In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
(John 1:4-5)

The first time I visited the small  city of Bethlehem was more than a decade ago, and it was a very upsetting trip.  Upsetting not because of the commercialism of the place which is ever present.  Nor was it the somewhat unruly Church of the Nativity, which is ancient, fascinating and very holy in an odd, chaotic, Middle Eastern way.  Rather, it was the trip itself: traveling to Bethlehem, getting in and getting out.

The city is only six miles south of Jerusalem, but it takes a long time to get there, and it exists in a very different world.  Bethlehem is near the border of the Palestinian territory, which is as poor and hopeless, as Israel is prosperous and secure.  To get there one has to change buses – from an Israeli bus to a Palestinian bus – and to get to that second bus one has to go through the wall.  The ghastly steel wall which separates the two territories.

No matter what your politics may be, if you go to Bethlehem, you will, I think, find the wall to be horrible beyond imagining.  It is a monument to hatred and violence and intransigence on the part of both the people of Israel and the people of Palestine, and it is therefore very tense and scary to go through it to get to that second bus.  You can feel the fear, the suspicion and hatred of the Israeli soldiers on the one side.  You can feel the fear suspicion, and hatred of the Palestinian forces on the other side.  Hatred and fear all around you. 

And on my first trip, once in Bethlehem I entered a city which was quite depressed, almost despairing.  Because of the disastrous political situation of the years before my visit, most people were afraid to go there, and the tourist trade – which was essential for the economy – had been almost entirely destroyed.  Many hotels were shut.  Most of the shops which line the street which leads to the Church of the Nativity were closed.  The owners of those which remained open were so desperate that they would say or do anything to sell you something.  I couldn’t take it and got back on the bus.

*     *     *     *     *

Many of you, I am sure, have heard that Bethlehem means “house of bread” in ancient Hebrew.  To those of us with a spirituality centered on the Mass, this is both satisfying and thrilling.  Bethlehem – the “house of bread.”  This church, a “house of bread,” where day by day and week by week Christ comes to us and is born for us, so to speak, in the Mass.  It may mean this.  We don’t really know.  Bethlehem is too ancient a place for us to know for sure what its name really means.  Excavations of the city go back as far as 1400 B. C.  Hebrew scholars tell us, though, that there is another meaning to the name which is just as likely as “house of bread”, and that is “house of fighting.”  We don’t hear that very often, because we don’t want to hear it, do we?  It doesn’t sit well with “how still we see thee lie.”  And yet the Bethlehem I visited was certainly a “house of fighting,”  and it would seem that it was very much the same at the time of Jesus’ birth.  Our Lord was born into a time and circumstance of bloody violence and great strife.  He was born a member of a people conquered and held down by a brutal empire and corrupt leaders.  He was born a member of a people divided into factions which hated one another as much as they hated the Roman oppressor.  He was born a member of a people who could be forced to endure a census by the enemy occupation.

A census provokes very odd reactions, as we know from the plans for the next one here in the States.  It seems quite an innocent and sensible thing to do, and yet it bothers people.  Some people become very suspicious when a census is taken.  The first census recorded in the Bible, taken by the Jews themselves just after they were organized into a kingdom, was seen by some to be a revolt against the sovereignty of God and many resisted it.  The much later census reported in his Gospel by St Luke was just another assertion of power and control by Rome.  Moreover, it involved taxation.  Go to Bethlehem.  Go wherever it was that you were born.  We’ll write your name down, and then we’ll take your money, and we’ll use that money to oppress you.  “House of fighting” – not only Bethlehem, but the whole nation was surely a house of fighting.  Violence, hatred, suspicion, brute force: it was into this darkness that the light was born.  It was because of this darkness that the light was sent, that the light was born into the world.

*        *        *        *        *

In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.

Good people, the world into which Jesus, our Lord, was born was not that different from our own world.  I don’t think I have to convince you of this.  Turn on the radio.  Read the newspaper.  The weapons and the politics may be different, but the violence and the hatred are still around.  Darkness now is much the same as darkness then.

And yet – yet, that blessed word! – and yet, the world is very different, for now a light shines in the darkness, and that light was born in Bethlehem.  The darkness has not overcome that light and the darkness will never overcome that light, for he was born to live and to die and, rising out of death, finally to dispel the darkness forever.  The darkness of sin and brokenness.  The darkness of hatred and enmity.  The darkness of evil, the devil, and death.

The light, our dear Lord Jesus, was born in Bethlehem.  The light shone through his life.  The light shines on in you and me.

He came to teach and we are taught.  He came to heal and in him our souls find peace and comfort, even in a troubled, troubling, wounded, wounding world.  He came to live and give us life and light.  He came to die and, rising, to destroy death, the ultimate power of darkness, and to create the world anew.

The light was born in Bethlehem – the “house of fighting” – but by his grace and by his power and by his living presence that light has made this church a new Bethlehem and now for you and me a peaceful, holy, and life-giving “house of bread.”


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