The decree of Caesar Augustus commanding a census of all the provinces subject to the Roman Empire brought Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to their native city. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by the prophet Micah 750 years before the event (Mi. 5, 1-2).
In the year 325 the Bishop of Jerusalem, St. Marcarius, took the opportunity of acquainting the Emperor Constantine of the neglected condition of the Holy Places in his diocese. The Emperor ordered the construction, at the public charge, of monumental churches to commemorate the three principal events of Jesus’ life. One of these was to be a church enshrining the scene of the Nativity.
An established local tradition enabled the architects to begin work at once in 326. The local people knew that at the end of the village among the trees was the cave in which was born Jesus Christ. The trees were felled and the superfluous rock quarried away. The shape of the cave was adapted to architectural and devotional requirements. Above it was enclosed in an octagonal structure, which formed in effect the sanctuary of the basilica, which stretched away to the west in five aisles divided by rows of monolithic columns. Fourth and fifth century writers describe the richness of its marbles, mosaics, frescoes, and the silver manger replacing the original clay manger.
Grotto of the Nativity. The two flights of steps, from two sides of the great choir descend to the grotto, and meet before the Altar of the Nativity. The floor beneath the altar is incased in white marble, where, fitted into the paving, shines a vermillion star which is surrounded by the following inscription in Latin:
HIC DE VIRGINE MARIA JESUS CHRISTUS NATUS EST 1717
Here He was born…! Let us kneel down, let us bow our heads and raise our hearts full of admiration and gratitude before this sublime mystery of love!
“In the place where he was homeless all men are at home (Chesterton).
Source: Guide to the Holy Land by Eugene Hoade