One of the first churches in the world is currently undergoing major renovations. It is in Bethlehem and despite the limitation of visitors by COVID, the spiritual life of the church remains strong.
Commissioned by the Roman Emperor Constantine at the behest of his mother, Helena, the Church of the Nativity is built on the spot where many believe Jesus was born.
“Whenever someone comes from all over the world, they must taste and feel the place where Jesus was born here. [so] to give the people peace and love, ”said Father Issa Thaljieh, Greek Orthodox parish priest at the Church of the Nativity. The church was built around 1700 years ago. Since then it has been destroyed and rebuilt a number of times.
The most recent renovation began in 2013 with help from the Bethlehem Development Foundation or BDF fundraising efforts. Its aim is to renew Bethlehem by providing sustainable life for locals while making the city attractive to visitors. They started by modernizing Manger Square and then moved to the Church of the Nativity.
Mazen Karam, CEO of BDF, said the original church was octagonal in shape.
“When it was rebuilt because [they] didn’t have any mass earthmoving equipment they built on it. So we have just over two feet of elevation change “between the original church floor and the floor today, Karam told CBN News during a recent visit to the church.
According to Karam, the large colonnade at the current entrance to the church was once a market, but Justinian built the 50 columns in the 6th century and later the Crusaders decorated them.
The church hadn’t undergone major renovations for hundreds of years, so restorers began by repairing the very leaky roof and windows.
“The original [windows are] not here anymore. They replaced them with new windows, ”Karam said.
The wall mosaics added to the church over 850 years ago, along with the original floor mosaics, were in desperate need of repair.
“Eleven percent of the mosaics exist. The rest was lost. So they cleaned up the whole mosaic[s]. [They were] very dirty and, you know, soot and debris and they cleaned it up.
In the process came a surprise.
“They discovered the third angel,” said Karam. “The third angel was completely covered in plaster and you can see all the angels are pointing to the cave, where Jesus was born.”
To help raise funds, they also created an “adopt a column” to renovate all 50 columns in the church at a cost of approximately $ 50,000 each.
Others, like art restorer Andreas Miaoulis of the Greek restoration company Artis, are working to restore the area near the altar, beyond which only priests can go.
“We try to get everything back to the beginning before it gets damaged over time,” Miaoulis told CBN News.
The part at the front of the church decorated with intricate carvings covered with gold is about 250 years old. Miaoulis emphasized how clear it is to see the difference before and after its cleaning and repair.
“As you can see, these really dark areas are the result of years and years of soot residue from candles as well as human fat because the majority of people touch everything, so they leave a lot of little oils behind. [from their fingers], explained Miaoulis.
“We’re cleaning it up. We restore it. And then where it’s missing gold leaf, we try to put it back and resuscitate it in a way it once was, ”Miaoulis said.
Karam says the renovations are being carried out on a project-by-project basis depending on the funds available.
The Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Apostolic Armenian denominations share the tutelage over the church.
“Because [a very] for a long time, we had no restoration. So it’s the best thing to do now, ”Father Issa Thajieh told CBN News.
“They are great because [the] the church must renovate it. And not just physically the church building [needs to be] renovated, too, we need to renovate. We must be spiritually renewed and be educated on [the] commandments of the Lord, ”said Most Reverend Father Asbed Balian, Superior of the Armenian Apostolic Church at the Church of the Nativity.
Father Issa Thaljieh and Very Reverend Father Asbed Balian say two years of COVID keeping international visitors away have been difficult, although they have hope for the future.
“Even though there are no tourists, no people, we still have prayers; we have ongoing services. Day after day, the church is open and the inhabitants come to visit it, to pray. In fact, COVID-19 is teaching us to be patient, to have more faith in God, to trust God to stand by us day to day, ”said Father Issa.
“I pray that God really takes it all away [these] hardships and life will return to normal and steadily, ”Right Reverend Father Asbed told CBN News. “And also to start a prayer of communion together, praising the Lord and thanking him for all the gifts he has given us and sharing his gifts together.”