Journey to Israel – March 12-27, 2019 – Part 1 of the Story – Remembering the First Christmas

In March, my daughter Gigi and I visited Israel together as part of a trip sponsored by our church, Clovis Hills.   As many of you know, we have been attending Clovis Hills Community Church for over 15 years, and so it was truly a privilege to join some wonderful folks:  Both church leadership and attendees like us, for this opportunity of a lifetime.

It had been my plan to tell the “Full Story” of our trip to Israel by this point. However, I came to realize that to do so in a manner that would adequately share over 2 weeks of experience, I would need to tell it in parts. Thus, I decided I would share this story of just the first Christmas as a ‘teaser’ for a future story, or perhaps multiple stories that share the rest of the Israel Experience that Gigi and I had together.   In this way, I hope if I have told this story well, you might come back and read those stories later as well.  

This story is told from the perspective of someone who may have heard the more traditional story of Jesus’ birth.  I hope this to be all the more meaningful to someone new to a faith that many others of us have in our personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Unto you a Child is born…

Over 2000 Years ago, Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph.  This first Christmas Story is chronicled in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2 (NIV):

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)  And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
  and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

One thing we learned in preparation for this trip was how this story was interpreted differently over many hundreds of years.  What I will attempt to share here is how the church has westernized the Nativity story over that time.  Modern archaeology has a penchant for exposing any flawed historical narrative, and many now question if the Church the Nativity was in fact the birthplace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Here’s what Wikipedia says about this Church: 

The Church of the Nativity is a basilica located in Bethlehem in the West Bank. The grotto it contains holds a prominent religious significance to Christians of various denominations as the birthplace of Jesus. The grotto is the oldest site continuously used as a place of worship in Christianity, and the basilica is the oldest major church in the Holy Land. The church was originally commissioned by Constantine the Great a short time after his mother Helena’s visit to Jerusalem and Bethlehem in 325–326, on the site that was traditionally considered to be the birthplace of Jesus. That original basilica was likely built between 330–333.  It was destroyed by fire during the Samaritan revolts of the sixth century, possibly in 529, and a new basilica was built a number of years later by Byzantine Emperor Justinian (r. 527–565). The Church of the Nativity, while remaining basically unchanged since this time, has seen numerous repairs and additions, especially from the Crusader period,.  Over the centuries, the surrounding compound has been expanded, and today it covers approximately 12,000 square meters, comprising three different monasteries: one Greek Orthodox, one Armenian Apostolic, and one Roman Catholic, of which the first two contain bell towers built during the modern era.

…The Grotto of the Nativity, the place where Jesus is said to have been born, is an underground space which forms the crypt of the Church of the Nativity. It is situated underneath its main altar, and it is normally accessed by two staircases on either side of the chancel. The Grotto is part of a network of caves, which are accessed from the adjacent Church St Catherine’s. The tunnel-like corridor connecting the Grotto to the other caves is normally locked.

The cave has an eastern niche said to be the place where Jesus was born, which contains the Altar of Nativity. The exact spot where Jesus was born is marked beneath this altar by a 14-pointed silver star with the Latin inscription [that translated means] “Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary”-1717). It was installed by the Catholics in 1717, removed – allegedly by the Greeks – in 1847, and replaced by the Turkish government in 1853. The star is set into the marble floor and surrounded by 15 silver lamps representing the three Christian communities: six belong to the Greek Orthodox, four to the Catholics, and five to the Armenian Apostolic. The Altar of the Nativity is maintained by the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic churches. The significance of the 14 points on the star is to represent the three sets of 14 generations in the genealogy of Jesus Christ. First 14 from Abraham to David, then 14 from David to the Babylonian captivity, then 14 more to Jesus Christ. In the middle of the 14 pointed star is a circular hole, through which you can reach in to touch the stone that is said to be the original stone that Mary laid on when she gave birth to Jesus.

Roman Catholics are in charge of a section of the Grotto known as the “Grotto of the Manger”, marking the traditional site where Mary laid the newborn baby in the manger. The Altar of the Magi is located directly opposite from the manger site.

In the Courtyard outside the Church of the Nativity
Our group crowding at the the Door of Humility,
the main entrance into the Church of the Nativity
Gigi entering through the Door of Humility
The Basilica with ornament like ceiling hangings
The Altar of the Nativity, beneath which is the star marking the spot where tradition says Jesus was born. Our group didn’t reserve a time to go into this area, so I got these pictures downloaded from a website
This fourteen-point silver star from beneath the main altar in the Grotto of the Nativity marks the traditional spot of Jesus’ birth. Fourteen represents the number of generations between Abraham and David (14), David and Bablyonian Captivity (14) and Post Exile to Jesus (14) as described in the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 1

While we were in Israel, it became very apparent to me how many centuries of Roman/Byzantine influence, along with more recent interests, commercialized the town-now city-of Bethlehem.   It was so busy with tour buses and vendors immediately descending on tourists take group pictures and sell their other wares; one could not help but feel somewhat like prey to those who were looking to get a quick sell to a naive tourist.   

