Born In Bethlehem, Living In Our Hearts
No Burying the Faith
ERIC METAXAS — If you ever find yourself in Bethlehem of Judea, there’s one attraction you shouldn’t miss. First, you’d need to stoop low enough to pass through the four-foot-high Door of Humility. From there, you’d make your way down a spiraling stone staircase to find a small grotto in the bedrock lined with marble and adorned with luxurious tapestries. In the center of that little cave, attached to the floor, is a 14-pointed silver star and an inscription in Latin which reads, “Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary.”
As you can imagine, the Church of the Nativity is a busy place these days. Over the course of a year, as many as 2 million visitors pass through this shrine to the birthplace of Jesus Christ. This wasn’t always the case, though. For over 200 years, from the 2nd to the 4th centuries, this grotto was intentionally obscured with the purpose of wiping it off the face of the earth. So how do we know that this now not-so-humble grotto is actually the birthplace of Christ? For that, we have a determined enemy of God to thank.
Beginning in 132 A.D., the Roman Emperor Hadrian quashed an insurrection from a would-be messiah, Bar-Kokhba. To prevent future revolts, Hadrian expelled all the Jews from Jerusalem and paganized Jewish and Christian holy sites in the area. He set up a temple to Venus on the site of the Holy Sepulcher and cleared out the grotto of the nativity in Bethlehem. And in its place, he built a shrine to Adonis.
But things didn’t turn out the way Hadrian intended. In his book, “In the Fullness of Time,” historian Paul L. Maier relates how the Church Father Origen visited the area in the early 200s and wrote, that “in Bethlehem the grotto was shown where Jesus was born… What was shown to me is familiar to everyone in the area. The heathen themselves tell anyone willing to listen that in the said grotto Jesus was born whom the Christians revere.”
As Dr. Maier notes, “Hadrian tried to desecrate the Jewish and Christian holy places in Palestine, but ironically, thereby preserved their identity.”
It wasn’t until the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity that the area was fully redeemed from Hadrian’s sacrilege. Under the guidance of Constantine’s mother, Helena, the first Church of the Nativity was built in 339 A.D. and restored again in 553. It stands as the oldest continuously operating church in the world.
God At Work In History
I share this story because it’s worth remembering that all the would-be leaders who set themselves up against the living God find themselves, as we often hear today, on the wrong side of history. While our circumstances may indeed look grim at times, we can trust that God is working behind the scenes of present evil to bring forth even greater good and glory to Himself.
And I’ve got another reason for sharing this story. The same destructive impulses in Hadrian also threaten us today. The small “g” god used to “replace” Jesus in Bethlehem was Adonis, the youthful Greek god of beauty and desire. The parallel to modern Western culture seems ironic and obvious.
Sadly, we also see many working right now to destroy Christianity, be they secular materialists, radical Islamists, or others. That they believe they can destroy our faith only shows how they fundamentally misunderstand it.
God’s enemies seem to think that if they publicly ridicule us, deface a church, or worse — as is happening in many places around the world — that we’ll simply walk away from all we’ve been given. But we do not worship places, events, or good fortune, but a person, the Son of God — the Word made flesh. Our faith continues not only because it’s true, but because the Lord of the Universe lives within us. And no one can separate us from Him and His love.
In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church
Paul L. Maier | Kregel Publications | February 1998