“Ordinary Time” began for us this week. On the old calendar, the feast of the Presentation, still more than two weeks away, was the last day of the Christmas season.
Sadly, Bethlehem is hardly a place of peace on earth these days. The ancient Christian community has been largely uprooted by political strife. The Church of the Nativity stands (barely) in remarkable disrepair and disorder in Manger Square. The roof is crumbling, the major doorways are blocked, the wiring is faulty, and the worship life is disrupted by quarrels among Eastern Christians.
The church was founded by the Emperor Constantine in 325, destroyed in a Samaritan revolt in 539, and rebuilt by the Emperor Justinian. When the area came under Muslim control in 638, the holiness of the church was respected, and in return Christians allowed Muslims to pray in the south aisle, a right still upheld. Earlier in that century, invading Persians were ordered to destroy all churches, but when they saw the magi carved over the doorway of the Church of the Nativity, they spared it out of respect for their ancestors who bore gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the same city.
The Crusaders restored and redecorated the church by the twelfth century, and it is their plan that survives. Down a few stone steps is a stone grotto with a silver star marking the place of Christ’s birth: when the star was stolen in 1847 it triggered an international crisis that exploded into the Crimean War. Since 1852, the church has been shared by the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Churches. The Greeks are in charge of the grotto, but don’t enjoy the best of friendships with the Armenians. Catholics have the care of the Chapel of the Manger, and avoid the squabbles by a separate entrance to the Franciscan monastery church of St. Catherine.
Pray for peace in Bethlehem!
-Rev. James Field