The protagonists in the events of the first Christmas are not just characters in a story in a book or in a legend. They were real people who lived at a particular, unique moment in history, and in a specific place. The story has a map.
It’s easy at this time of year to relocate the Christmas narrative. Perhaps to the familiar but oddly dislocated scene of a primary school nativity play, with children dressed as angels and wise men. Or to a perfect crib scene painted on a greetings card, complete with candle-lit country church and a pristine snowy landscape. All is calm and all is bright.
But the fact is, the geography of the Christmas story matters. Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea. He was born in Palestine.
Just five miles south of Jerusalem, the town of Bethlehem had already, by the time of Christ’s birth, played an important role in the unfolding drama of the Old Testament. And the prophet Micah makes a remarkable promise about it:
“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.”
In Hebrew, Bethlehem means ‘House of Bread’, while ‘Ephrath’ means fertile. The tomb of Jacob’s wife Rachel, the mother of Joseph, is here. It’s the place where the son of Caleb made his home and began to grow wheat. Years later another farmer, Boaz, fell in love with and married Ruth, a refugee girl who was working as a gleaner in his fields. Bethlehem was the homeplace both of Boaz, and Ruth’s mother in law Naomi. The two women had returned to seek refuge in Bethlehem together, following the tragic death of their husbands in Ruth’s homeland of Moab. Just a few generations later, Hannah and her husband Elkanah had a son called Samuel. He became Israel’s prophet, and was sent by God to Bethlehem to anoint the king of His choosing. That king was David, a shepherd boy, the youngest son of Jesse: David the giant slayer and great grandson of the refugee girl, Ruth. And so, Bethlehem, home to farmers and keepers of sheep, became a Royal City: the City of David, Israel’s greatest King.
Bethlehem: a Royal City with a pastoral heritage and a name that speaks of life and bountiful provision. There is so much beauty in all of this. But Bethlehem was broken. It was the scene of the Massacre of the Innocents, where Herod, filled with jealousy at Christ’s birth, gave orders to kill all the little boys in the town and its vicinity who were two years old and under.
Bethlehem is still beautiful, and it is still broken. I am indebted to one of my former students, Stephanie Bond Abu Ali, for helping me to understand this. Stephanie grew up here in Ireland, but now lives with her husband Manu, close to Bethlehem, his family’s hometown. I think of them often.
Just this week, I asked Stephanie what Bethlehem is like. This is what she wrote:
‘Bethlehem today isn’t a tranquil ‘little town’. The calm oasis of the Nativity Church is beside the bustling souk of the Old City. The noise of church bells overlaps with the call of the mosque. New stores spring up beside ancient homes and white stone villas stand close to refugee camps. Like parts of Ireland, specifically the North, Bethlehem has been defined by the conflict it faces. Belfast has known its share of dividing walls, check points, culture clashes and riots between youths and soldiers. Bethlehem is hemmed in by a towering, graffiti covered wall. Most residents need a permit to cross a checkpoint to the other side. Tear gas often hangs in the air here as frustrated youths throw rocks and Molotov cocktails to try and escape their ‘prison’.
‘However, just like Ireland, the conflict doesn’t take away from its history and beauty. You will be warmly welcomed by a people who are overwhelmingly generous and hospitable. In Bethlehem today, you will always find room at the inn’.
Stephanie’s husband serves on the board of the House of Hope in Bethlehem. The House of Hope was established in 1963 by a local woman who was blind, Miss May Ladah, to meet the physical, educational and spiritual needs of vulnerable children. Strangely enough, I once met Miss Ladah, known affectionately as Auntie May, here in Northern Ireland when I was a child. At the time I couldn’t believe I’d met a real person from Bethlehem. And I had no idea when I was teaching some years later in a school here in County Antrim, that one of my students, Stephanie, would go just a short time afterwards to serve in the House of Hope in Bethlehem and that there she would meet her future husband. It feels as if it is a very small world. And it feels like a strange privilege to be able to share something of the story of the House of Hope today. Psalm 122 encourages us to ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem’. Perhaps the Lord wants more people to know about and pray for the work of House of Hope in the town of Bethlehem, with all its brokenness and beauty. Perhaps this Christmas, we should pray for the peace of Bethlehem too.
It was in this very real place called Bethlehem, so beautiful and so broken, that Jesus Christ was born. If Bethlehem’s story, then and now, teaches us anything, it tells us that in all our beauty and brokenness, we need a Saviour.
The lives of the people we read about in the Christmas story were turned upside down by the Saviour’s coming. And they responded in different ways: some in amazement, some in disbelief; others with faith and rejoicing. Advent calls each one of us to prepare our heart to respond to Christ’s coming. Because He is God reaching out to us in reconciliation. God reaching out to rescue us from brokenness, from our inhumanity to one other, from our sin. He is God reaching out to restore us to beauty.
This Meditation for the Third Week of Advent features the work of County Antrim artist Pauline Gribben and words and original photography by Stephanie Bond Abu Ali. I am very grateful to them both. The poem I have chosen to include this week is a now familiar lyric by Irish poet Mrs Cecil Alexander, written as a poem in 1848, and later set to music in a carol much loved by choirs and congregations at Christmas.
Once in royal David's city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little Child.
He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.
And through all His wondrous childhood
He would honor and obey,
Love and watch the lowly maiden,
In whose gentle arms He lay:
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as He.
For he is our childhood's pattern;
Day by day like us he grew,
He was little, weak, and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us he knew:
And he feeleth for our sadness,
And he shareth in our gladness.
And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love;
For that Child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord in heaven above,
And He leads His children on
To the place where He is gone.
Not in that poor lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by,
We shall see Him; but in heaven,
Set at God's right hand on high;
When like stars His children crowned
All in white shall wait around.
And finally, to the music for this Meditation for the Third Week of Advent. I have selected George Frederick Handel’s wonderful aria ‘He Shall Feed His Flock’, from his oratorio The Messiah, which was made its world premier in Dublin, Ireland, in 1742. The words of this beautiful piece tell of Christ who was born in Bethlehem. He is the Good Shepherd, who carries His flock gently and close to His heart. As we move through this Advent season, in Belfast, Bethlehem, or beyond, may we know His peace, and may each one of us find rest in Him.
He shall feed his flock like
And He shall gather
The lambs with his arm
With his arm
And carry them in his bosom
And gently lead those
That are with young
And gently lead those
And gently lead those
That are with young
Come unto Him
All ye that labour
Come unto Him, ye
That are heavy laden
And He will give you rest
Take his yoke upon you
And learn of Him
For He is meek
And lowly of heart
And ye shall find rest
And ye shall find rest
Unto your souls
Advent Meditation First Sunday
Advent Meditation Second Sunday
Lovely thoughtful and insightful compilation 👌
Thank you for reading!