This gives you an idea of what the area around the Church of the Nativity
looks like in modern day Bethlehem
Apparently the Starbucks Marketing has decided it isn’t worth
going after this trademark violation or those laws don’t apply in the occupied West Bank

Our tour guide, Moshe, knew full well that the Church of the Nativity was very likely not the actual location of the Savior’s birth.  He would always say things in his own unique way to debunk what we saw during our two week trip in Israel, during which we spent nearly all our time with him.  In the case of the Church of the Nativity, he would say “This is where Jesus was born, but NOT where Jesus was born”.   Yet Moshe also knew it was important that we view what many have come to visit over many hundreds (thousands) of years, to contrast to what we would see later in our time in Israel.

Our tour guide trying to explain what was going on in the Grotto below us. It was hard to hear with with another tour group next to us doing the same thing.
Christmas in the Courtyard outside of the Church of the Nativity

Later in our trip we would visit two places that make a compelling argument that the actual birthplace of Jesus was actually in a different location. Because this is a politically sensitive topic, I will omit the exact location of the supposed birth place of Jesus we visited and rather depend on scriptural references that help make the argument for us. 

One of the the first places we visited during our time in Israel was the Rock of Kathisma, also know as Rachel’s Rock. I found it amazing how accessible it was off the main highway between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. This is believed to be the place that Rachel, wife of Jacob, rested before she gave birth to Benjamin and then died shortly thereafter. Nearby is Rachel’s Tomb, a holy place to the Jewish people on the order of the Temple Mount.  The reason this location is significant to Christians is that it is traditionally believed to be the same place that Mary rested en route to Bethlehem Ephrathat to give birth to Jesus.

A picture of all the women in our Clovis Hills group on the Rock of Kathisima
Gigi sitting on the Rock of Kathisima

For many years this location was revered by the Byzantines who built and expanded a unique octagonal church in between the 5th to 7th centuries to protect the location.  Eventually the church was destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed again as the Muslims, and the Crusaders fought for control of the region.  After its final destruction following the last Crusade, Kathisma was buried and had long been forgotten.  Recently, it was accidentally uncovered by a construction crew that was expanding the nearby highway recently in the 1990’s.  

Outline of the Octagonal Church surrounding the Rock of Kathisima
Nearby road that uncovered the church in the late 1990’s seen in the background
A Roman built Aqueduct about a couple hundred yards from the Rock of Kathisima

Another website (cited at end of this story) shares some interesting things about Kathisma validates why the Byzantine church held this location as a ‘holy site’.   They write that “… though this rock is not mentioned in the Bible (by this name) it is mentioned in early Christian writings.  This was known as the place where Mary rested before she ascended to the top of the hill where the Tower of the Flock stood to give birth to the Savior.  This rock marks the vicinity of the original Bethlehem Ephrathat.  It also verifies the Biblical account of the birth of the Messiah.”

The second place we visited was nearby Kathisma, which puts into context the reason why we visited this first location.   Kathisma is a location in Bethlehem Ephrathat, and once again as this is a sensitive topic, I will omit some details about its exact location and instead rely on biblical verses below to cite its importance.

Gigi standing next to the Church of the Nativity. Behind her to the North is Bethlehem Ephrathat in the distance. The Rock of Kathisima is the west of the wooded area see at the horizon. This gives one a sense of how far Mary would have had to travel uphill while pregnant.

Tying Bethlehem Ephrathat to Kathisma, one needs to first read more about Rachel’s death while giving birth to Benjamin.

Genesis 35:19-21 (NIV)

19 So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). 20 Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel’s tomb. 21 Israel moved on again and pitched his tent beyond Migdal Eder.

“Migdal Eder” translated means Tower of the Flock where shepherds watched over the lambs/sheep in the area near Bethlehem Ephrathat.  These were special lambs in that were used for sacrifices at the Temple in nearby Jerusalem. The importance of these shepherds lays the ground work for why the place of Jesus’ birth holds such significance, as he would later become the “Lamb of God” and sacrificed near the same altar at his crucifixion.  

Here is a photograph with caption in Hebrew,
“A Watchtower from the hills of Samaria.”
This is an example of what a Tower of the Flock might have looked like

Another prophecy fulfilled regarding the Savior’s with are found in consecutive chapters from the prophet Micah

First this passage confirms the role of the Tower of the Flock in restoring the kingdom of God

Micah 4:8

As for you, watchtower of the flock,

    stronghold of Daughter Zion,

the former dominion will be restored to you;

    kingship will come to Daughter Jerusalem.”

