The Aftermath of Jesus’ Birth in Bethlehem
The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, as recounted in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, remains one of the most enduring narratives in Christian tradition. Beyond its religious significance, the story offers profound insights into the human condition, struggles, and the enduring power of hope.
As we begin the New Year having just celebrated Jesus’ arrival, I reflect on the ongoing conflict in Israel and how today’s challenges for the people of the Holy Land reflect the situation in Bethlehem following Jesus’ birth.
A Challenging and Dangerous Journey
Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, as mandated by a census ordered by Caesar Augustus, was fraught with challenges. Mary, heavily pregnant, had to undertake a grueling journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a distance of about 90 miles. This journey, often romanticized in art and literature, was in reality a perilous trek, especially for someone in Mary’s condition. The rugged terrain, the uncertainty of the journey, and the lack of modern transportation meant that this journey was not just uncomfortable but potentially dangerous.
Upon reaching Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph’s struggles were far from over. The town, swarming with people who had come for the census, was overcrowded. They found “no room at the inn,” a phrase that has transcended its biblical origins to become synonymous with rejection and helplessness. This phrase highlights the plight of the marginalized, the struggle of finding refuge in a world that often turns a cold shoulder to those in need.
A Powerful Symbol
The birth of Jesus in a manger, therefore, is not just a detail of humility, but a powerful symbol of the plight faced by many — the poor, the outcasts, and the marginalized. The manger, a feeding trough for animals, becomes the cradle for a figure whose life and teachings would later center around themes of love, compassion, and care for the downtrodden.
Moreover, the story of Jesus’ birth is a narrative of hope and light in the midst of darkness and despair. The shepherds, who were among the first to witness the newborn, were individuals from a lowly and disregarded occupation. Yet, they received the angelic announcement, a detail that emphasizes the theme of inclusivity and divine favor not being limited by social status.
A Universal Dimension
The visit of the Magi, or the Wise Men from the East, adds a universal dimension to the story. These visitors, possibly Zoroastrian priests, signify the breaking down of racial and geographical barriers. Their journey to Bethlehem, guided by a star, symbolizes a seeking and a finding of truth that transcends cultural and religious boundaries. The gifts they bring — gold, frankincense, and myrrh — are loaded with symbolic meaning, hinting at Jesus’ future as a king, deity, and mortal destined for a sacrificial death.
The Holy Family’s Experience
In light of modern happenings, the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem resonates with prevailing issues such as homelessness, refugee crises, and social inequality. The Holy Family’s experience mirrors the experiences of many families worldwide who face similar journeys and rejections, often under life-threatening circumstances.
Going Beyond Religious Confines
In essence, the nativity story is a powerful narrative that goes beyond its religious confines. It speaks to the human experience – of being vulnerable yet resilient, of facing rejection yet finding unexpected welcome, and of being in darkness yet witnessing the birth of light. As much as it is a story of a particular birth in a particular town, it is a universal story of hope, endurance, and the transformative power of love and compassion. This story, which we just celebrated at Christmas, invites reflection on our response to the marginalized in our midst and our role in being bearers of hope and light in a world that often resembles a cold night in Bethlehem.
Jesus as the Messiah
Today, Bethlehem experiences more challenges. The war in Gaza has made life difficult for those trapped behind the barriers in the town of Jesus’ birth. As in His day, economic hardship, food insecurity and violence are always near. As we move beyond Christmas into a new year, let’s not forget those who struggle to live in the Bethlehem of today. We must pray for those innocents in harm’s way, for the vulnerable populations who are more gravely impacted by social upheaval, and for wisdom for Israeli leadership. May this time of conflict see many come to recognize Jesus as Messiah and may the Prince of Peace reign in Israel in this New Year.
David Vanderpool, MD, is a surgeon and founder and CEO of international humanitarian nonprofit, LiveBeyond. With an emphasis on maternal and child health, the organization leads programs for children with disabilities in both Haiti and Israel.