I have heard that they have canceled Christmas in Bethlehem this year—not the one in Pennsylvania, where I assume the giant star is still lit on the mountain ridge. Rather, they’ve canceled Christmas in the Bethlehem in Israel—the town where, according to the Gospels, Jesus was born. To be clear, what they have canceled in Bethlehem in Israel is any public Christmas celebrations. There will be no lights on the Christmas tree in Manger Square this year. The glitz and the schmaltz will be put away. There has been too much death and terror and grief.
In other words, Christmas this year in Israel will be much like the first Christmas, which is something that we lose in our attempts to drain the religious faith from the holiday celebrations, to have Christmas without Christ. What we end up with is a Christmas that’s all glitz, all schmaltz, all shallow sentimentality.
The Bible’s story of the first Christmas is much more realistic. According to the Bible, on that first Christmas, a young pregnant woman and her new husband had their lives turned upside down when they were forced by the Roman Empire to leave their home and to travel to his hometown. Israel was occupied territory, you see, and the dictator/Emperor in charge at the time had decided “that all the world should be registered,” (Luke 2:1). From there, that couple became refugees, fleeing to Egypt, because the puppet king that the Romans had installed to rule Israel had heard a rumor from some foreign wise men that a king had been born in Bethlehem. And so, in order to insure that there was no threat to Roman rule, he ordered the slaughter of all the little baby boys around Bethlehem who were two years old and younger. “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more” (Matthew 2:18, quoting the prophet Jeremiah).
It was into such a world that Jesus was born, which really is kind of the point of the story of that first Christmas in the Bible. For the hard, honest truth is that sometimes the world is filled with death and terror and grief. And according to the Bible, Christmas does not change that, suddenly and miraculously making the world into a holly, jolly place where children are all snug in their beds with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads. Instead, Christmas brings a flicker of hope into the midst of the darkness of a world where the children are often slaughtered that there is more to the world than loss and cruelty.
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.
There will be Christmas in Bethlehem this year, devoid of the glitz and the schmaltz and the shallow sentimentality—a Christmas that is maybe more like the first one when Christ was born of Mary and God made hope sputter into the world for peace on earth, goodwill to all.
–Pastor Don Steele