Then this passage confirms that ‘one will come out of Bethlehem Ephrathah, who will rule ‘in the name of the Lord’ out to ‘… to the end of the earth”

Micah 5:2-4

2 “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,

    though you are small among the clans of Judah,

out of you will come for me

    one who will be ruler over Israel,

whose origins are from of old,

    from ancient times.”

3 Therefore Israel will be abandoned

    until the time when she who is in labor bears a son,

and the rest of his brothers return

    to join the Israelites.

4 He will stand and shepherd his flock

    in the strength of the Lord,

    will reach to the ends of the earth.

    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.

And they will live securely, for then his greatness

What makes the location we visited so much more compelling to consider as the actual birthplace of Jesus then the Church of the Nativity are several key things.

  1. Its proximity to Kathisma.  It is a reasonable distance for someone who was pregnant to reach as compared to how far away the Church of the Nativity and the Grotto housing the cave that Jesus was presumably born in not to mention the drop then rise in elevation to get from Kathisma to this presumed location.  If in fact Jesus was born shortly after the stop at Kathisma, it would have been much more treacherous for someone in Mary’s state to get to.
  2. Its proximity to the Tower of the Flock.  While it can’t be confirmed exactly where this Tower was, it makes more sense that it would be where Shepherds watch over their sheep even to this day, which is in the area just east and south of where the Kathisma.  
  3. Its proximity to nearby water and road.  The location we visited is also where an ancient road and aqueduct built by the Romans originally existed in order to allow travel to Bethlehem.   It would make sense that Mary and Joseph would have travelled near this as opposed to going directly to where the Church of the Nativity is today to have easier means of travel and accessible nearby water.
  4. The Church of the Nativity was built in the same location that a polytheistic Greek God was worshipped on top of a hill.  Whether that location was established before or after Jesus would have been born there presumably supports the typical Byzantine strategy to build their churches over what was another worship place of greek Gods that their Roman predecessors worshipped.

So… Is where we visited truly the birth place of Jesus Christ?  Maybe.  Maybe not.   While I think the arguments above make for a compelling account of why it is where we visited or close thereto, I leave it to you the reader to consider and conclude for yourself.  If nothing else, I hope if you are considering going to Israel someday, that this story helps make a case for what you might visit and give you perspective that the world’s view isn’t necessarily a Biblical one.  My trip to Israel has given me a healthy skepticism, rather than to naively view Israel as a place that Westerners go to see all the places Jesus presumably was.

Even more important to me personally, this trip to Israel, which began with this contrast on places where Jesus may have been born, actually changed me in a more dramatic way that I hope to share as a theme throughout the stories I will tell about my daughter Gigi and my trip there back in March.  Gigi shared with the group at the end of the trip a very poignant lesson for me and maybe all us ’skeptics’ who like to over think what “really happened”.   She said to the group, “… while my Dad would say that some of the places we visited like the Church of the Nativity… were way too crowded… those places were actually my favorite because it proved the story of Jesus as told in the Bible were true.”  After all, why would so many come to visit this same location over the centuries if the savior’s birth was an unsubstantiated myth? 

She was SO RIGHT.  Here I was, in the case of the Church of the Nativity, trying to argue the relative location of the cave Jesus was born in being only at most a few miles apart from one another, and she had the wisdom to effectively ask, “Why does that matter?”  It is clear that Jesus birth and life was the fulfillment of prophecy to include as Isaiah forecasted “…Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14 NIV).   That all these “annoying” people come to worship the birthplace of Jesus actually affirms the impact his life and ultimate death on a cross and resurrection had on a broken world he came to save.   

So… since the Byzantines and all the “empires” that have controlled Bethlehem since the birth of Jesus can easily change the details of where that location to their convenience, despite what the Bible speaks to as I have tried to argue here, I challenge you all to ask yourself:  Are we Americans not just modern day “Byzantines” ourselves?  That is, should others view us as selectively changing what Jesus came to do (John 3:16-17) to what we conveniently want it to be?  Certainly we can say that is what we have witnessed even “Devout Christians” have tried to argue most recently in their interpretation of all the political upheaval going on in our nation’s capital at the moment often casting dispersions on other Christians as devout as them in the process.   Is this what Jesus would do or want?  Is this what and agape “love” looks like?

Or maybe instead, we should all ask the question my daughter did of me, “Why does that matter?”  After all, onto us a Savior was born in Bethlehem, and they called him Jesus, and he came to rescue us from all of this turmoil… and that is a Story REALLY Worth Telling… over and over!

Wishing you and your families a VERY MERRY Christmas!

References cited in this story:

 Church of the Nativity

 Migdal Eder