Tomorrow is the second Sunday of Advent, a day often marked by the lighting of the “Bethlehem Candle” on the Advent wreath. Traditionally this Sunday is devoted to reflecting on the insignificant arrival of the significant God. What are we to make of Bethlehem?
O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM
Matthew’s gospel appropriates Micah’s prophecy that the Savior would come from Bethlehem: “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Too little to be among the clans of Judah, From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity.” (Micah 5:2)
Here the word “little” is the Hebrew word sa’ir (cf. Ps 68:27), which does not just refer to size, but also to the insignificance of the town. Linguistically, the town’s name, beth lechem meant something like “house of bread/food” or (less likely) “house of the warrior.” While both these names sound like they’d make good teaching points, the real focus here was the fact that Bethlehem was an insignificant, provincial town – the last place you’d expect the Son of God to arrive.
But Bethlehem was where the Savior arrived. It was both foretold in Micah’s prophecy, as well as Joseph’s hometown. It was in Bethlehem that faith and history would intersect, and into the world God’s word would be born rather than only spoken.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Unfortunately for most greeting card companies, the popular image of Jesus being born in a barn is a bit of a misrepresentation of the Biblical text (partially derived from the story from the Apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew 13 and the Protoevangelium of James 17.3-18.1).
Luke reports that Mary and Joseph stayed in a kataluma when they arrived in Bethlehem. This Greek word is not used to refer to a “barn,” but rather to a house or a guest room. In such a small community, it is doubtful that there would have been an Inn (additionally, Luke uses a different word – pandocheion – to refer to an inn in Luke 10:34).
In homes during the first century, it was common to keep the animals actually in the home. The animals and family would have slept in one common room, though the family would have slept on a raised level. The manger would have been within the home itself.
Therefore, it is probably best to think of the scene as Mary and Joseph staying in the home of family or friends in Bethlehem. Due to the census, we can envision the room as particularly crowded, and when there was no more room in the guest room, Mary probably gave birth in the central family room, where she laid the child in the nearby manger (probably made from stone). (see Ben Witherington III, “Birth of Jesus,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 69-70)
WHERE THE STREETS HAVE NO NAME
Our homes and hometowns of the present day are no more significant than that of Bethlehem. Whether a trailer park or gated community, the thorns and thistles grow just as quickly. Our world is ending, one minute at a time.
We flip the channels on TV as tragedy unfolds on the nightly news. We watch as the streets of New York city fill with dust and ash as the towers fall. We watch as the streets of New Orleans fill with flood waters, decimating everything in its path.
But the season of Advent is not only a time to remember the Savior’s first arrival, but also a time to anticipate His second.
There will be a time when Heaven comes down to earth, when we may watch as the streets of this new city flow with the water from God’s throne (cf. Rev 22:1-2). It is this anticipation that gives our present reality its vibrancy. N. T. Wright, (despite my theological disagreements) says it best:
“We might even suggest, as part of a Christian aesthetic, that the world is beautiful not just because it hauntingly reminds us of its creator but also because it is pointing forward: it is designed to be filled, flooded, drenched in God, as a chalice is beautiful not least of what we know it is designed to contain or as a violin is beautiful not least because we know the music of which it is capable.” (N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, p. 102)
This Holiday we celebrate a Savior who came as a child, who brought with Him a gospel that teaches us to embrace the thorns, thistles and dirty feeding troughs of our provincial towns, and to long for a day when the river of life will flow through our suburbs and wash clean that which longs for perfection.
And to the resurrection.