Two weeks ago NPR carried a story about plans to spruce up Bethlehem, the dusty little Palestinian town of Jesus' Nativity. Tourists take the bus from Jerusalem, get off the bus, go in the Church of the Nativity, take photographs, and then get back on the bus and go back to Jerusalem without spending much money. So the Palestinian authorities have plans to spruce up Bethlehemto turn the dingy car park in front of the Church of the Nativity into a swanky shopping center with boutiques, shops, and a luxury hotel. International donations of $40 million are helping with the project. The story went on to say there are charges of political corruption, of money lining the pockets of Palestinian politicians, and the whole project is taking twice as long and is twice as expensive as they thought. The whole thing is bogged down in administrative red tape. What else is new?
Poor Bethlehema grimy, politically corrupt little town caught on the border between two warring peoples. It is hardly a place for a celebration of Christmas. No. Bethlehem is Christmas. In a way, everything the Bible means by Christmas can be said in that one name, Bethlehem. Today's gospel, you will note, takes place in Bethlehem. It's the story after the story of the birth of Jesus:
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more" (Matthew 2:1618, RSV).
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William Willimon is bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. He also is editor of Pulpit Resource and the Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching (Westminster John Knox) and author of Undone by Easter (Abingdon).