O Little Town of Bethlehem
“Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”
(Luke 2:15 ESV)
Bethlehem today is not the sort of place that you would expect the Son of God to have been born. It is in what you may have heard referred to as the West Bank, a landlocked territory of the Palestinian Authority. Bethlehem is easy to enter, but unless you have a passport, impossible to leave, walled on every side by massive eight meter high walls, meant to keep the inhabitants of the city from entering Israel. Most of her citizens are essentially nationless. They do not have passports, they cannot travel. They are stuck in Bethlehem as if it were a prison.
The city was founded by the Canaanites, who built a temple there to the god Lahmu, the Akkadian god of fertility, whose name incidentally means “parent star.” Over time, the city became known by the name “house of meat” in Arabic or “house of bread” in Hebrew, the Hebrew word for bread being lechem. I don’t believe it was a mistake that Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life, the Son of God who took on human flesh (or meat) under the sign of a star, was born in this particular city. It was, of course, the original home of David, the place where he was anointed by the prophet Samuel.
Last Sunday, I recounted some of the movements of the Ark of the Covenant in the days of David, but I left out one critical detail. The Psalm we read, Psalm 132, says:
“I will not give sleep to my eyes
or slumber to my eyelids,
until I find a place for the LORD,
a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob.”
Behold, we heard of it in Ephrathah;
we found it in the fields of Jaar.
“Let us go to his dwelling place;
let us worship at his footstool!””
(Psalm 132:4–7 ESV)
Ephrathah is another name for Bethlehem. And given that, you can easily see how in the Gospel, Psalm 132 is found to be quite prophetic. The shepherds in the Gospel of Luke are told by an angel: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” We read that those shepherds told this saying of the angel to those gathered around the manger of Jesus, and that those who heard it wondered at it. Mary, we’re told, pondered these things in her heart.
The Christmas story is nothing less than the story of the unveiling of the Incarnate Word of God in Bethlehem, foretold by a shining star, born of a virgin, and laid in a manger. Christmas is first about seeing, and even though you and I do not see the Incarnate Christ, it is by his grace that we are enabled to see through the eyes of faith, to plunge into the mysteries of God. Secondly, Christmas is about worship. It is about coming to the footstool of God, coming to his dwelling place, especially in the Eucharist, and worshipping the Lord Jesus Christ. Thirdly, Christmas is about God making and re-making a people for his own, a people of faith and worship, but also a people of great holiness of life, a people made to bear great fruit.
As your parish priest, it is such a joy to be a steward of the mysteries of God, particularly in the sacramental life of our parish. As the Church, we continue to show forth the mystery of the Incarnation as the Body of Christ, showing forth to a blind and lost world the glorious salvation which is offered in Jesus. I have been filled with great joy as I have watched the Lord call the people of this parish to great holiness of life, and am filled with gratitude to the Lord that He continues to call forth those bound up in the prison of sin and death, calling them to repentance and newness of life. Further, he is calling a whole generation of Christians who have lost the sacramental thread of the Gospel to a renewed appreciation for the sacramental life, especially in the breaking of bread. This is great news - a message of “seeing,” a message of great joy, and a message of hope.
I wish all of you a very happy, restful, and worshipful Christmas season!