Continued from Last week…
It has become fashionable to assume that Christianity is just another myth among a lot of fine and amusing myths. The blessed Mother, Mary, is compared to Isis and Christmas was really the feast of Unconquered Sun and the winter solstice, or perhaps the Roman feast of the Saturnalia, etc. etc. This is a bunch of horse-puckey as far as I am concerned.
I pointed out at this time last year there is good reason to celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December and even better reason to believe that Christ was born in Bethlehem. As I wrote last year, “What about the scholars who say that there was a journey to Bethlehem and that part of the story was thrown in just to make the prophecy about the messiah being born in Bethlehem come true?”
All I know is that the Christian author St. Justin Martyr (100 – 165 AD), a Palestinian Christian, said that the Holy Family stayed in a cave outside of Bethlehem. “Joseph took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him.” (Dialogue with Trypho Chapter LXXVIII).
So, from the first days, Bethlehem and its cave were venerated and are still venerated to this day as the site of Christ’s birth. In 135 AD, the Emperor Hadrian built a shrine and planted a sacred grove of trees at the site venerated by the first Christians of the Holy Land in order to obliterate the memory of Christ there, just as he built a pagan temple over the site of Calvary and the Holy Sepulcher. He sure went to a lot of trouble to obliterate nothing if there was nothing there in the first place.
The first Christians weren’t really interested in marketing and holiday sales. They treasured these things and told their grandchildren about them. When a few people came asking, the places associated with these events were well known to the people who lived there, and whose descendants live there still.
There are symbolic reasons that make the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem part of the divine plan. You might say that for that very reason the whole Bethlehem story must be a construct. People who believe everything is random and thus there is no meaning to any of these things should probably just check in at work on December 25th like Ebenezer Scrooge.
Things have meaning. The shepherds who were tending their flocks were watching over sheep that were destined for sacrifice in the temple in Jerusalem. His birth in Bethlehem reminds us that He was the lamb for sacrifice promised by God through Abraham when Isaac asked “Where, Father, is the lamb for the sacrifice.” Abraham told Isaac, “Don’t worry son. God will provide.” And God does provide. John the Baptist shouts “Behold the Lamb of God” when he first sees Jesus. Every Catholic priest repeats these words at every Catholic Mass. All these things bring us back to Bethlehem.
The very word “Bethlehem” points to the temple in Jerusalem and to every Catholic Mass. The very word Bethlehem means “house of bread”, and so the Bread of Life whose flesh is true food was born in the House of Bread. The regular sacrifice of a lamb was always accompanied by an offering of wine and bread (Numbers 15). Ever notice that in the Catholic Mass we continue what Judaism has ceased? We offer bread and wine to the Lord, and then we offer bread transformed as the Lamb of God. This was commanded as a perpetual offering. We are still doing it when others have ceased. Wow! Symbolism! (unless of course you think existence is meaningless.)
Jesus was born in the house of bread, Bethlehem because bread was essential to the sacrificial order of the religion of Israel. The Holy of Holies, the most sacred part of the temple was built on a threshing floor. Both 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21 tell the story of Araunah (Ornan) and his threshing floor. Beneath the grandeur of the Jerusalem temple was a simple stone floor where wheat was crushed and separated from its chaff in preparation for the making of bread. The temple was all about bread, the bread of sacrifice, the bread which came down from heaven, the foreshadowing of the Jesus, the Bread of Life for a third of the modern world’s inhabitants.
We forget this at our peril. Herod and the High Priest forgot and were obliterated. The Maccabees started the profanation of the temple when they extended its area for military purpose and Herod rebuilt the temple not for the honor and glory of God, but for the aggrandizement of his political reputation. The priestly family of Annas and Caiaphas made a commercial venture out of the temple and enriched their family at the expense of the temple’s holiness. The temple was destroyed and Israel was scattered.
To use the house of God for one’s own profit or political power is a dangerous and deadly thing. Jesus was surely born in the House of Bread and our churches are the Houses of God built to make that Bread available to all the world. We depart from that sacred purpose at our own peril.