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Photo by: Hanan Isachar
Local churches tell the Christmas story
By NICOLE JANSEZIAN/TRAVELUJAH
12/27/2011
From Nazareth to Bethlehem, Travelujah lists the churches significant to the Christmas story in the Holy Land.
 
For further information on Christian tourism and Holy Land Tours to Israel contact Travelujah.

Here is the Christmas story as told through the churches in the Holy Land. Christmas here highlights the small but ancient Christian community that has existed in the Holy Land since soon after the days of Jesus' time on earth.

The following is Travelujah's listing of churches significant to the Christmas story and Christianity in the Holy Land as the events appear in scripture.

1. Church of St. John the Baptist, Jerusalem

Luke 1:11-17: "Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: 'Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous--to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.'"

As seen in the book of Luke, the Christmas story actually begins with the announcement of the birth of Jesus' cousin, John the Baptist.

A Greek Orthodox Church, perhaps the oldest church in Jerusalem, dedicated to John the Baptist exists in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, but is rarely open to visitors. The Church of St. John the Baptist was founded in the 5th century.

2. Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth

Luke 1:26-38 "Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And coming in, he said to her, 'Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.' But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was. The angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.' Mary said to the angel, "how can this be, since I am a virgin?' The angel answered and said to her, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God. And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. For nothing will be impossible with God.' And Mary said, 'Behold, the bond slave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.' And the angel departed from her."

Soon after the announcement to John's father, the angel Gabriel visited Elizabeth's cousin Mary to tell her that she was chosen to conceive the Messiah. Mary, who was engaged to Joseph at the time, lived in Nazareth.

Jesus was raised in Nazareth. The church of the Annunciation was built in the 1960s, but stands on the foundations of an ancient Byzantine church and a Crusader church from the Middle Ages. A grotto below the church is believed to be the place where Gabriel visited Mary.



3. Church of the Visitation, Ein Karem, Jerusalem

Luke 1:39-45 "Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.'"

After Mary found out the she had conceived the Messiah, she left Nazareth to visit her cousin Elizabeth who she had found out from the angel was also pregnant. Elizabeth lived in the Judean village of Ein Karem, just outside of Jerusalem. The Church of the Visitation, built in 1679, marks the site of their visit.

The church is under the care of the Franciscans.



4. Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Luke 2:1-7 "Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."



Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem, the city from where Joseph's family came, in order to register as part of a nationwide census. Jesus is believed to have been born in the Grotto where the Church of the Nativity now stands. The church was built in 325 AD and is one of the oldest churches in the world. It is the most popular stop on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.


5. Shepherds' Field, Beit Sahour

Luke 2:8-20 "In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.' And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.' When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, 'Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.' So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. The shepherds went back; glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them."

After Jesus was born, the angels announced the good news to shepherds outside Bethlehem, in what is today is known as Shepherds' Field. Two churches, one Roman Catholic and one Greek Orthodox, have been built in honor of the event.

The Greek Orthodox Church dates back to the 4th century. The Franciscan Catholic church was designed to resemble a shepherds' tent.



6. Mar Theodosius, Beit Sahour

Matthew 2:1-12 "Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.' ... After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way."

After Jesus was born, wise men from the east visited Jesus in Bethlehem. According to tradition, Theodosius was led to prepare a cave in which the wise men rested after bringing their gifts to Jesus. St. Theodosius Monastery, founded in 476, was built on that site. After their visit, the wise men were warned by an angel to return to their country via another road to avoid King Herod in Jerusalem.

7. St. Joseph's Chapel, Bethlehem

Matthew 2:13-15 "Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, 'Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.' So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt. He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 'Out of Egypt I called my son.'"

Next to the Church of the Nativity, one of several chapels at St. Catherine's in Bethlehem includes one dedicated to Joseph. The Chapel of St. Joseph is believed to be where an angel appeared to Joseph and commanded him to flee to Egypt.

8. The Milk Grotto, Bethlehem

Matthew 2:16-18 "Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi. Then what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: 'A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted because they were no more.'"

This smaller and more peaceful chapel is located close to the Nativity Church in Manger Square. According to tradition, while Mary was feeding Jesus a few drops of milk spilled to the ground turning the rocks white. This chapel has long been a devotional site for women. The church is believed to be where Joseph, Mary and Jesus stayed on their way to escape to Egypt.



The chapel, built around the Grotto, was constructed by the Franciscans in 1872. The grotto is hollowed out of the soft white rock. A tradition identifies this as the burial site of the young victims of Herod's Slaughter of the Innocents.

A new book, entitled Beautiful Churches of the Holyland, written by David Rapp and photographed by Hanan Isachar, was recently published in Hebrew and is soon to be released in English.

Nicole Jansezian writes for Travelujah-Holy Land Tours, the leading Christian travel network focused on travel to the Holy Land. People can learn plan and share their Holy Land tour and travel experiences on Travelujah.
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