No matter where we happen to be, the mention of our native place or “hometown” can recreate fond memories and associations. “Bethlehem” focuses our thoughts on a precise time in history and transports us to a particular place in Palestine where Christmas happened (Lk.2:4). Importantly, it tells the story of a peculiar way in which God revealed himself and his loving purposes to us
A twofold belief in most religions is that there is ultimate reality other than us who can be known, and that there is a moral problem that keeps us from knowing and experiencing God’s blessing. Whatever separates us from God makes us unworthy to be near him, links fear to religion and warrants some kind of appeasement or sacrifice. Hence there has always been a universal quest to locate and know God (one has to learn to be an atheist!)
Christian faith is unique in that at Bethlehem we find God on a quest! Amidst the commercialization and confusions that surround Christmas celebrations, Bethlehem reminds us that God did come to us in flesh. Jesus, “born in Bethlehem that day”, desires by his Spirit to be born in us today. This little town was God’s hometown and if we believe in what it gave the world – a Savior, it can become our hometown! How come?
Bethlehem, meaning “house of bread” was the least among the clans of Judah. It was an ordinary, at that time largely unknown hilltop town except that God had chosen it to be the birthplace of David the shepherd-king, forerunner of Jesus – the Bread of Life. It is on our maps today because from of old it was on God’s map (Micah 5:2). Despite what is portrayed, there were no earthly festivities at this Judean city. Yes, there was a rush but the excitement was not over Jesus’ birth but regarding the political census and people’s socio-economic concerns. The interests of the crowds have not changed much since then! As for Jesus, “God’s wondrous Gift”, he came silently – without fanfare, frills, pomp or parade and usually, he still enters human hearts in this manner.
Could you believe five years ago, one census noted that over 5 million tourists were expected to visit and spend over 4.5 billion US dollars in Bethlehem that year! It seems humankind is now trying to make up for missing Jesus’ birthday then. My brother, Clifford, told me about Queen Elizabeth’s recent visit the US and how reporters delighted in spelling out the logistics involved: Her four thousand pounds of luggage included tow outfits for every occasion, a mourning outfit in case somebody died, forty pints of plasma and white kit leather toilet seat covers. She brought her own hair dresser, two valets and a host of attendants. A brief visit of royalty to a foreign country cost 20 million dollars. In meek contrast God visited the earth. It took place in Bethlehem’s animal shelter with no attendants present and no where to lay the new born King but a feeding trough. Indeed the event that divided history and even our calendars into two parts may have had more animal than human witnesses.
All the global mobility and money spent over this holiday season is meaningless unless the motive of our hearts is right. Hope and fears that first Christmas met at at Bethlehem. Since then a lot more has come together since God came to provide for us and to meet us at our point of need. Life and health and peace can be ours because that Babe of Bethlehem grew to be the Christ of Calvary and for all who receive him, is the soon-coming king of glory.
The scene at Bethlehem captures God’s vulnerable love. Jesus’ cradle and the cross were carved out of the same wood, in other words the Christmas message cannot be separated from Christ’s mission: to die that we might live. Bethlehem’s story, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds etc., assure us that God is still in control and works in remarkable ways. It teaches how ordinary places and people become significant when the presence of Jesus is within their perimeter. “Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in”. Bethlehem’s humble surroundings were apt for Christ’s coming. It offers hope amidst fears. Such a preview of God’s anointed king welcomes the last, the lost and the least of us Come to Bethlehem and see Him whose birth the angels sing; To come adore on bended knee, Christ the Lord, the newborn king!