As the season of Christmas approaches, our minds are full of the heart-warming scene of the Nativity with Mary gently cradling the infant Messiah and the shepherds and kings looking on in adoration. Thanks to St. Francis for bringing this tradition to us we fill our homes and yards with recreations of this event.
As a Bible enthusiast and archaeologist, I like to get as close to the real thing as I can, so I want to share with you what that first Christmas most likely looked like. In ancient Israel, natural caves were used as living spaces and also places to shelter flocks and herds. In the area of Bethlehem where Jesus was born, the rocky hills provided many caves for shelter. Most structures were built of stone since stones are abundant whereas wood for lumber was scarce. Even today, homes there are built of stone or cement.
There is a spot in Bethlehem called the Shepherd’s Fields where tourists can go to get a glimpse of the natural look of the land, though the growing city of Bethlehem is expanding across what once was an idyllic landscape of hills used for grazing. A cave there is on display to step inside out of the sweltering summer heat or the chilly winter rains to get a better idea of how first century people used caves to shelter animals.
The stable where Mary and Joseph spent the night of Jesus’ birth was most likely much like the cave at the shepherd’s field. That cave is beneath the Church of the Nativity, which was first built around AD 327 by Constantine the Great and his mother St. Helena to honor the birth of Our Lord. This cave is accessible to pilgrims by stepping down a short set of stairs to a grotto beneath the altar of the main sanctuary of the church. A metal star surrounded by marble slabs marks the spot of the blessed event, but in other parts of the grotto, the cave walls are still visible, although covered with tapestries in most places.
The manger as well would have been hewn of stone, and many such mangers have been excavated around the country. It is amazing to think just how earthy the Incarnation truly was. The infant Son of God entered the world not only on the surface of the earth, but beneath it, in a way pointing us to how he will be laid in the earth again for three days before his Resurrection. God was pleased to enter the world in utter humility, but we, recognizing his holiness, have built elaborate structures over these spots in our attempt to honor Him as He truly deserves. Visiting these places can bring us in touch with His humility and bring us to our knees in worship. Thanks be to God we can take time each year to set up the humble Nativity scene to remind us of the majesty of God.