The significance of Bethlehem


“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” — John 1:14

Do you like Christmas carols? I do. I began listening to them a week prior to Thanksgiving this year.

My mind fills with warm, fuzzy memories of past Christmases as I hear the songs. I fondly recall colorful Christmas trees and family shopping sprees; wrapping presents while watching Rudolph, Frosty and the Grinch; and indulging on Mom’s scrumptious sugar cookies. Christmas songs make me think about the holidays as a kid, raising the kids, and now with the grandkids.

For me, Christmas carols come part and parcel with the wonder of the season, but I’m not too crazy about the actual caroling. There’s something seemingly intrusive, even rude, about showing up unannounced to serenade an unsuspecting household.

These days you just don’t pop up on a stranger’s porch and expect a warm welcoming. People are too busy to be bothered. Contemporary protocol dictates that even before calling somebody you should text first to see if they’re available. I prefer texts to phone calls anyway, but the point is that this isn’t the 50’s and knocking on a neighbor’s front door after dark just isn’t cool.

If you want to sing carols somewhere, make arrangements and get permission to visit folks who will truly appreciate the gesture. Go to places like nursing homes, to shut-ins, or homeless shelters. Visit old people with silver hair (like me) who want to be entertained by shivering carolers on their front steps (unlike me). And you might want to inform the police, you know, just in case.

Another quirky thing about the tradition of Christmas carols is the inaccuracy of the lyrics. Have you ever thought about the words we sing? Though they are full of sentiment and goodwill, they would not pass a sanity check via scripture or

Seriously, what makes you think that the infant Jesus didn’t cry (“no crying he makes” from “Away in a Manger”); that land-locked Bethlehem became mysteriously accessible by sea (“They sailed into Bethlehem, on Christmas day in the morning” from “We Three Ships”); or that Jesus was born during a polar vortex of some kind (“On a cold winter’s night that was so deep” from “The First Noel”)? I don’t know where this information came from, but it wasn’t from Matthew or Luke.

One of the most endearing tunes of the holiday of course is “Silent Night.” Every Sunday School attendee, and kindergartener enrolled before school prayer was forbidden, knows the words by heart. Though a touching song, it is clearly interwoven with fables.

For instance, what’s with the “radiant beams from thy holy face” noted when Jesus was a newborn? Nothing in the Bible validates this. The only thing close was when Jesus was transfigured and His “face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light” (Matthew 17:2), but he was an adult preparing to die on the cross, and not a baby in a manger. (We also know that Moses had an encounter with God that made his face glow, but that’s another story/person/testament.)

And where did this myth of silence come from anyway? Quiet? I don’t think so. From the scriptures, we know there were shepherds with flocks of sheep nearby, and that the shepherds were terrified when accosted by an angel. Was their fear inaudible, perhaps a silent scream? Probably not. We also know that a “heavenly host” appeared to praise God, so maybe their expression of adoration was like one of our silent prayers. Not likely though.

How about the fact that Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem as summoned by a census requirement, and that so many others were visiting that they had to stay at the Bethlehem Drop-in Shelter, along with the regular residents there known commonly as livestock. Maybe the cattle, goats, donkeys, horses and camels all were slumbering at the same time, right? And maybe all the people visiting in town slept concurrently just like the animals.

And perhaps nobody even snored.

Frankly, I suspect that Mary may not have been entirely still herself. Not to be irreverent, and I know she was special, but let’s recognize that Mary’s childbirth occurred a few years prior to epidurals and Demerol.

Mary was a virgin, experiencing labor for the first time, and per Jewish tradition she may have been as young as 12 years in age. I doubt this delivery at the Manger Maternity Clinic would be described as silent, nor should the night be.

There is a verse in one carol though that does a splendid job framing the significance of what happened at Bethlehem. The carol references the Child Jesus on Mary’s lap sleeping, angels greeting Him with anthems sweet, and shepherds keeping watch at night. The song is “What Child Is This”, but the stanza that expresses the true message of Christmas isn’t typically sung anymore.

Most any contemporary rendition of the song is sanitized to remove the gospel message and we won’t hear this verse:

“Why lies He in such mean estate,

Where ox and donkeys are feeding?

Good Christians, fear, for sinners here

The silent Word is pleading.

Nails, spears shall pierce him through,

the cross he bore for me, for you.

Hail, hail the Word made flesh,

the Babe, the Son of Mary.”

You see, the silent time in Jesus’ life wasn’t at His birth, but at His death. We’re told that “He (Jesus) was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). In chapter 1 of John’s gospel, Jesus is described as “the Word” and that “the Word become flesh and dwelt among us”.

That is what happened when Jesus was born: God took the form of a man; came into our world as an infant named Jesus; and grew to become its Savior. He was crucified on our behalf, was buried thereafter, and three days later was resurrected to be Lord to all who believe it. That’s what Bethlehem was about. God entering our world to save it.

Next week let’s talk about the gift of remembering others during the holidays. I wish you a merry CHRISTmas!

Dave Hinman is Pastoral Elder at Dove Church Wilmington. Reach him at [email protected].

Dave Hinman

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