Bethlehem: for the past 21 centuries the eyes of the world have been fixed on this little town! It is Christ’s presence and nothing else that gives this town its unique position. This is the place where Christ chose to dwell in His physical form more than two thousand years ago. Jesus talked and walked in this land, He preached and taught, He laughed and cried, and won a victorious battle.
Gazing on the city’s dark brown hills, it takes only a little imagination for the onlooker to picture the time when King David lived in this royal city – the very King David who was promised a throne that would last forever ( 2 Samuel 7). Indeed, at the birth of Jesus, the angels proclaimed the coming of the everlasting King of David’s dynasty: “Do not be afraid.I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.Today in the town of David a Saviourhas been born to you; he is the Messiah,the Lord…Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peaceto those on whom his favour rests.” (Luke 2: 10-14)
Peace on earth?! The modern Bethlehemite could be bewildered. As the town’s inhabitants prepare to celebrate Christmas this year, several facts remain unchanged. For one thing, there is no peace on the ground. And the Christian presence remains a minority and suffers severe restrictions, especially in terms of freedom of movement within the country boundaries or beyond. In addition, young and old alike have scarce opportunities to work and flourish. Towering, majestic Christmas trees beautifully decorated in Manger Square just outside the Church of Nativity- historically known as the place of Jesus’ birth- and decorations festooning many buildings seek to sprinkle an atmosphere of joy. It’s a spectacular scene. But in reality many hearts are aching for the loss of a loved one or the absence of another.
As a way of showing care and love to one another, people in Bethlehem make it a priority to visit each other at this time of year, exchanging Christmas greetings but not necessarily gifts. It goes without saying that delicious homemade Christmas cookies are offered at every visit. These cakes are filled with nuts and dates and take the special form of the crown of thorns and the sponge of vinegar Jesus was offered at the cross.
Although it is Jesus’ birth we are remembering, the cakes are a symbolic reminder that Jesus was born to die and that only by His death and suffering could our salvation and resurrection become possible. In the same manner, Bethlehem’s modern residents hope the tears harboured in the eyes and hearts of its people will be replaced with joy unspeakable at this time.
Whilst eyes the world over turn to Bethlehem at this time, it is far better to remember that the eyes of the Lord himself are watching over it in a special way. These eyes that neither slumber nor sleep, unlike ours…
This is our sole comfort and peace: that the Prince of Peace is watching over His Word to fulfil it. Watching over the sad, the broken-hearted, the lost and the bewildered, giving beauty for ashes so that everyone might afresh join the heavenly host proclaiming: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her king.”
Jesus, we receive you anew in our city, Bethlehem, and in our hearts. Come and transform us and use us to transform our nation in return. Come, Oh Emmanuel come!