Christians all over the world tonight are gathering to worship and remember that Christ was born on the first Christmas to be our Savior. Though we don’t know the actual date, we commemorate his birth on December 25th because this was nine months after March 25th, when the early church commemorated Christ’s being conceived and also his death and resurrection. Already in the first century Christians would gather in Bethlehem where Jesus was born to worship him and to remember that his birth wasn’t just a nice story, but actual history. Not everyone liked them doing this, including the emperor Hadrian. So in 135 A.D. he had a shrine to Adonis built over the place of Jesus’ birth to prevent Christians from gathering there. That year, Hadrian also had pagan temples built in Jerusalem over the place of Jesus’ burial and in Capernaum over the “house of St. Peter,” which is believed by some to have been Jesus’ house.
Later Constantine became emperor and granted toleration of Christians. His mother Helena traveled to the holy land in 326 A.D. and received permission to have these pagan temples removed. In Bethlehem they found the cave where those early pilgrims had gathered for worship. It was still there. Instead of obliterating the place of Christ’s birth, Hadrian’s shrine had preserved its location – Hadrian’s gift for succeeding generations. If you travel to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and walk down the stairs to a lower level of the church, you see a silver star marking the spot believed to be where Jesus lay in the manger. Though we can’t really say with quite that much precision, we can visit the place where those early Christian pilgrims gathered, because Hadrian unwittingly marked Christ’s birth place. It was a joy for me to travel to Israel just last month and to be in Bethlehem where Christ was born.
Later history records that in 333 A.D. a woman from Bordeaux visited these and other places where Jesus had been born, taught, healed the sick, suffered for our sins and rose again in triumph over sin and death. Later another pilgrim named Egeria visited from Spain between 381 and 384 and left a detailed journal, including the locations and the worship offered for God’s great kindness in sending Christ to be our hope and salvation.
Have a merry Christmas.