Advent in Bethlehem

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Micah 5:2

I receive Christmas cards with Mary and Joseph leisurely resting inside a cattle stall in Bethlehem. Their faces glow with adoration while the peaceful baby Jesus sleeps in Mary’s arms. In the background, unlit homes of Bethlehem nestle in the Judean hills. Clouds in the night sky gently part to reveal a lone bright star indicating the Saviour’s birth. Inside the card there is a verse from Luke and sentimental words written by a professional, “May God bless you this season with the joy that thrills the heart and takes you, wherever you are, to the manger at Bethlehem.”

I wonder. Has the card writer ever visited Bethlehem? Or did they borrow the popular images of the 19th century carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem? In 1865, Phillips Brooks visited Bethlehem and was deeply moved by the peaceful town. Three years later Brooks wrote a children’s carol for his church Christmas program based on his experience of Bethlehem.

When I last visited Bethlehem, I wondered if the experiences of Mary and Joseph reflected with the lyrics of the Christmas carol.

O little town of Bethlehem, How still we see thee lie!

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.

That first Christmas, Mary and Joseph made the long and difficult journey from Galilee to Bethlehem. When they arrived at their destination, this little town of a few hundred people was too small to host the influx of travellers.

What would have happened if Mary and Joseph had come to Bethlehem today? Would they have been allowed into the city? Not likely. The pandemic may have placed some limitations. Today Bethlehem is a Palestinian city where few people are permitted to enter or leave. An imposing 10 metre wall separates the city from the outside world. For Israelis, the wall represents peace and security. For Palestinians, it represents poverty and isolation. The wall adds a new meaning to “how still we see thee lie”.

Remember too, that in Biblical times, Bethlehem was a place of sorrow. Rachel died in childbirth and was buried there (Genesis 35:16-20). The Benjamites killed the Levite’s concubine there (Judges 19). The Babylonians took captives from there (Jeremiah 41:17). Herod killed innocent children there (Matthew 2:17-18).

But God sent his Son to Bethlehem, to the very place where his presence was needed. Shepherds in the fields nearby heard what the people of Bethlehem and the world still needs to hear this pandemic Christmas season. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14).

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

Now looking at the carol again, Phillips Brooks did catch a glimpse of Christ in Bethlehem after all. His words express a realism of our human condition and offer the hope of God’s abiding presence. In this pandemic Christmas season, as we live in Bethlehems of isolation and grief, there is daily motivation to sing and pray…

O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel


Dr. Terry Hiebert

Academic Dean, Professor of Theology

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