On 20th October, 2001, Johnny Thaljiya, 17, was shot to death. He had just left vespers in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity and had stopped to talk with his cousin in nearby Manger square. He was shot in the head by an Israeli soldier. Once again, blood flows in Bethlehem.
This doesn’t quite square with popular views of Bethlehem, especially around the Advent season. We are more likely to associate Bethlehem with pastoral scenes and carols like Silent Night. Few of us would associate Bethlehem with death and tragedy. Yet the death of Johnny Thaljiya is more consistent with the history of the city.
In Judges 19, we read about a concubine from Bethlehem who was ravished until she died. This horrific deed led to war between Israel and Benjamin. Jeremiah 41:17 tells us that Israelites on the run from the king of Babylon, took refuge in Bethlehem on their way to Egypt. Jesus’ birth triggered another horror. In a futile attempt to kill the baby Jesus, King Herod orders the slaughter of all the male children in Bethlehem who are two years old and younger (Matthew 2: 16-18).
No, Bethlehem is no pastoral, peaceful city. It is a city that is home to tragedy, blood and death. In that sense it is every city. It could very well be New York. Or Kandahar. And God chose Bethlehem to be born into humanity. This is not a God who just sees us “from a distance.” On the contrary He enters into the ground zero of human suffering. To experience suffering first hand. To save us from sin, satan and death. To save us from ourselves. And that is good news indeed.
In choosing to be born in Bethlehem, God has transformed this city of blood into the city of living bread. (Indeed, Bethlehem literally means “house of bread”.) This Christmas then, let us feast afresh on the living bread that came to us in Bethlehem. Let us return to the only true source of joy and hope. Remember to invite the neighbours. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11 ESV).