But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days. (Micah 5:2)
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” (Matthew 2:6)
We turn from the story of the Annunciation (the announcement that Mary would have a child) to the story of how Joseph came to know that Mary was pregnant. First, we turn to his hometown, the “little town of Bethlehem.” For years I thought that Joseph was likely from Nazareth as Mary was, and that Joseph only went to Bethlehem with Mary as a result of the census that we’ll consider shortly. But for reasons I describe in the book that accompanies these reflections, I’ve come to believe that Joseph’s hometown was actually Bethlehem. Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t mention Nazareth until Jesus is likely several years old, after the return of the Holy Family from Egypt.
Bethlehem was only somewhat larger than Nazareth; but, while Nazareth was considered a town of low esteem (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”), men and women would proudly say they hailed from Bethlehem in Judea. The name Bethlehem means “House of Bread,” probably a nod to the fact that there were farmers, millers, and bakers there who supplied bread for nearby Jerusalem. Bethlehem was best known as the home of King David and his family. It was known, along with Jerusalem, as “the City of David.”
Other well-known people were associated with Bethlehem as well. Jacob buried his beloved wife Rachel near Bethlehem. (The traditional site of her tomb can still be seen outside Bethlehem’s wall to this day.) One of the leaders of ancient Israel, Ibzan the judge, was from Bethlehem, and he was also buried there. The Book of Ruth is set in Bethlehem and gives us a glimpse of what the village was like eleven hundred years before the time of Jesus.
All these people were a part of the rich history of Bethlehem. Yet it was the words of the prophet Micah that made Bethlehem a name synonymous with hope and with God’s future deliverance of his people. Bethlehem was the name associated with a promise that God would not abandon his people. One day God would send a ruler who would “stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord” (Micah 5:4) and who, as king, would “be the one of peace” (Micah 5:5). This promise of a king who would shepherd his people and bring them peace sustained God’s people over the centuries. The promise, and Bethlehem as a symbol for it, gave them hope in exile, in war, and in adversity. They believed that one day, from Bethlehem, would come a shepherd king, a man of peace.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the great American poet, wrote a poem on Christmas Day 1864 while the Civil War raged. Three years earlier, his beloved wife Fanny had died. His heart had been broken by her loss, and for some time he was unable to compose verse. But that year he wrote of an undying hope associated with Christmas in a poem originally called “Christmas Bells.” In that poem he wrote of the war and the cannons drowning out the sound of “peace on earth, good will to men.” But he ended the poem with these words:
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Longfellow captured in his poem the effect that Micah’s words about Bethlehem had on future generations. When hate seems strong and mocks the songs, we remember the words of promise, both form Micah and from the angels at Jesus’ birth, that with his birth came the certain promise of “peace on earth, good-will to men.”
Lord, during this season of Advent I remember the promise that you would “be the one of peace” and long for the day when peace will reign on earth. Help me to remember and trust that “the wrong shall fail, the right prevail.” And make me an instrument of your peace. O come, O come, Emmanuel! Amen.