“But you Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from old, from ancient times.” Micah 5:2
Being raised in the church, I have always appreciated the sacrifice Jesus made for me at the cross. Until my trip to Israel this past summer, though, I never truly understood the significance of what Jesus gave up to come to earth in such humility out of absolute love for me.
Bethlehem is portrayed in Christmas carols and on cards as a quaint, pretty little hillside village.
At the risk of spoiling your Christmas visions, it’s not quaint or pretty. It is on a hillside.
Bethlehem is only a few miles from Jerusalem, but today there are some challenges in getting from one place to the other. Visitors from Israel wanting to go to the birth town of Jesus are required to pass through checkpoints complete with barbed wire and young military men and women carrying machine guns.
It’s not exactly the picture of a silent and holy night. But that is reality in the West Bank today.
Our tour group visited the Church of the Nativity. This huge, ornate cathedral is built above and around the small cave where it is believed the king of kings was born. The accuracy of the location is up for discussion depending on whom you ask. Our tour guide was Greek Orthodox, therefore in his mind this is the real place. The Church of the Nativity is cared for by all of the Orthodox religions as well as the Catholic Church.
According to their tradition, this spot was the earliest place recognized as the birth place of Jesus, perhaps even told to the disciples by Mary herself. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Romans built a pagan temple over the spot to keep pilgrims from coming to worship.
Many years later when Constantine sent his mother Helene to Israel to reestablish the Christian holy places, the faithful pointed out this spot because of the pagan temple.
Many of our “western” traditions surrounding the birth of Jesus aren’t culturally accurate. The Greek word for “inn” probably is more closely translated as a guest room in a home. In those days it was very common for animals owned by families to be brought into a part of the home or in a section attached to the home at the back or under the main living quarters. It was most likely a cave, rather than a barn where sheep were kept.
While this may change the way we look at our Nativity sets, it doesn’t take away from the humble circumstances of the birth of our Savior.
Jesus was and is and will always be God Incarnate. Imagine the most luxurious, pampered palace on earth and multiple that by 1,000. That would only begin to give us an idea of heaven that Jesus left to come to earth. And He wasn’t born to royalty or even wealthy or well-respected parents. He humbled himself to be born to peasants, as an infant, in a cave.
One speaker I heard not long ago put this in perspective–just being a baby with poopy diapers is about as humble as anyone can get!
In preparation for our trip I read Kathie Lee Gifford’s book “The Road, The Rock and the Rabbi”. Messianic Rabbi Jason Sobel co-authored the book and offers more historical and cultural insights. The shepherds who were watching the sheep were most likely guarding sacrificial lambs. These special lambs had to be protected from injuring themselves so they could be unblemished for sacrifice. Shepherds would use clothes to wrap the lambs. These clothes usually came from old robes that had been worn by priests.
These details add to the symbolism of Jesus, our sacrificial, unblemished lamb who became our high priest.
The fields where angels appeared to the shepherds could have most likely belonged to Boaz, the Old Testament ancestor of Jesus, where Ruth gleaned. Boaz was a relative redeemer to Ruth and Naomi and the great-grandfather of King David. In the same way, Jesus became our relative redeemer.
In another part of the Church of the Nativity is an altar to The Innocents, those children who were murdered by King Herod after the birth ofJesus. This is a reminder of the struggle between good and evil, the reason for Jesus coming to earth.
All that I saw and learned in Bethlehem shows how much God loves me and you, that Jesus left splendor of heaven and His righteousness not only to die for us but to be humbled in the lowliest of births with no place to lay his head in birth or later in life.
It truly is amazing grace and unbelievable love.
Dear Jesus–thank you for loving us so much that you were willing to leave the splendor of heaven to come to our dark and fallen world. Help us to carry the spirit of Christmas love and joy with us every day of the year and to shine Your light brightly in our world until you return again in glory. In your name we ask these things. Amen.