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It is a mysterious place -- one of the very most mysterious -- on planet earth.

It is also -- it appears -- one of the holiest.

It is certainly a rare moment.

It is a spot marked by a fourteen-pointed star with a hole and the words, Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est  ("Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary").

It is the grotto -- the small cave -- that is now beneath an altar in Bethlehem in the Church of the Nativity. As you will see in a moment, there is even a miraculous icon there.

Stairways on either side of the main altar lead to a grotto. Fifteen lamps burn around the spot. Nearby is the Chapel of the Manger, where Mary placed the Infant.

It's not the most well-documented of the sites attributed to the crucial aspects of Jesus' Life. That title goes to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher -- which even secular archeologists say is highly likely to be the actual point of Crucifixion. There is also the Sea of Galilee: everyone knows He ministered along its north shore. There is the dungeon pit where He was kept -- and which exudes an incredible spiritual force. There is the Church of the Annunciation (ditto for that, power wise).

But the Church of the Nativity is awesome and  has been cited as the place of Nativity since Justin Martyr in the Second Century; the original church at the site dates to 333 A.D. It was built above the grotto.

Moreover, a little cave makes sense: back 2,000 years ago, homes in the region were often built in front of caves, which were used for storage -- and stables (see: manger).

But it is only part of the mystery.

Those are well-known facts. There are also the hidden ones.

There is the spiritual dynamic.

Bethlehem was first settled by the Canaanite tribes, naming the city Beit Lahama (which in Hebrew means "house of bread"). They built a temple to the God Lahama on the present mount of the Nativity -- precisely the paganism Christ came to defeat.

It is ground zero in spiritual warfare. It is ground zero in division. Around 1200 B.C., Philistines had a garrison stationed in Bethlehem because of its strategic location -- one of many instances in which conflict has hovered over this specific spot (and of course the entire region).

During the past 2,000 years, it has been a spot of contention between a succession of armies -- from Persians to Crusaders and now even between Orthodox, the Armenian Church, and Roman Catholics, who vie over the church, each with a piece of it: the Orthodox controlling the actual grotto while the Catholics operate an attached church called St. Catherine's. Several years back, the Church of the Nativity was even closed as armed Israeli forces searched out Palestinian militants hiding inside, with an order to shoot anyone in the church itself.

The first church was burnt down in the Samaritan Revolt of 529. It was rebuilt and unexpectedly survived a Persian invasion. The present building, the oldest church in Israel/Palestine, was reconstructed in the sixth century by the Emperor Justinian and further repaired by the Crusaders.

In 1263, a peoples called the Beibars ordered destruction of the fortifying walls and towers of Bethlehem, but the church was spared. During the Turkish occupation in 1517, the Franciscans and the Greeks fought over control of the sancutaries.

Following Israel's 1948 "War of Independence," Bethlehem fell under the control of the Jordanians. Then, after the 1967 Six Day War, the Israelis took control over the city.

Today one has to cross an extensive checkpoint to enter the city of Bethlehem, which is almost entirely Arab. There is a high, foreboding wall. And Palestinians (Arabs) are not allowed to go to Jerusalem without special permission.

The very fact of such contention argues for its authenticity.

Most don't realize that in 1995, Bethlehem was placed under the control of the Palestinian Authority -- and that Palestinians likewise revere the spot of Jesus' Nativity.

In fact, the Palestinian government is currently preparing to replace the church's roof, which is in great danger of collapse.

They consider the site crucial, religiously and economically.

Many Arab Muslims as well as Arab Christians have pictures of Mary in their homes.

Arab Christians are now about thirty percent of the population. They used to be a majority, their numbers greatly diminished when Israel built settlements.

Also largely unknown: there is no actual archeological evidence of habitation during the Herodian era in this particular vicinity.

What does that mean?

Very possibly nothing.

Some scholars argue (as argue they do at every turn) that the real Bethlehem is another place called Bethlehem in Galilee (as opposed to the famous one in what's called Judea).

"Many archaeologists and theological scholars believe Jesus was actually born in either Nazareth or Bethlehem of Galilee, a town just outside Nazareth, citing biblical references and archaeological evidence to support their conclusion," notes one review. "Throughout the Bible, Jesus is referred to as 'Jesus of Nazareth,' not 'Jesus of Bethlehem.' In fact, in John (7:41- 43) there is a passage questioning Jesus' legitimacy because He's from Galilee and not Judea, as the Hebrew Scriptures say the Messiah must be. ..."

"If the historical Jesus were truly born in Bethlehem," says Aviram Oshri, a senior archaeologist with the Israeli Antiquities Authority, told National Geographic, "it was most likely the Bethlehem of Galilee, not that in Judea. The archaeological evidence certainly seems to favor the former, a busy center [of Jewish life] a few miles from the home of Joseph and Mary, as opposed to an unpopulated spot almost a hundred miles from home."

The Israeli archaeologist believes that it's because early Christians revered Bethlehem of Galilee as the birthplace of Jesus. "There is no doubt in my mind that these are impressive and important evidence of a strong Christian community established in Bethlehem [of Galilee] a short time after Jesus' death," he told the magazine.

Oshri said that in this Bethlehem, he and his team have uncovered the remains of a later monastery and the largest Byzantine church in Israel, which raises the question of why such a huge house of Christian worship was built in the heart of a Jewish area.

But as in other parts of Israel, those places believed by Queen Helena (mother of Constantine, who built this original Nativity church, as well as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) and the Crusaders to be authentic sites seem the most reliable.

There is certainly a mysterious air in the fascinating, ancient structure -- which has columns dating back to the original structure nearly two millennia ago.

There is even a weeping icon [left].

According to hundreds of eyewitnesses, a painting of Jesus is weeping red tears in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem of Judea -- the classic site.

"Many hundreds of Christian pilgrims, of all denominations, together with Jews and Muslims, say they have seen the tears. The weeping was first noticed by the 60-year-old Muslim woman who cleans that part of the church every morning," reports a summary.

"Sadika Hamdan told reporters that she was working alone in the shrine when suddenly 'a light came from the column and the picture of the Messiah Jesus, peace be upon him, began to cry. It was beautiful, beautiful. He opened and closed his eye and later tears fell, red tears. At first, I was very frightened, and I wondered why Jesus was speaking out to me, a Muslim. But I went and got the brothers, and they saw it too, and we realized it was a miracle. I have been coming to this church for 22 years and it is the first time in history that I have seen such a sight."

"At the time of the report about 600 people were visiting the shrine each day, and thousands were expected to attend the Sunday services. As well as the tears, pilgrims have also been reporting that the painting of Jesus was winking at them. There are of course no shortage of skeptics dismissing the whole story, but Stephanie Nolen, writing for a Canadian newspaper, had this to say: 'This reporter went to Bethlehem armed with the double protection of lapsed Catholicism and journalistic cynicism, and joined a crowd of about 100 kerchiefed Cypriot women clutching candles and video recorders. 'Tears, tears,' they were whispering, some with tears in their own eyes. So I looked up -- and Jesus winked at me." (Source -- Reuters 28 Nov, 1996; The Globe and Mail, Canada, 4 Dec, 1996 ; CNN )

That's a bit strange.  When we argue -- including over archeology -- perhaps He winks at all of us.

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[Or does it correspond to Acts 17:30 (King James) :"And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent."]

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