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The Church of the Nativity

Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew will meet at the same three venues as their predecessors, Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in 1964.  The three venues (in order) are the Apostolic Delegation, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Summer Residence of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem in Small Galilee.  Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew will also visit additional venues in the Holy Land as part of their separate itineraries.  Below is a description of three venues: The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Little Galilee, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

By Anna Koulouris, Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem

It is often said by Christians that in the small cave in Bethlehem is where earth and heaven met. The Theotokos held God in her womb so that by his birth, divine providence would be fulfilled. This very cave is venerated to this day within the Church of the Nativity, which is one of the holiest places in Christendom. To the right side of the main altar, where the Greek (Rum) Orthodox clergy serve, there are steep stone steps descending down into the cave where Jesus was born more than 2,000 years ago. Upon their descent, pilgrims come face to face with a great icon of the Virgin Mary, called "Panagia of Bethlehem," which is known to be a miracle-working icon and is distributed all over the Holy Land. It is a rare icon in which the Mother of God is smiling because she has just given birth to her son and our Savior.

Icon of the nativity of Christ at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

Icon of the nativity at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

Peculiarly, the main entrance of the Justinian structure is not a grandiose doorway, but rather, was built as a tiny square so that the church could not be easily taken under siege. It is also said that the doorway was constructed purposely so that anyone who entered the site would be forced to bow in reverence. While most of Emperor Justinian's construction works were destroyed by the Persians in 614 AD, the Church of the Nativity is one of few that survived. When the invaders came upon the basilica they noticed an icon of three magi, who were recognizably Persian, and left the church alone.

Today, the Greek Orthodox, who are the main proprietors, as well as the Franciscans and Armenians, which are the three groups designated as the caretakers of the Holy Sepulcher Church according to the Status Quo, are also the stewards of the Church of the Nativity. Due to the nature of the rights outlined in the Status Quo, each respective group tends to its particular area, coming together each year on December 29th to fully clean the entire building in preparation for Christmas. After centuries of a lack of agreement between the three custodians of the church, UNESCO in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, has named the church an endangered world heritage site and has assumed the cost of renovations needed for the structure and especially the roof. The head conservation architect of the Technical Bureau of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate is also collaborating on the project in order to save the severely decayed and hazardous centuries-old roof.

The complex that we see today dates back to Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, although the original structure of the Church of the Nativity dates back to the 4th century and was built by St. Helen, the mother of the Roman Emperor St. Constantine the Great. According to history, Justinian had the Constantinian structure destroyed so that he could build a more magnificent church to adorn the birthplace of Jesus Christ. However, at the entrance of the church, preserved colorful mosaics from St. Helen's structure can still be seen.

Mosaics from the original sturcture built by St. Helen in the 4th century

In another area of the holy shrine of Bethlehem is the Cave of the Innocent Youths – the babies slaughtered by Herod the Great of Judea in his attempt to prevent the Messiah from inheriting the kingdom of the Jews. The skulls and bones of these tiny first martyrs of Christianity fill the cave, where liturgies continue to be celebrated.