We drive to Bethlehem passing Rachel’s Tomb on the way. Before coming here, the Church of the Nativity was one of the places I was saying I would have been content not to visit. It’s too obviously part of the Holy Land theme park. I am proved wrong. Justinian’s noble basilica is one of the few buildings here to have survived intact from early Christian times. It stands on the foundations of Constantine’s double-aisled church. You have to stoop to get in through the main door whose portal, it is said, carries both Muslim and Christian inscriptions. The grotto of the Nativity stands beneath the Orthodox sanctuary. It is moving to queue to go down into this tiny cave where pilgrims have come for centuries. More humility is called for in bending low to touch the bedrock of the cave where, reputedly, Jesus was born. I have heard this alluded to in many sermons about the nativity but the effect is powerful: if you don’t bend down low, you can’t touch the mystery. Opposite is the place where the manger stood. At my suggestion, we sing Away in a manger.
Today’s Bethlehem is conflicted, but this is nothing new. When Jesus was born, it lay in territory ruled over by Herod: not a safe place to grow up in, as Matthew’s story of the massacre of the innocents makes clear. But at its heart the nativity story is not a piece of gritty, social comment on homelessness or poverty. ‘No room at the inn’ is more likely to mean ‘there was no space in the lodging or guest-room’. The houses in the vicinity of Manger Square had caves behind where animals were stabled. We can imagine Joseph, a native of the town like Mary, taking her to his parents’ or friend’s home whose cave was a quieter, safer place in which to give birth. When the old masters painted the nativity, they cleaned the stable and beautified the messy realities of childbearing, but they understood the tender image of the holy family sharing in wonder and love and great joy at this mystery, this so much longed-for coming. In the church, I felt I was touching this ancient story. The Persians would have razed it to the ground in the 6th century had it not been for the Magi in Persian dress depicted on the west front: they spared it for the sake of that image. And because Muslims were allowed to use the south transept for prayer since the 7th century, they too spared the church in later times when so much else was lost. It is as if the memory of the Nativity has shed a redeeming light on Bethlehem across the centuries to keep it safe. In the Shepherds’ Fields they say: here it is always Christmas.
Bethlehem means ‘House of bread’. That may not have been its original meaning, but it’s how it is remembered. I have often meditated on that name. It suggests a place of goodness and plenty, perhaps prompted by the Bible story of Ruth garnering in its golden fields at harvest time. Her life was changed by her decision to linger at the House of Bread. Or great David, the beloved king whose city this was and whose memory in time became elevated into the hope of an Anointed One who would come. ‘You, Bethlehem Ephrathah…from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel’ says the prophet. This long-expected Messiah: he is Bethlehem’s gift, Bethlehem’s food, Bethlehem’s bread. He is the one whom we have crossed this lowly threshold to see, this marvellous Child in whom a new dawn is breaking, Jesus the living Bread who feeds the hungry and fills them with good things.
The door of the House of Bread is always open. We come as we are, lost, lonely, hopeless, hungry and poor: nothing in our hands we bring. We push tentatively, even a trifle foolishly, at that open door that the Key of David has opened and no-one can shut. Perhaps it always is when we go there, and are willing and humble enough to step down into the cave of nativity and take the gift held out to us. And we find as we find nowhere else that this little tiny Child bids us welcome, invites us in, sits us down and asks us taste his meat. Love’s work: that is what we understand when we feast in the House of Bread, and our eyes are opened, and we recognise him. Young children often have the power to invite us to rediscover kindness and pity, gentleness and hope. This makes the awfulness of the slaughtered children of Newtown and the child-refugees of Syria all the more cruel. But this child does more. He draws our wonder and our love because of all that he has to give. In the House of Bread our lives are given back to us once more, their broken fragments gathered up like grain scattered on the hillsides so that in him we begin to live again.
Like all the best gifts, Bethlehem is not just for Christmas. The House of Bread is open all the year round for us to find a welcome and share a feast. For here is promised everything that belongs to our redemption brought us by this holy child. The bread with which he will feed a hungry crowd as a sign of his generosity; the bread he will break at the last supper and give to his disciples; the command he will give that we go on sharing bread in his memory, broken bread for his body given for us all and for the life of the world; living bread for Easter when with burning heart we know him as the one who is risen from the dead. Bethlehem gives its name to all that belongs to Jesus and all that belongs to us. He says to us and to all humanity, in our living and our loving, our suffering and our dying that in him all our hungers are satisfied.
So we go with the shepherds to Bethlehem on this Christmas Day. And as we enter the House of Bread we allow our hungers and longings to find a voice, knowing that the Holy Child welcomes us and hears us. What shall we ask of him? Perhaps on Christmas morning we echo the cries that come from the depths of every human heart. Give us happiness. Give us healing. Give us purpose. Give us hope. Give us your kingdom. Give us love. And give us, we pray, our daily bread: today at Christmas and throughout this coming year. Amen Lord, give us this bread always!
Durham Cathedral, Christmas Day 2012 (Luke 2.8-20)