Bethlehem

This coming Sunday is the 4th Sunday in Advent in cycle C of the lectionary. On this last Sunday of Advent, we come to another familiar prophetic passage, familiar at least in part because it plays a prominent role in Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus. When the magi from the East come to Jerusalem expecting to find the king of the Jews, King Herod’s scribes quote this passage from Micah as evidence that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:5-6): “You, Bethlehem-Ephrathah too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; whose origin is from of old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2).

Bethlehem has been venerated as the family home of David (1 Samuel 16:1; 17:12) and the birthplace of Jesus Christ, Son of David, since the late first century C.E. So popular was the site that emperor Hadrian installed on the site a shrine to Adonis-Tamur (Phoenician patron of vegetation) in order to discourage Christian pilgrims from visiting it. In the fourth century, Constantine had a basilica built on the site, and its choir, repaired by Justinian in the sixth century C.E., stands precisely over the grotto where Jesus was thought to have been born. The thousands of visitors who travel to Bethlehem each year can admire five original naves of the Constantine basilica which remain intact and have been integrated into the present structure of the Church of the Nativity.

Modern day Bethlehem is considerably more famous than it was in ancient times. As the prophet Micah attests in today’s first reading, it was “too small to be among the clans of Judah” (the New Jerusalem Bible has “least of the clans”). Nevertheless, and in keeping with the divine modus operandi so evident throughout the scriptures, God chooses that which humankind regards as insignificant to work wonders. From tiny Bethlehem would come the Lord and savior of the world.

An eighth century B.C.E. contemporary of Isaiah, who prophesied during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah (ca 742-887 B.C.E.), Micah shared his people’s disillusionment with their anointed kings and encouraged them to hope for a future, worthy messiah. Rather than tolerate the sins of the leaders (3:1-12), the corruption of the judicial system (3:11; 7:3), idolatry (5:10-14), arrogance and greed (1:10-18; 2:1-2, 8), and inauthentic worship (1:7; 3:5, 11), the promised messiah would establish righteousness for all (v. 3). Like the young David (1 Samuel 16) and like Yahweh (Psalm 23), the coming one would exercise his power and majesty in attentively shepherding his people. Those who had been scattered by the wolves of war and misfortune would be gathered together and granted peace and security (v. 4) under the auspices of him whose rule would extend to the ends of the earth (v. 5).

The Christian community from its earliest days to the present has recognized that the coming of Jesus and his pastoral mission of peace initiated the realization of Micah’s messianic promises. Until those promises are completely fulfilled at Jesus’ second coming, it devolves upon believers to bear their share of responsibility for peace and justice in the world.

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