The Church of the Nativity was built over the cave where Christ was born. Construction started in 327 after a commission was issued by Constantine the Great. Over the years, the initial structure was expanded to accommodate three monasteries belonging to different branches of Christianity: the Roman Catholic, the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Apostolic. Today, the complex extends over an area of 12,000 square meters, making it one of the largest religious sites in the world. The very spot where Jesus is said to have been born is marked by a underground crypt known as “The Grotto of the Nativity,” a small cave situated underneath the main altar. Inside this crypt lies a a 14-pointed silver star bearing the inscription “Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary-1717.” The star was originally placed there by Catholics in 1717 only to be removed in 1847 and re-installed in 1853, this time for good. The 15 silver lamps surrounding the silver star represent the three branches of Christianity who share the Grotto: six lamps belong to the Greek Orthodox, four to the Catholics, and four to the Armenian Apostolic. Two other sections of the Grotto are home to other shrines: the Grotto of the Manger, marking the spot where Mary laid Jesus in the manger, and the Altar of the Magi, where the Wise Men paid their visit to Christ Child.
Chapel of Saint Catherine
Every year, Catholics gather inside the Chapel of Saint Catherine, adjacent to the Church of Nativity, to attend Christmas Mass celebrated by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. One of the highlights of this chapel, which is dedicated to Catherine of Alexandria, a Christian saint who was martyred in Alexandria of Egypt in the 4th century, is a bas-relief of the Tree of Jesse that was donated to the chapel by Pope Benedict XVI during his trip to the Holy Land in 2009. The artfully crafted sculpture represents the genealogy of Jesus from Abraham through Joseph, culminating with the figure of an open-armed Christ embracing the earth.
Chapel of Milk Grotto
Built in 1872 on the site of a previous Byzantine church, the Chapel of Milk Grotto is home to three underground caves that are believed to have hosted the Holy Family as they were seeking refuge from the Massacre of the Innocents, when King Herod the Great ordered the massacre of all male children younger than two years old after hearing that a “new King” had been born. It is said that during the Holy Family’s stay inside the cave, a drop of Mary’s milk fell on the floor leaving the floor white, which is why many believers that struggle with infertility come here to pray for the blessing of pregnancy.
Monastery of Saint Theodosius
Located near Beltem, this 5th-century monastery was founded in 476 by Theodosius the Cenobiarch, the founder of cenobitic monasticism, a monastic tradition centered on community life. The original structure, built on the spot where the Three Magi took shelter the night after they delivered their gifts to newborn Jesus, was destroyed in 808 during the Persian invasion. A new fully-functioning monastic structure was rebuilt hundreds of year later, in 1952, by the Greek Orthodox Church. The original “Grotto of the Magi” and the tomb of Theodosius are still preserved in situ.
Bethlehem’s central square is the focal point for all of the Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem. Every year in December, the towering Christmas tree is decorated with beautiful multi-colored lights. This is where to catch locals and visitors singing Christmas carols or watch a live-stream of midnight Mass on giant screens placed near the Christmas tree.
Where to go for Christmas Mass
Midnight Mass for Catholic believers is held in Saint Catherine’s chapel, right next to the Church of the Nativity complex. Make sure to get tickets in advance as places are limited and tickets sell out fast. For those who didn’t secure a ticket on time, don’t worry: you can still watch the service live-streamed on one of the giant screens set up in Manger Square.
Originally posted at aleteia.org