Friday, December 01, 2023


Walt Wiltschek

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” —Micah 5:2, NIV

This is a season of music. As we travel through Advent and into the Christmas season, the air fills with songs that are close to our hearts and deep in our traditions.

Among the many beautiful strains that echo through our churches, one of the most treasured is likely the 19th century carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Its gentle words, written after author Phillips Brooks had spent a Christmas in Bethlehem in the 1860’s, wrap us like a blanket.

It’s among my favorites. Yet it’s hard to hear it this year without acknowledging that the streets of Bethlehem are not still or silent during this Christmas season. While the war in Gaza is some 50 miles away, the reverberations of the violence have been felt across the West Bank, and in Israel and beyond. Little deep and dreamless sleep is occurring in Bethlehem or Nazareth, in Jerusalem or Jericho or Tel Aviv.

Even thousands of miles away in our own country, we have felt the pain of those connected to the hostages being held or those who have family members in the region, the rancor of political debate, and the ugliness of antisemitism and anti-Muslim rhetoric.

About a decade ago now, I had the opportunity to visit the “Holy Land” on a trip with Bridgewater College. The history and archaeology and all the religious connections were fascinating, and I appreciated the touchstones to my own Jewish and Christian heritage, but I was also struck by the warm hospitality we received all along our journey: from Jews, Muslims, and others. It’s a thread thoroughly woven into Middle Eastern culture.

One of the most memorable moments came after I had wandered off on my own to explore the streets and markets of Bethlehem, and a shop owner called out inviting me in for tea. I hesitated at first, but eventually went in and spent 15 minutes over a cup steaming with the aroma of mint. The conversation was nothing profound, just talking about our respective hometowns and thoughts of my time in Israel and Palestine and the life of a shopkeeper. Yet I still remember it vividly.

That region—a “crossroad of civilizations”—has been a battleground for much of history. Long swaths of that story are traced through our scriptures. And through it all, while governments and military leaders and others make decisions and lines shift and battles rage, ordinary people are caught in the middle and bear the brunt of the suffering. It was true in the Hebrew scriptures, it was true in Jesus’ time, and it continues in ours.

I don’t know the answers to the current situation in that part of the world. Ones far wiser than me will need to find just and sustainable solutions that bring life. But as we sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem this year,” and as we celebrate the Christmas season, I’ll be remembering not only the joyful events of two millennia ago, but also the sobering ones of the present. And perhaps that makes Jesus’ coming to live among us more important than ever.

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in; be born in us today.