(Posted December 25, 2008)
"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" (Micah 5: 2).
Bethlehem today is not an impressive city. It is nothing like Tel Aviv, the center of commercial life and leisure where you find big roads and tall buildings. It is different from Haifa, the largest city in northern Israel and the place in which you can find famous academic institutions, beautiful beaches, and fascinating residential areas. It is unlike the beseeched Jerusalem, the center of political activities and religious institutions. In addition, it is neither like Beer Sheva, the capital of the Negev, nor like Eilat the popular tourist center on the red sea. In fact, Bethlehem is one of the least cities in the Holy Land.
Nevertheless, on Christmas Eve many Israeli, Palestinian, as well as international telecommunication systems broadcast the midnight mass from the Nativity Church. Hundreds of thousands of newspapers mention Bethlehem as if they want to prove the correctness of Matthew's assertion i.e. Bethlehem is "by no means least among the rulers of Judah" (Matt 2: 6).
Why is this small insignificant place getting all this attention? Part of the answer to our question might be found in Micah 5: 2 i.e. "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 days." The biblical context calls for seeing this verse in light of Micah 4-5. In other words, Bethlehem is compared to Zion. The latter was entrusted with a cosmic vision in which chaos comes to an end and peace dominates the world (Mic 4: 1-5). Zion and its people failed to accomplish this vision. Consequently, humanity's hope for divine peace collapsed. They will not see the end of the tunnel of their sins and condemnation. The Hebrew text employs the repetition of the word "now" (עתה) to express this depressing reality (Mic 4: 9, 11, 14 [English 5:1]).
In contrast to this disappointment, Bethlehem appears as the place in which hope can be reborn. The majestic salvation of Zion and its great vision is found in the teeny city of David inside a manger that embraced a tiny baby. Just as the first David came out of Bethlehem and spread the glory of Zion, Jesus, the second David, was born in Bethlehem. His birth is the divine time for restoration and is the sign for the fulfillment of humanity's quest for divine peace.
Thus, we sing with the angels "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests" (Lk 2: 14). This celestial announcement is not advocating the peace of Eden that can neither overcome the uproar of sin nor remedy our broken lives nor guarantee an everlasting life. It is a superior peace that can transform humanity on a troubled earth. This peace is not the absence of trouble but is the serene divine presence in spite of humanity's long list of failures. It is the peace in which God is extending his hand to shake ours. Amazingly, the message of Bethlehem is not what God may give, but it is God himself wrapped as a gift. It is the birth of the God-man in Bethlehem that transforms not only Bethlehem"s insignificance into greatness but also imparts divine hope into a world that is marked by despair.
Lord, grant me the significance of Bethlehem by making my heart your manger,
by making my worth founded on your presence in my life,
and also by making my life shine with hope
in the midst of despair. Amen.