Hello all! Being that it’s that time of year again, I’ve decided to make a short post concerning the historical places associated with the original Christmas—the birth of Jesus Christ, founder of the Christian religion. I’ll also briefly comment on the status of Christians in the Holy Land today.
Staring down at the glazed, broken tiles of the Madaba Map, it is difficult to imagine that any of the places it portrays are real. The Map has an almost surreal quality to it, with fish jumping from millennia-old streams and classical columns holding up the disproportionate buildings. If the map had been drawn to scale, cities would stretch for hundreds of miles, and odd-looking sea vessels would be able to span the Mediterranean. To me it seemed almost laughable at first. Then something caught my eye—the dusty and barely visible Greek word Βηθλεέμ.
Like the founders of other major religions, such as the Prophet Mohammed, it is almost certain that Jesus Christ was a historical figure. However, the only real account of his life exists in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. This narrative begins with the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, a small town just south of Jerusalem.
Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ. Therefore, it can be argued that Christmas started in Bethlehem. This event makes it one of the most important sites of Christian pilgrimage in the Holy Land.
I have always wondered why Christians in the Holy Land (modern Israel and its neighbors) are such a tiny minority. Historically, the Holy Land has been occupied at one time or another by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and often more than one at a time. For centuries it was almost completely Christian.
Today, though, it is almost completely occupied by Jews and Muslims, with Christians numbering less than 2% of the population in many places. Even that number is in danger of shrinking--soon, Christians might disappear completely from the land where Christianity was born.
As it stands today, these are the primary sites of Christian pilgrimage: Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, Nazareth, where he grew up, and Jerusalem, where he died.
Sadly, I was not able to visit Bethlehem due to time constraints, but many Christian pilgrims still visit every year, especially around Christmas. However, many more are dissuaded from visiting because modern Bethlehem is located within the West Bank, a hotbed of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
The main churches are listed by UNESCO as endangered world heritage sites, and there are sporadic outbreaks of violence. Getting permission to visit is difficult.
It is the sad but true situation that the Holy Land, sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, has historically been a center for violence, and it certainly hasn't calmed down in the modern era. Regardless, I felt very safe during my time in the Middle East, and I hope that with the proper precautions, people continue to visit these amazing places.
Anyway, the focus of pilgrimage to Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity, a small church maintained by the even smaller Palestinian Christian community. The main body of the church covers a cave which traditionally marks the birthplace of Jesus. Of course, this is almost entirely speculation, as no one was around to mark the exact location of Jesus’ birth. Still, I think it is moving to realize that pilgrims have come here for almost two millennia, paying their respects to the birthplace of Christ.
Now I would like to briefly change gears. There has been a fair amount of Biblical scholarship that suggests the true location of the birth of Christ was not actually Bethlehem at all. Christmas may really have started in Nazareth. It is true that Jesus spends much of the Bible in and around Nazareth. Was that where he was born as well?
There are several things that make this interpretation seem reasonable to me. For one, the birth of Jesus is really the only event that takes place in Bethlehem. In the Bible, Jesus grows up in Nazareth and spends much of his adult life there.
The writers of the Bible may have changed his birthplace to Bethlehem in order to symbolically establish his connection to King David, an ancestor of Jesus who was also born in Bethlehem. But ultimately, this mystery will probably never be resolved—and that’s okay. It’s the story of Christmas that counts.
Truly, walking up to the massive Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, I could see the power of story in action. As often at monuments such as this, my neck was sore from looking almost permanently straight up. I shuffled along with the others, a healthy mix of pilgrims and tourists that exists at most sights in the Holy Land. Gradually we made our way inside.
“Whoa.” I let out a long exhale as I stepped into the interior of the church. The central hall was formed by two levels, one stacked upon the other, and both ornately decorated in the Roman Catholic tradition. The second level was a stream of color, containing row upon row of elaborate artworks donated by Christians of various nations. The first level was plain, but it seemed to naturally provide a sacred space that enveloped visitors in silence.
All of this crowned the central altar of the church, its most holy spot. But there was no altar. Instead there was a shallow pit, lit only by candlelight, from which vague chanting could be heard. This was the Grotto of the Annunciation, to many the holiest site in Nazareth. Soon I was at the edge of the pit, looking down. In it was the altar, the center of the church, in front of a small cave. I spent the next few minutes paying my respects in silence.
According to tradition, this cave is where the Angel Gabriel announced (Annunciation) to Mary that she would have a son, who would become Jesus. The Basilica over it was built at the same time as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and is viewed by many as having equal importance. The Annunciation is really the first event in the story of Jesus Christ.
Would it then, perhaps, be valid to say that Christmas began here? That, I suppose, is a matter of individual interpretation. Certainly Christmas can be traced back to real history and connected to real places. But whether you are a Christian, a historian, or merely curious, the true origin of Christmas is probably best left to faith.