Bethlehem and Holy Places: What Makes a Space Sacred?

bethlehem(A Sermon Delivered at the McMaster Divinity College Chapel on 10 December 2018)

Today is the last chapel of the term at McMaster Divinity College, where this year we have been focusing on the theme of “holy places.” Throughout the term, we’ve had our speakers focus on various aspects of holy places, especially on various personal places that have meant something special to each one of us. Given the season we are currently in, I am speaking today on Bethlehem as a holy place.

Bethlehem is a holy place for obvious reasons, since it was the place where David was anointed and Jesus was born. Despite some scholarly controversy over whether Bethlehem was the city where Jesus was born, it is a city that is of itself relatively unimpressive. It is currently located in the Palestinian sector of the West Bank territory. This is historic Jewish territory, but is now under the control of the Palestinians but surrounded by Israel. It exists six miles south of Jerusalem and has a population of only 25,000.

Some of us have visited this the city of Bethlehem. Bethlehem is surrounded by a wall, and has an armed gate controlling entry and exit. Tourists can go in and out. Palestinians and Israelites apparently find it much more difficult. If you make it past the gates and the checking of the bus and passports, and then drive down a street and into the town square, you will find the Church of the Nativity. It is an old church built by Helena, Constantine’s mother, in AD 327. From the outside, it’s a relatively nondescript stone church, but one feature that everyone notices is the low door jam—to stop people from riding their horses into the church (which they apparently used to do during Crusader times). The surrounding countryside is not spectacular either. The nearby hills are rugged, with scrub brush now on them. There may have been more trees on them in the first century—it was the Ottoman empire that eliminated all of the trees as they cut them down for burning and building the railway system. The hillside rocks are… rocky. There are small caves all around the hills for protection. There are some old farms and remains of farms with presses for grapes or more likely olives around.

In some ways it is hard to imagine that God’s angels chose this hillside to appear. There is no great cathedral, the pinnacle of a great mountain, or anything else spectacular here. In other words, it is a rather typical country scene that resembles many other places throughout the world.

When entering the nativity church after waiting in a long line, you go down some stairs into a grotto area. There you find yourself in a room, full of the smell of incense. In one corner off to the right side is a place with a bold metal star and a cave-like look. Here tradition says that Jesus was born. The crowds push around it, there are pictures being taken, and the very devout crowd in to see and touch this place where Jesus was born—or so we think that he was born.

Interestingly, this is not all there is to this church. Before you leave the church, you should see the caves where Jerome lived when he translated the Bible from around AD 382. Some say that he died there and was originally buried in the church. You can see the rooms—which are actually caves—where he is said to have done his translation into what is called the Latin Vulgate (the “vulgar” tongue of the day).

So what is so special about Bethlehem? Absolutely nothing in itself. Such was the case in ancient times as well. Micah 5 says that Bethlehem is small among the clans of Judah, but nevertheless something important would happen there—and it did. In the New Testament, Bethlehem also didn’t have much significance in and of itself. Jesus and his parents were only in Bethlehem because of the Roman tax collection system, much like the CRA here in Canada and the IRS in the United States. The legal requirement was to go to one’s city of origin to pay taxes, regardless of where one lived (we have a documentary papyrus from the third century that reports on censuses and confirms this). The Romans had a tremendous record-keeping system. They were the consummate bureaucrats. They started taking censuses every seven years and later every fourteen years throughout the life of the empire. We have many of the reports in documentary papyri from the period, when one would report one’s holdings and identify the members of one’s family.

Luke says that this census is the one before the one that Quirinius ordered (see use of the genitive absolute in Greek in Luke 2:2).

Joseph knew Mary was pregnant but had to legally go to Bethlehem. And there she gave birth to Jesus.

Saying that Bethlehem was significant according to this account is like saying that the CRA office in Mississauga (a suburb of Toronto) is significant. It may be significant but not because it is Mississauga or wherever it is.

Clearly it was not the place of Bethlehem that was so important.

So what makes Bethlehem, or any place, for that matter, a holy place?

Clearly it is not anything that the city itself has or does or is, or anything that we bestow upon it or give to it. Places are holy because they are a lot like people—they are singularly unspectacular places that God chooses to use to do his work and reveal his person. Bethlehem in itself was a very small and relatively insignificant city and always had been. It was surrounded by relatively unspectacular countryside. In this case, what made Bethlehem a holy place is that God chose to send his son, Jesus, into the world for our salvation in the city of Bethlehem.

He chose to do so a long time ago, as we see in the words of the prophet Micah.

God had to choose somewhere to send his incarnate son. It may as well have been Bethlehem, and it was. After all, Bethlehem had no great claim to greatness (the fact that it had a link to David was God’s doing as well, not Bethlehem’s), and so no one would confuse God’s actions with their accomplishments. But he did not choose a place that could claim in any way to be special because of itself—so that there would be no confusion that there was something of merit that that place or those people had done to warrant God’s action.

This goes against our natural inclinations. We often want to identify ourselves with spectacular places, because we think that that helps to make us spectacular people. Nothing could be further from the truth. If we have any merit, or if the places do, this is because of what God is and has done, not what they are or what we have done.

Each of us has holy places in our lives. We are perhaps hesitant to talk about them, because they are not in and of themselves spectacular places. They may be, but they don’t need to be, and it is not that spectacularness that makes them holy. For me, holy places are places like the cabin room at Forest Home Christian camp in California—a relatively standard retreat facility—where I felt the call to Christian ministry, or a house on a street in Langley, British Columbia—again, a relatively standard Canadian house—where I knocked on a door to rent a room and ended up meeting my wife, Wendy.

We cannot predict our holy places—but we should be prepared to recognize them when God chooses to create them and to use them to guide and teach us his ways, just as he used Bethlehem some two thousand years ago to announce that the world would never be the same and that he was now doing something there that even a Bethlehemite probably could never have imagined.

— Stanley E. Porter

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