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Called Ephrathah to designate it as the birthplace of King David, it is one of the oldest towns in Palestine, twelve miles southeast of Jerusalem. In the center of the village, with its thirty thousand persons, is the Church of the Nativity, whose sanctuary is directly above the traditional cave where Christ was born. Two stairways lead to it from the basilica. The large cathedral doors have been blocked to prevent Moslem desecration. Built by Constantine in A.D. 330, the Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest Byzantine structures and one of the earliest Christian churches. In the underground cave in a large niche is the altar of the Nativity. Underneath the altar table is the silver star in the marble floor whose center opening reveals the original stone floor of the cave below. Around the opening are the words "Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary." Fifty-three lamps burn there day and night. In this grotto the Christmas Mass is celebrated every day, the faithful kneeling on the marble floor. (Etym. Hebrew beth lechem, house of bread or house of [the god] Lahm.)
All items in this dictionary are from Fr. John Hardon's Modern Catholic Dictionary, © Eternal Life. Used with permission.