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‘When the angels had left them, the shepherds said one to another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”’
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Monday, 24th December 2018 at 11.30 PM
‘When the angels had left them, the shepherds said one to another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”’ And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the babe lying in a manger. They went away glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.
Bethlehem! Let us now go to Bethlehem. We have sung of Bethlehem and thought about Bethlehem. ‘O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see the lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.’ It is a beautiful image, as if the little town of Bethlehem were a place of peace and quiet, of decent gentility, rather like Stow-on-the-Wold or Tunbridge Wells or Harrogate. Sadly Bethlehem has suffered all the turbulence of the world through the two millennia since the birth of our Lord.
Bethlehem was recognised as the birthplace of Christ certainly within the first century and on the particular spot a great church was built by Helena the mother of the first Christian emperor Constantine in the 4th century. Although parts of it were re-built in the 6th century, the church remains much as it was when it was first built.
But almost throughout the last two millennia, Bethlehem has been attacked and besieged and swapped backwards and forwards between different authorities. In the year 637, Bethlehem had been captured by Muslim armies, which nevertheless were content to preserve the Christian character of the Church of the Nativity. In 1099, the first Christian crusade recaptured the town. But they held it for less than a hundred years before it fell again under Islamic authority. So it remained for long periods. In 1920, the British took over under a mandate from the League of Nations, following Arthur Balfour’s declaration allowing Jews to return to the Holy Land. But in 1948, after the Arab-Israeli war, it became part of Jordan. Following the Six-Day war in 1967, Israel annexed Bethlehem, but in 1995, following the Oslo accord, the land was given to the Palestinian Authority. That is the situation now.
In a service here in the Abbey earlier this month, at which The Prince of Wales and the Archbishop of Canterbury each gave an address, we gathered many of the leaders of the Christian churches in the Middle East and North Africa. Our aim was to pray for Christians, an increasingly oppressed minority in the lands where our faith was born, and to give them our support.
I spoke the other day to a priest, Fr Aphram, of the Syriac Orthodox Church. The Prince of Wales attended the consecration of their cathedral in Acton two years ago. Fr Aphram told me that his extended family had lived in Mosul but were all now in refugee camps. The Christian population of Iraq, before the war one a half million, has been reduced to fewer than 250,000. In 1948, Bethlehem was largely a Christian town, with 85% of the people being Christian. The Christian population is now no more than 15%. So we see the devastating turmoil that has afflicted the place of our Lord’s birth, the little town of Bethlehem.
How should we think of this? On the one hand it seems deeply sad and sorry as we celebrate tonight the beautiful and wonderful birth of our Lord Jesus Christ that his birthplace should be so conflicted, should so suffer the devastation of history. But maybe it should not surprise us. Not all the hymns we sing ignore the pain and grief, the problems and burdens of life. In a few moments we shall sing another well-loved hymn, ‘It came upon a midnight clear, that glorious song of old.’ The writer is thinking of the song of the angels, Peace on earth, goodwill to all. The third verse, which is so familiar to us that we could easily sing it without considering the force of the words, speaks of the suffering of the world through two thousand years of wrong. Man at war with man, the verse runs, fails to hear the beautiful song of the angels, the song that would bring peace and goodwill. ‘O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.’
We pray for peace and goodwill between all peoples. But it would be foolish to suppose that the achievement of peace and goodwill is easy, or without pain; nor can it be achieved without suffering.
Our Christmas crib shows the shepherds bringing a lamb for the baby Jesus as a present. The gift of a lamb reminds us of John the Baptist at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, proposing to his disciples that they should follow Jesus instead; he John was only the forerunner, but Jesus, he wanted to say, was the real thing, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ Two of his disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. What did John the Baptist mean when he said, Behold the Lamb of God? Surely he was remembering the role of the lamb in the sacrificial system of the Jewish temple. Lambs were sacrificed, offered on the altar, their life given for the glory of God. Jesus was to say that this sacrificial system was not pleasing to God. And Jesus would offer his own life in sacrifice and God would accept his own freewill offering. He would himself be the sacrificial Lamb.
We should not separate in our minds the birth of the baby Jesus from the sacrifice of the adult Jesus. Indeed the sub-text of the account we heard just now of the birth of Jesus makes it clear that he was destined to offer his life for the sake of the world. His parents were refugees, without a place to rest. There was no room for them in the inn. They had to bed down in the stable with the animals. Jesus was born on the stable floor and then placed in the manger, the animals’ eating trough. This was not birth as we know it to be in our own day, in a clean hospital bed with the support of midwives and the nearby assistance of doctors and nurses. This was raw and painful and lonely and uncertain, as the whole of the life of Jesus was to be, until his death on the cross.
Next month we shall hold a service here with the Polish community to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the birth of St Maximilian Kolbe, who was killed in Auschwitz concentration camp on 14th August 1941. He gave his life in place of another man with a family. Throughout the history of our faith, Christian people have been willing to suffer, and if necessary to die, for the sake of their faith in Jesus Christ, and in remembrance of his sacrificial life for us. St Maximilian Kolbe followed the example of Christ.
This holy night faces us with the birth of the baby Jesus, with Mary his Mother and Joseph, and challenges us. We do not see just a pretty picture but learn deeply about life and death. The Lord’s way is tough and for us following the way is bound also to be tough. But the cross, an ever present reality, yields its pain to glorious new life at Easter. And the death of Christ and his glory are foreshadowed in our joyful celebration this night. May the birth of this baby richly bless us on our way.