The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Israel, located five miles from Jerusalem. The church was built centuries ago on top of the traditionally recognized site of where baby Jesus was born. Currently, between 25,000 and 35,000 (I've seen both figures) live in Bethlehem. One source said at the time of Christ's birth, 1,000 or fewer residents lived there.
As a little girl going to Christmas pageant practice at the Brownsville United Methodist Church, I saw the evening lights across the Whitewater River and imagined the town as what Bethlehem might be like. After all, this was the smallest "town" I knew. And in my childhood mind, I knew that Jesus was born in a little town.
O Little Town of Bethlehem and Away in a Manger were two of the most popular songs we’d learn for the pageant.
Never could I have imagined in a million years that I would one day visit Bethlehem, let alone see the very site where Jesus was born. Spoiler alert: Today it is not a manger scene.
You were expecting a manger? Well, the site that once held the best-known manger, baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph was honored by placement of a church over it in the 4th century. It’s a complicated story to explain centuries of conflict and destruction, not even to mention the three denominations that share the church: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Armenian Orthodox.
Here’s one story though. Legend has it that invading Persians destroyed all Christian churches and monasteries in 614. But not this one. Why? A painting depicted the Nativity scene we would recognize today – complete with three wise men. The artist dressed the wise men in Persian clothing. The invaders honored the Persian-appearing wise men by preserving the church.