The miracle of Christmas is that God cared enough to send the very best, the redeemer of mankind, in the person of his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ — Royal Grote
We sing the well-known Christmas carol — “O little town of Bethlehem”. We read the familiar scripture prophecy — “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrata who are little to be among the clans of Judah.” We hear, again and again, the Christmas story — “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David…”
“Ephrata” refers to the specific region in which this Bethlehem was located, some six miles south, south west of Jerusalem — it was “least of the clans of Judah” — insignificant among the villages of Palestine. It is a village with a history, not simply with a past. In was in Bethlehem that Rachel, wife of the patriarch Jacob, died and was buried. It was the city of Ruth – great-grandmother of Bethlehem’s most distinguished son. Out of Bethlehem came a shepherd-king, David, who was to found a dynasty of Hebrew monarchs who were to rule Judah for almost half a millennium.
It had a future as well. Micah, distressed with the worldly splendors of Jerusalem and the corruptions that surround him on every side, points to this modest village of Bethlehem as the focus of Israel’s future hope.
Why did the Christian Church pick up that Bethlehem-Ephrata passage from Micah with its specific historical reference? How and why did the Church apply it to the birth of the Christ? Also, what meaning does it have for us?
First off, I would say that the Bethlehem passage was a powerful way of underlining the fact that it’s so typical of God to choose to come to humankind through that which is most unlikely. Where you least expect to see the power of God demonstrated in a corrupt and demonic world, there you will find God working out his purpose in an ordinary place by ordinary means.
Historically, God surprised Israel by sending the original David from a shepherd clan from a backwash of a village — not significant enough to be among “the thousands of Judah” — that is, not among the towns that counted. Thus, I believe that the early church was saying: it’s so typical of God to use the unexpected — for the scenario is that of an obscure peasant couple, kicked about by government bureaucracy, powerless to the point that they had to trek to Bethlehem for some pain-in-the-neck census when the woman was in the final stages of pregnancy — and to that humble couple was born, in obscurity, a child. It’s the mystery of the hidden God, for enfleshed within that obscure peasant child was the mystery of God’s own presence.
The Prophet Micah was right: it’s so typical of God; always God surprises us by choosing to come through the unlikely. The insignificant becomes significant.
The world of little Bethlehem was real; Caesar Augustus was real; Herod was real; taxation was real; death and slaughter of innocent children were real; despair was real and normal. In the midst of all this, God really came to us. That’s the meaning of Emmanuel – God with us.
There is another point the early church was trying to make by applying Micah’s Bethlehem prophecy to Jesus. The word “beth-lechem” is a name that means literally, “the House of Bread”. It would appear that Bethlehem was a Judean breadbasket, a village nestled among the grain fields. Interestingly enough, the word “Ephrata” bolsters the “House of Bread” motif for Ephrata comes from the root-word, “parah”, a word meaning “to be fruitful”. Bethlehem was a fertile breadbasket, a “house of bread”. Could there have been a town with a more appropriate name for the birth of one who was to say of himself, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst”?
To Bethlehem, “the House of Bread”, comes the one who is to be “the bread of life” — whose birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection we remember as we break bread at the Communion Table. In these ordinary elements of bread and wine, we become one with him who for us became one with us. What a heavenly and spiritual mystery. Every time a baby is born, an old legend says, God endorses this world. Every time we celebrate Holy Communion we experience once again His incarnation.
The miracle of Christmas: What is it? Is it the star, the singing angels, the wondering shepherds, the lovely mother, the exotic kings? Is it the cold night, the hopes and fears? I think not. The miracle of Christmas is that God cared enough to send the very best, the redeemer of mankind, in the person of his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. Amen!
A Blessed and Wonderful Christmas to you all,
Bishop Royal U. Grote