary get lost by the rows of people who wait for hours to see the traditional spot where Jesus was supposedly born. However, the left rows of columns are usually standing open and tall, providing a better opportunities for pictures without people in them. Towards the front of the church is where the Greek Orthodox and Armenian leaders share space. Each have their own allotted times for worship and prayer. Usually it’s one of the Greek Orthodox priests who ask in not-so-kind ways for the crowds of people waiting in line to hush down their voices. I must say it distracts from the spirit of the moment! But once again, it’s not about the place but the person!
Finally, it’s at the very right-front area of the church where steps lead down to the cave that preserves the traditional spot where Jesus was born. People stand for hours in a long line just to see the star that since 1717 AD “marks the spot” where Jesus as born. It makes me wonder how many of these people honor the place more than the person? While to be in this cave is indeed a unique experience, and while our groups (because of the small number of tourists back in the early 2000s) used to have the time to pause and sing a few Christmas carols here, the spirit of Christmas is to be experienced by focusing on the person and not the place.
Perhaps it’s the eastern orientation of the Church of Nativity that us westerners aren’t used to that makes a journey rather un-connecting with the story of Christmas. Perhaps it’s all the tourism that surrounds Manger Square that distracts us from the significance of what happened here. After all, the commercialization of Christmas has been here for years already, and seemingly becoming more and more prominent.
So why is Bethlehem so very special still today? Is it because of the church built here? Hardly. Is it about the dawning of redemption brought forth by a baby born to Mary in complete prophetic fulfillment of Micah 5:2-5? Indeed! Let us not forget that Christmas is about the worship of the person, that is the Person of Jesus, and not the place where He was born.