As for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, seemingly insignificant among the clans of Judah— from you a king will emerge who will rule over Israel on my behalf, one whose origins are in the distant past” (Micah 5: 2).
Bethlehem today is a small, seemingly insignificant, city. It is unlike Tel Aviv which is Israel’s commercial and cultural capital. It lacks the sandy beaches or the hi-tech companies or the huge buildings and wide streets. It is unlike Haifa, the third largest city in Israel which has famous academic institutions, amazing Baha’i gardens, beautiful beaches, and some of the best residential neighborhoods in the country. It is unlike Jerusalem which is the center of political activities and spirituality for Muslims, Jews, and Christians. It is unlike Eilat which is the holiday capital of Israel and has access to the amazing Red Sea. It seems that Bethlehem is the least among the cities of the Holy Land. It is a Palestinian town with feeble economy, surrounded by an Israeli wall that prevents its citizens from free movement, and it is suffering from political and economic oppression.
Nevertheless, on Christmas millions of people around the world think of Bethlehem, hundreds of thousands mention its name with utmost respect, and thousands of people seek to enter it. Countries around the world mention it on their television screens. Thousands of newspapers write about Bethlehem. All of them reflect on the greatness of the one born in Bethlehem and elevate the honor of this city.
Like contemporary Palestinian Christians Micah, the author of the prophecy of Bethlehem, lived in the midst of wars and suffered from many frustrations, yet he contemplated divine salvation. In concord with the concerns of Micah, Matthew sought to elevate the status of Bethlehem saying: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (Matthew 2: 6). Also, Matthew writes in a time of political unrest yet his hope is anchored in the baby born in Bethlehem.
Why did this “insignificant” town receive all this attention? Part of the answer is found in the book of Micah which states: “from you a king will emerge who will rule over Israel on my behalf, one whose origins are in the distant past” (Micah 5: 2). The context in Micah provokes us to read this verse in light of the text in chapters 4 and 5 of the book of Micah. Consequently, we should reflect on comparing Bethlehem to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is supposed to be the magnet of all the nations, the source of the law, and the city in which war ends (Micah 4: 1-5). It has the mountain of the Lord; it is the place from which the law shall come out, and is the city of peace. However, Jerusalem and its inhabitants failed to fulfill the divine vision presented in Micah. The hope of the world is tied to Jerusalem in Micah 4. Her failure has cosmic implications. Humanity shall be condemned forever and peace is unattainable.
In such a context, Bethlehem appears as the source of hope. It stands as the savior of Jerusalem and its dream. The hope of Jerusalem and the world is found in the city of David inside a manger that embraced a baby boy. The first David came out of Bethlehem and built the Davidic Kingdom. He saved Old Testament Israel from her enemies. The second David shall also come out of Bethlehem and build the Kingdom of God fulfilling the dreams and destiny of Zion. His birth is the divine Kairos or the holy time in which humanity’s hope is born. Peace is now possible.
Thus we sing with the angels, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2: 14). This divine declaration does not offer us the peace of Eden which Adam and Eve enjoyed before falling into sin. Such a peace is incapable of conquering the temptations of sin or of healing broken souls, or ending the curse that started in Eden, or securing eternal life. Instead, the angels are declaring a superior peace that can change humanity despite the fall and the dominance of the curse. It is not the peace that is founded on the absence of trouble and disequilibrium but the peace that is founded on the divine presence in the midst of sinful people and in a fallen world. It is the peace through which human hands tainted with sin shakes the holy hands of God. Amazingly, the peace of Bethlehem is not based on the possible blessings of gifts that might be granted by God but is based on receiving God himself as the ultimate gift. The birth of the fully God and fully human Jesus Christ in Bethlehem transformed this seemingly insignificant town into a great city that cannot be compared to any other city in its uniqueness. The light of hope had shown on Bethlehem in the midst of a dark world.
O Lord, grant me the significance of Bethlehem by transforming my heart into your manger, by making my worth depend on your presence in my life, and by making my life shine with hope in the midst of despair.
Questions for Reflection:
• How do you compare Jerusalem and Bethlehem in Micah 4-5?
• Why is Bethlehem significant in your life?
• What is the uniqueness of the peace that is revealed in Bethlehem and how can it bring about the salvation to our troubled world?
• Remember the followers of Christ in the Holy Land and pray that they will actively spread the peace of Bethlehem to Palestine, Israel, and the rest of the world.
• Remember the countries that suffer from wars and pray that the hope of Bethlehem will conquer their despair.
• Pray that the message of Bethlehem transforms us into active agents of peace in a world full of hate.
Isaiah 7: 10-16; Psalm 80: 1-7, 17-19; Romans 1: 1-7; Matthew 1: 18-25.