Christmas Wordplays for Worship

By Dwight Longenecker Published on December 19, 2023

During the Advent preparation for Christmas there is a rush of clever wordplays to remind everyone of “The reason for the season.” Christians stick bumper stickers on their cars to remind folks to “Follow the Star” or that “Wise Men Still Seek Him” With lawn signs and church signs they charge folks to “Keep Christ in Christmas” while Catholics go one step further and use their bumper billboards to remind people to “keep Mass in Christmas.”

While researching the books I wrote about the Wise Men and the Shepherds of Bethlehem I came across some other, older wordplays that unlock even deeper meanings to the Christmas story. Jesus Christ, who claimed to be the “Bread of Life” was born in the town of Bethlehem and the word “Bethlehem” means “House of Bread” in Hebrew.

Mysterious Meanings

But there is an even more mysterious meaning. In the same chapter of John’s gospel where Jesus says “I am the Bread of Life” he goes on to teach, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

The Jewish leaders challenged Jesus’ unsettling teaching, but he didn’t step away or tell them he was only speaking symbolically. Instead he pushed his strange teaching further saying, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.”

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Because of these words in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel the other meaning of the word “Bethlehem” seems like an uncanny co-incidence: While “Bethlehem” means “House of Bread” in Hebrew, in Aramaic and Arabic — the other languages of the Holy Land — “Bethlehem” means “House of Flesh.”

So in the little town of Bethlehem (House of Bread) the Bread who came down from heaven was born. This same child born in Bethlehem (House of Flesh) said about his flesh, “This is the bread that came down from heaven.”

The Most Amazing Wordplay — The Word Himself

There is more wordplay at Christmas because the Christ child was laid in a manger and the word “manger” is the French verb “to eat” which in turn is derived from the Latin word mandere which means “to chew.” When Jesus says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” the Greek word trogo is used for “eat” and trogo (like the Latin mandere) means “to chew.”

Finally, the wordplay at Christmas is wordplay with the Word itself. The first chapter of John’s gospel says, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” John is borrowing a Greek philosophical term. The Logos or “the Word” was the philosophical term for the creative power of God. John says “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God and through him all things came to be.” This creative power — the logos — the Word — took human form in Jesus Christ.

We call a stage drama a play and the actors “players” so, if you like the Word entered the drama of human history and became an actor or a player on the world stage. Thus to end the meditation on wordplay we can say in Bethlehem (The House of Bread and House of Flesh) the Bread of Life who gave his flesh for the life of the world was laid in a manger (to be eaten) and so in an amazing wordplay, the Word himself played his part in the world’s salvation.

 

Dwight Longenecker is the author of The Mystery of the Magi and The Secret of the Bethlehem Shepherds. Read his blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.

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