The actual, rather than virtual, Advent Calendar that I am enjoying this year is rather an elaborate 3D like affair entitled Guiding Star offering a grand Jerusalem and a humble Bethlehem. It cost me nearly £10 – over the top for a 24 day calendar unless I make it last 2 years! For as long as I can remember a skyline of Bethlehem buildings with a star has brought Christmas into focus with the accompanying excitement.
I have to admit though there have been times when I have felt rather guilty to respond in this way. To say the least Bethlehem has its problems and few good news stories come out from that town.
Unless we are very young we cannot be unaware of the nature of living in this particularly volatile part of the Middle East, either over centuries or to the present day: hostilities and terrorism, privation and land annexation, West Bank settlements and the Wall; the historical tendency of colonial powers to draw up borders, create hostilities and then depart. All of those things makes it feel wrong to be misty eyed about such a place.
The author of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), an ordained minister in the American Episcopal Church, was very taken by the town when he visited there during a journey to the Holy Land in 1866. He was sure Bethlehem was a place that would entrance many others and bring them to faith. He returned home to the United States and wrote this carol for his Sunday School. One has to wonder if he would feel the same way today had he become acquainted with the Wall which eats into the West Bank and divides many from their land and heritage but is deemed a defensive necessity against intifada.
(There may be some of you who have visited the Holy Land in the more recent past who could share their impressions of Bethlehem.)
Travel back in time 2000 years and I would guess it wasn’t serene then; it was an occupied land. The Roman occupation was not benign. Caesar Augustus was certainly not the most notorious of the emperors but he had military force and if he needed taxes nothing would stop him. He would not lose any sleep about having inflicted harsh treatment on the many like Mary and Joseph uprooted and dispersed across their homeland and beyond. There were also of course the puppet kings eager to keep their authority and at the same time stay on the right side of their masters whatever the cost in spilled blood.
Along with the darkness of occupation and fears created by the soldiers, who would surely be around to ensure the troublesome Hebrews did not turn discontent at their treatment into rebellion, there would also be the hopes for the longed for son of David to deliver them and make them a great nation once more. The Old Testament reading set for this 3rd Sunday of Advent from Isaiah 61 would be known to Joseph and his compatriots. I expect you can imagine their longing.
From our vantage place we can see how the “hopes and fears are met” as the everlasting Light shines in the dark streets of Bethlehem. The shepherds would very soon know too and they would break the news to the sleeping world. Verses 3 and 4 of our carol place us in the circle of light that suffuses the nativity. We can receive the blessings of Emanuel, God with us, if we are open to receiving God’s word, if we let him into our life. We need the discipline to pray for grace to receive the holy Child of Bethlehem, this year with all the difficulties, and every year.
Christmas cannot be cancelled nor our joy quelled if in our minds we are kneeling at the manger. We are looking at a baby and at the same time looking into the face of God the King. This is not a puppet king like Herod with his wicked, cruel ways, nor yet like Emperor Augustus, but a king who we can take in our arms. Our God wants that intimacy with us and wants to come close and be at home with us, God for each of us, whether near or – as the shepherds out in the cold – unseen and unheard by those at the centre. If we grasp that message why would we not want to go quickly to Bethlehem and be there at the stable to see this thing that has taken place that the Lord has made known unto us?
Tidings of Comfort and Joy from the little town of Bethlehem!