Religious Ambition, the Cost of Religious Pride
Last Monday, I was a tourist walking around in Bethlehem primarily to visit one of the oldest operating churches in the world. The church is built on top of the traditional site of the birthplace of Jesus Christ, and therefore it is revered by both the followers of Christianity and Islam. It may surprise you that Islam considers Jesus an important prophet of God. How sure are we that this is actually the real site of Jesus’ birth? Justin Martyr, a second century Christian apologist, identified it as such around 150 AD. The Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian and he sent his Mother Helen to the Holy Land to identify the holy sites in order to build churches on the sites to memorialize them. In 333 AD she identified this site in Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus, and built a church on it. That church was destroyed around 529 in a Samaritan revolt, but rebuilt in 565 by Justinian, this is the church that is still there today. The Persians invaded in 614, but amazingly they left it intact when they saw a painting of the Three Wise Men wearing Persian garb. During the Crusades, the Crusaders made renovations, and the first Crusader King of Jerusalem was crowned in the church. This church in Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity, and is revered as the site of our Savior’s birth.
The First Seeds of Division in the Church
Around 312, Constantine became the first Roman Emperor to be a Christian. In 330 AD he moved his imperial residence to the New Rome, the ancient city Byzantium. It was later called Constantinople. This began a political shift of power to the east. Soon the churches around the Mediterranean looked to the Bishop of Constantinople for leadership. From that time on the two churches, Rome and Constantinople, and their respective Bishops were religious and political rivals. In 381 the new emperor Theodosius called for a church council to reaffirm the Nicene Creed, but at the council they also added that, “The Bishop of Constantinople shall take precedence immediately after the bishop of Rome, because his city is the New Rome.” Thus the two churches were headed in two different directions, both being very ambitious and desiring primacy. Around 445 AD a new bishop of Rome was selected who would be the first to establish the primacy of Rome and be called the Pope. Leo was a great leader, and succeeded in making himself the Supreme Head of all Christianity. Nevertheless a church council in 451 gave the bishop of Constantinople equal power.
For the next 600 years differences between the Church in the East and the Catholic Church in the West widened, and they drifted slowly apart. They quibbled over petty things like a few words in the creed or practices for Lent, or the type of bread to use in the Eucharist. In 1054 AD ambitious leaders on both sides drove a permanent wedge between the two churches. Pope Leo IX sent the very proud Cardinal Humbert to Constantinople. The Bishop of Constantinople snubbed him which provoked the notorious Papal Bill of Excommunication from Rome to Constantinople, and the east and west were forever divided. As I study the supposed doctrinal differences it is clear that pride, economic, and political ambition were the causes for the schism. In 1453 Constantinople fell to the Islamic Turks, and eventually Moscow came to be the leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The emperor of Russia took his title from the first Rome—Tzar is the Russian word for Caesar.
The Church of the Nativity
The famous church in Bethlehem built upon the site of Christ’s birthplace was always a place of contention between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. The church is administered jointly by Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian authorities. In 1690 the Ottoman Sultan granted to the Roman Catholic Church the dominant authority in the Church of the Nativity. In 1740 a French-Turkish treaty stated that Catholic monks should protect the Holy Places in Bethlehem. However, between 1740 and 1820, the population and influence of the Eastern Orthodox Church increased, so protection of the Holy Places was taken over by Orthodox monks, but not without a periodic scuffle and “punch out” between the competing priests. By the 1840s, Russian pilgrims were flocking to the Holy Land, so Czar Nicholas demanded that his subjects be protected. In 1850 Louis Napoleon of France demanded that Roman Catholics control the Holy Places. In 1847 and 1848 there were numerous embarrassing brawls between Catholic and Orthodox monks. The Orthodox monks proved to be the better pugilists so they emerged as the controlling group.
A major scandal was produced when a silver star which had been placed by the Catholics to commemorate the place of Jesus’ birth was stolen allegedly by Orthodox monks.
The Crimean War
There was a huge uproar in both France and Russia over the “silver star” accusation. The Ottoman Empire which controlled the Middle East at the time was embarrassed and nervous over the controversy. At the time, the Ottomans were greatly weakened and the powers in Europe all had designs on its territory. The Turks sent the keys to the door of the Church of the Nativity to the Catholic Church in France. In 1852 the French gained control of the Church of the Nativity. In 1853 the Czar demanded control of the Holy Places, and threatened to invade Turkey. The Sultan appealed to France and England for protection. In 1853 Russia invaded Turkish Moldavia and Wallachia. In March of 1854 Britain and France declared war on Russia to defend Turkey from Russia. Thus the immediate cause of the Crimean War was a dispute over the Silver Star on the floor in an underground grotto of what might be the possible birthplace of Christ. Overall casualties in the war had reached approximately ONE MILLION PEOPLE when the war was ended by the Treaty of Paris in 1856. Nothing was settled on the Church of the Nativity which is jointly (but very uneasily) administered by the same three groups. The stolen Silver Star was replaced after the treaty, and we saw it last Monday. In the end Russia lost territory and ports because of the Crimean war.
Trivia on the Crimean War
In 1854 Russia began negotiations to sell Alaska to the USA to help finance the war. Thus, Alaska became a territory and later a state in the USA because of the war over the Silver Star. Tolstoy was a young Lieutenant in the Russian army. From his war experiences he was inspired to write “War and Peace”. The poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” was written about a disastrous battle between the British and Russians. This poem is ironically true about an entire war fought over a silver star: “Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die, into the valley of death rode the 600.”
Jerome’s Take on the Silver Star
One of the great memorials at the Church of the Nativity is to St. Jerome who first translated the Greek manuscripts of the Bible into Latin. Tradition tells us he did it at this church between 387-400. The Latin Vulgate was used by the Catholic Church from that time on. Jerome said something profound about the Silver Star, “The earthen manger is gone, Christians have replaced it with silver, but the one taken away is greater in worth. The heathen world reveres gold and silver, but faith serves the manger of clay. He who was born in the manger has no regard for gold and silver. I do not despise them who installed the silver, but I feel awe before the Lord who was born not between gold and silver, rather on clay.”
Which is correct, a silver star on the site of Jesus’ birth, or whatever the Orthodox monks wanted? Which had the right to keep the keys to the door? Neither, both, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that JESUS WAS BORN IN BETHLEHEM.
Essentials vs. Traditions
Form and traditions can vary by personal choice, but they must not alter, take away from, or add to the essentials of the Gospel. Truth is not determined by our pride and ambition, it is determined by God. The method to our salvation, and the means of our salvation were God’s plan from the beginning and cannot be altered.
Should we dunk or sprinkle? Grape juice or wine? Classic hymns or contemporary music? Traditional architecture or modern? King James Version or NIV? In the Lord’s prayer, is it debts or trespasses? Elders or Deacons? Should a minister or priest wear robes or a suit or informal? Kneel or sit to pray? Silver Star or something else on the site of the birth of Christ? None of these are essentials that affect the Gospel we base our salvation on.
The pride of nationalism, the pride of tradition, and the pride of our name diverts our attention from what is good, and right, and true (Phil.4:8). If we pursue our pride, it becomes us against them, what is ours versus theirs, and Jesus’ commands to love are cast aside. Now, while men rule a fallen world, this is the rule rather than the exception, but what about the future? Jesus gave quite a bit of teaching about the future Kingdom. In the Kingdom, God will rule, not men. There will be no freedom of religion, there will be no different traditions, no brawls over keys or silver stars or what to wear or what music is best. When Jesus comes back, He is not coming to take sides, but to take over, and the only way will be His way. PRAISE THE LORD, COME SOON LORD JESUS.