"O, little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy 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."Bethlehem was small. In spite of being both the birth place of King David and the place he was crowned king, its status among the surrounding clans of Judah was apparently rather insignificant. The prophet Micah foretold to Bethlehem, however, that in spite of its littleness, it would be the place from which an everlasting king for God would come.
Bethlehem as a city still exists today. But when I think of Bethlehem, likely because I am influenced by the Bible stories I've read and the songs I've heard, I think of a quiet, simple, dusty town -- jaded, yearning, and restless. I think of figures such as the innkeeper and David's family, who lived there -- simple people belonging to a simple time and a simple town.
But, whatever we think about Bethlehem -- whatever we project onto it from our interpretations of Scripture and Christmas carols -- whether we think it was truly dreamless, quiet, darkened, still -- we know of one thing for certain:
Bethlehem hadn't the slightest idea about what was going on inside its own walls.
And so, when I think of Bethlehem, I think of myself. Occupied and busy with the mundane things of life which suck my soul dry and leave me stubborn and selfish and starved. I hear the Christmas carol that tells the story of Bethlehem and its deep and dreamless sleep and I hear the story of my life, with the exception that I am hardly ever still and have trouble sleeping. I have strange and vivid dreams at night, but when I'm awake I don't think much about the future because it stresses me out. I have no idea what I want to do with my life. I have no dreams, and what dreams I do have, I keep to myself for fear of exposing them to the hostile world around me.
And yet, even in the monotony of daily living, when I'm distracted by myself or my work, when I'm not paying attention, and when I've shut the world out from my eyes closed tight, Jesus comes to me here. Even if at first I don't recognize him and tell him I don't have a place for him, Jesus comes to me here. Even if all I have to offer him is scraps and straw and the bitter cold of a winter night, Jesus comes to meet me here. All my hopes and all my fears are met in this tiny, fragile baby -- and especially, in a tiny, fragile host. "Bethlehem" means "house of bread," and the Eucharist which first took his place in a tabernacle of hay and rags now takes his place in my life by the kiss of the Holy Mass.
And even when I miss him, even when I'm not paying attention, even when I reject him, Jesus is working for me in my life. He is quiet and slow and patient, not wanting to disturb me or what I consider more important than him in a given moment. But even while he is not waking me from my distraction or shaking me from my selfishness, the impact of his simple presence in my life is dramatically reshaping my entire destiny -- just as he changed the whole world that first Christmas in Bethlehem.
This God who went from riches to rags by a deliberate act of the will condescends to find a bed made for him in a feed trough by his impoverished mother and her betrothed; she wraps him in rags and holds him tight against her own shivering humanity. He is greeted by shepherds straight from the field, with dirty hands and faces, with their animals in tow. He is guarded by a carpenter, a man who only days before packed up the family God commanded him to take for himself and traveled to this Bethlehem, where he found no place to house his family besides a stable in a cave.
Surrounded by all this -- by animals and their feces and dust and straw and wood and rock and rags and the cold and the stench and the strangers -- this baby changes the world. He emerges from the womb and for the first time God is naked and cold and vulnerable. He opens his eyes and for the first time God's gaze is met by the gaze of a human. He cries and for the first time God's voice pierces the ears of those unprepared to hear. His mother feeds him and for the first time we see God dependent on a human being for sustenance. The Unmoved Mover squirms. The Uncaused Cause is born.
This Christ, this anointed of God, is greeted by angels' songs in a town that doesn't notice. In this sleeping town, God takes hold of the world in order to conquer it, with ten little fingers and ten little toes. Years will pass before this baby becomes a man strong enough to carry the cross, and with it the weight of the world's sin. In the meantime, the uncreated Son of God rests in the arms of his mother. And for the first time, God is rocked to sleep.
"How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given as God imparts to human hearts the blessings of all his heavens. No ear can hears his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in."