But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting. Micah 5:2
I knew everything would be different. There would be no stable as I’d always pictured, no shepherds watching sheep on a hillside, no patient donkey, instead honking taxis and tourist attractions. I wanted to picture Bethlehem as the Bible described it, a quiet little town suddenly filled with strangers needing to be counted, frantically seeking a place to lay their heads. But when an unusual opportunity came up that allowed Charles and me to visit the Holy Land we were excited.
In 1996 it was possible to visit Bethlehem on certain days. Our guide, a Christian Palestinian, explained that when there was a terrorist threat (as there often was), no tourists were allowed. But it was clear the day we went to Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Yes, Bethlehem was different but it was fascinating. Not only was it was the birthplace of Jesus but it was also the birthplace of David, the town where Ruth met Boaz in the field. Ruth became the great-great-great (about 14 greats!) grandmother of Jesus. It was Joseph’s ancestral home so he had to go there when Caesar declared a census be taken in Judea. All part of God’s marvelous plan.
We enjoyed buying olive wood nativity sets for family members at a huge store where there were dozens and dozens of nativity sets of all sizes, from Christmas tree ornament, to almost life size. Crafting these nativity sets is the main livelihood for many folks in Bethlehem.
When we visited the place of Jesus’ birth, the actual place, I was overwhelmed with the knowledge of what He did for me, leaving Glory to become a helpless baby. For centuries after His birth, according to our guide, folks eagerly pointed to that stable/cave and told what had happened there. In about the year 500 the Church of the Nativity was built over the place to preserve it for all to visit and, like me, to worship the Lord. There were hundreds of people standing in line to be able to kneel at the very spot marked by a large star on the floor of a recessed “cave.” When I knelt ever so briefly just to touch the tiles it was a very precious moment. That site is said to be the most authentic of all the sacred sites.
It was years after our visit that I read the account of Phillips Brooks’ visit to Bethlehem. It was something like this.
Phillips Brooks was a very famous preacher in the mid 1800’s. He was the one chosen to preach the funeral of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. After that funeral he was so depressed, so hopeless, he could no longer lead his parishioners. He took a sabbatical and traveled to the Holy Land. He rode by horse from Jerusalem to Bethlehem late one afternoon. Contemplating the little town and remembering the supernatural event that took place there, he felt a peace come over him that was unexplainable. He went in a small church where, as he wrote later, his “heart sang.” He knew that, in spite of the horrors of the last few years, God was still in control.
When Phillips returned to his flock he tried to explain to them what it was like walking where Jesus walked. He wanted them to have the peace he experienced. But no matter how hard he tried he could not convey to them the feelings that he had. It was simply too much for words. Three years after his return to his church in Philadelphia he sat at his desk trying to prepare for that year’s Christmas service. Suddenly the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” formed in his head and he quickly wrote them down. He rushed to his organist, Lewis Radner, who exclaimed, “This is what you’ve been trying to say!” Radner began trying to write music for the words but he was struggling. On Christmas Eve night he finally went to sleep knowing he would disappoint Phillips because he had no music. In his sleep the tune came to him and when he woke he was able to write it so the church could, that Christmas Day, sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
The little town of Bethlehem is different from the time when Jesus was born. It’s different from the time Phillips Brooks was there. And I’m sure it’s different from the time we walked its streets in 1996. But the story of the birth of the Messiah is the same. Our great God who sent Jesus is the same. And we can find His peace in the streets of Bethlehem or — wherever you are!
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.
Above they deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.