Orbiting Dicta

4th Sunday of Advent 2021: Why Bethlehem?

As we near the end of 2021 it seems that each passing week witnesses another disaster or tragedy, from the weather to the economy, that has everyone’s nerves on end. The prospect of yet another “lockdown” fills many a heart with dread. Worldwide, over 5 million people have already died from the coronavirus.  Just in the United States, over 800,000 have succumbed and the grim toll is slowly edging toward a million. In total cases the US leads the world—nearly 52 million. Fortunately, most people survive, but a heart-crushing number do not.

In all this, Christians everywhere anticipate a happy and holy Christmas, if only in our dreams. People of all faiths look forward, if at possible, to a few days of celebration as we hold each other a little tighter, a little longer.

As the great celebration of the Nativity draws near, we will hear a lot about the “little town of Bethlehem,” which was so significant in the account of Jesus’ ancestry and birth. It is part of the “evidence” Luke and Matthew present for proclaiming Jesus Lord and Messiah.

The first reading from the Book of Micah, one of the “minor” prophets who lived in the 8th century BCE, finds importance

Mi 5:1-4a
Heb 10:5-10
Lk 1:39-45

today because it is cited in Matthew’s gospel [Mat 2:1-6] as predicting the birthplace of Jesus. But its significance stretches back to the time of the first great king of Judah, David, who was born there and most likely crowned there. Like Jerusalem, it is known as the “City of David.”

Prophesying hundreds of years after David’s rule, Micah points to a coming sovereign who also would be born there, one like David who would shepherd the people of Israel: “…you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little 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 days” [Mic 5:2]. Although later interpreted as a Messianic prophecy, there is no direct mention of the Messiah, the “Anointed One” in Micah. Later Christians would interpret the passage in that light, however. And common belief at the time held that the coming Messiah would be a lineal descendent of King David.

These connections are of surpassing significance in the thought of the evangelists, who trace Jesus’ lineage through his putative father Joseph back to David. Luke tells us that Joseph was born in Bethlehem, which is why he is obliged to return there for the census [Luke 2:4]. Mary, too, had family in Judah, for she had hurried there when she heard that her kinswoman, Elizabeth, was pregnant at an advanced age. The family clearly kept in touch. How both Joseph and Mary wound up in Nazareth, about 90 miles to the north, is not part of the story. What is important is that they were in Bethlehem when Jesus was born.

The second reading comes from the “Letter” to the Hebrews, actually a long and elaborate interpretation of the “high priesthood” of Jesus, who in fact was not descendent from a priestly line, which has come to an end. The author not so subtly argues that the “sacrifices and offerings, holocausts and sin offerings,” so central in the past, are now absorbed in the one sacrificial self-offering of Jesus’ own life. The destruction of the Temple by the legions of Titus in 70 CE did bring the Jewish priesthood and their services to an end, a tragic event which may have formed the background of this part of Hebrews. In any case, the destruction of the Temple and later of Jerusalem itself is reflected in the New Covenant passage we have just heard read.

Too much by far as been made of so-called “replacement” theory. In the long history of the Hebrew people, God frequently reestablished a “new convent” with Israel when the previous covenant was broken [see Ezekiel 16:8-62 for a long account of God’s eternal covenant with the Chosen People]. In the author’s eyes, that eternal covenant has been renewed through the blood of Jesus, once and for all time.

All this is brought to its first climax in today’s gospel reading which focuses less on Jesus than on his mother, who is blessed by the Child within her “for she trusted that the Lord’s words to her would be fulfilled” [Luke 1:45]. And that brings us back to those words themselves, “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end” [Luke 1:31-33].

Soon, the bustle and scurry of the “holidays” will reach their peak of excitement and, for those who are traveling to be with family and friends, of probable frustration and a little anxiety– not unlike the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. In all the likely distractions and enjoyments of the season, we are given this chance to recall the words of that chosen vessel who trusted that the Lord’s words to her – and to Joseph — would be fulfilled…

…his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm,
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.” [Luke 1:50-55].