In Bethlehem today

Micah 5:2a-5a
Luke 1:26-38

It’s not always for good reasons that a town or a city gets a reputation for being known.  Despite the fact there are many other reasons for thinking about Lockerbie – it’s hard not to remember the Pan-Am air crash.  When the name Dunblane is mentioned, people don’t think of the cathedral, but of the tragic events in the Primary School.  Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the atomic bombs.  Belsen, Auschwitz – well – who needs reminding?

When the name Bethlehem is mentioned – what comes to mind?  For most people Bethlehem conjures up one image, and one image only.  It’s the one thing all the nativity sets in church have in common – it’s where Jesus was born.

If you visit Bethlehem today, you have to pass through a number of checkpoints – Bethlehem is surround by a 30 feet high concrete barrier, with watch towers and checkpoints.  The wall is made of ghastly concrete slabs, all of which have written at the bottom of them, Made in USA.  To add insult to injury, the route of this wall is not just around the edge of the city, it twists and turns, carefully making sure good pieces of land are on the Israeli side of the barrier, taking several times the length of the real boundary.  To get through the barrier are ghastly checkpoints, where people are forced to walk through cages and fences, and the citizens of Bethlehem have to queue for hours in order to endure this inhuman treatment simply to get to work or school or medical services.  Bethlehem residents who work in Jerusalem have to begin queuing up around 2.30 am in order to get through the checkpoints to do a day’s work.  When you see pictures of people queuing against vast concrete walls, and metal cages and fences, it looks eerily reminiscent of concentration camps.

Within Bethlehem are three refugee camps.  Some of the Palestinian people in land given to the new state of Israel in 1948 had to vacate their homes, and they’ve been living in refugee camps since 1948.  I visited the largest camp, Deheisha Camp.  It’s 500 metres by 500 metres, about the size of Farnham town centre within the one way system, and 12,000 people live there.

Bethlehem in many people’s minds is a quaint little town, but the reality is that it’s nothing of the kind – a town under military occupation and siege.

Oh well, at least it wasn’t like that in Jesus’ time.  At least it was all alright when Jesus was born.  Except it was.  When Jesus was born, Bethlehem lay in territory ruled over by Herod: not a safe place to grow up in, as Matthew’s story of the massacre of the innocents makes clear.

At the heart of Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity, the oldest church in the world.  There’s a tiny door you have to bend down to creep in through.  Towards the back is another little door, and a small staircase down, and when you get downstairs, there’s a little cave, and if you want to touch the spot where Jesus was born you have to crouch down.  The Persians would have razed it to the ground in the 6th century, except that they saw the Magi in Persian dress depicted on the west front, and they spared it for the sake of that image.  Muslims were allowed to use the south transept for prayer since the 7th century, and they too spared the church in later times when so much else was lost.

This is what all these wonderful nativity scenes have in common – this troubled, but special place, where Jesus was born.  It makes more sense when you know that Bethlehem means ‘House of bread’.  It suggests a place of goodness and plenty: ‘you, Bethlehem Ephrathah…from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel’ says the prophet.  This long-expected Messiah: he is Bethlehem’s gift, Bethlehem’s food, Bethlehem’s bread.  He is the one whom we have crossed this lowly threshold to see, this marvellous Child in whom a new dawn is breaking, Jesus the living Bread who feeds the hungry and fills them with good things.

The door of the House of Bread is always open.  We come as we are, lost, lonely, hopeless, hungry, and poor: nothing in our hands we bring.  The little tiny Child bids us welcome and invites us in.  When we feast in the House of Bread, and our eyes are opened, and we recognise him, he draws our wonder and our love because of all that he has to give.  In the House of Bread our lives are given back to us once more, their broken fragments gathered up like grain scattered on the hillsides so that in him we begin to live again.

Like all the best gifts, Bethlehem is not just for Christmas.  The House of Bread is open all the year round for us to find a welcome and share a feast.  The bread he will break at the last supper and give to his disciples; the command he will give that we go on sharing bread in his memory, broken bread for his body given for us all and for the life of the world; living bread for Easter when with burning heart we know him as the one who is risen from the dead.  Bethlehem gives its name to all that belongs to Jesus and all that belongs to us.  He says to us and to all humanity, in our living and our loving, our suffering and our dying that in him all our hungers are satisfied.

When we see and hear and read the news, Bethlehem seems to be a symbol of that is wrong, injustice and war.  Yet, when we consider it more, there is also the answer to everything, as God offers himself to us and all the world.  So, as we approach this Christmas, may we go once more to Bethlehem.   May we enter the House of Bread, and allow our hungers and longings to find a voice, knowing that the Holy Child welcomes us and hears us, offering us happiness, healing, purpose, hope, love, and our daily bread:, today, this Christmas and throughout this coming year.  Lord, give us this bread always!

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