By Jim Segaar
Have you ever noticed how important emphasis and manner of speech are to the meaning of a particular English phrase? Take the title of this blog, O Little Town of Bethlehem.
On one hand, the phrase can be cloyingly sweet, as in “O Little Town of Bethlehem, aren’t you just the cutest little town on earth!” Think of all those scenes on Christmas cards, with charming Bavarian-esque stables and cute, little houses and bright stars and snow.
Or the same phrase can express disappointment, even disgust, as in “O Little Town of Bethlehem, what on earth happened to you!” The photos with this blog might lead one in that direction. Stars and Bucks. Manger Square Hotel. Really!?!
I’ve never been to Bethlehem, and have no plans to visit any time soon, but based on the photos and comments I’ve seen and heard from people who recently visited this hamlet located in the West Bank not far from Jerusalem, I think my impression would be more along the lines of “WTF” than “Oh How Cute!” (OHC, if you will). Our little town seems to have grown into an adolescent tourist trap – maybe not exactly on par with Disneyland but certainly with a strong resemblance to the area of South Dakota that surrounds Mt. Rushmore.
Just what position does Bethlehem have in our Christian faith anyway? In the Gospel of Luke, we read that Joseph and Mary headed for this “City of David” to participate in a census decreed by Caesar Augustus. There might be some problems with that story. For one thing, the title “City of David” was associated more with a part of ancient Jerusalem than with Bethlehem in the Hebrew scriptures. And scholars including Marcus Borg point out that no Roman emperor would have disrupted the economy by ordering everyone to take time off work and make a mostly-pointless journey to some ancestral hometown. Perhaps Bethlehem’s role in our religion is more a ploy by the gospel writers to spread the pilgrim wealth beyond Nazareth. Maybe the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce paid a big, fat bribe to garner a position in the Nativity story, ensuring a steady income stream from pilgrim/tourists for millennia to come.
This might sound like sacrilege to some, but stick with me a little longer. Let’s consider, what is the real meaning of Christmas? Is it all about harried innkeepers and stables and stars and shepherds and expectant mothers on donkeys and babies in mangers? Or does the story really have more to do with a quote by speaker and author Steve Maraboli that has been making the rounds on social networks recently:
“Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the unwanted, care for the ill, love your enemies, and do unto others as you would have done unto you.”
Bethlehem, I believe, is a great example of humanity missing the point in a story. It’s so easy to get caught up in the details of the narrative – stars and angels and shepherds and wise men – but in doing so we so often forget the meaning of the story, the reason it was told in the first place. We forget that God comes to us through the poor, the outcast, the vulnerable, not the rich and powerful. We miss the part about Christ coming to us amidst the muck and mire of life and get all caught up instead imagining a heavenly chorus.
I don’t want to trash anybody’s treasured traditions around Christmas. God knows this world needs all the comfort and joy we can muster these days. But neither do I want to spend my days contemplating a world defined by greeting cards and in doing so forget the point of the story.
If you’re looking for the true meaning of Christmas, you don’t need to go to Bethlehem. You can skip Macy’s and Toys R Us and Amazon. Christmas happens all around us, whenever and wherever human need and divine love collide.
Thank you to Linda Zaugg, Patrick Green, and John Benner for photos of Bethlehem.
This blog includes thoughts from various contributors at Seattle First Baptist