Let him who desires peace prepare for war. - Flavius Vegetius Renatus
He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. – 1 Peter 1:20
God’s choice of Bethlehem to play lead in the drama of Christmas was as perfect and unlikely a choice as Grace Bradley’s inclusion of the Herdmans. Tradition’s depiction of the “City of David,” as a tiny, sleepy city does disservice to the reality of God’s preparation to yield the One that would “go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel.” For its diminutive size, Bethlehem carries immense significance in its long, storied history.
The first mention of Bethlehem in scripture marks the death of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel during childbirth. Her burial at Bethlehem would memorialize Jacob’s sorrow-tainted joy. Centuries later, tragic circumstances would cause a bitter Naomi and faithful Ruth to return to the town of Bethlehem. In the new testament, Jeremiah’s prophecy would be fulfilled and Bethlehem and the surrounding area would be mourn the loss of all male children two years old or under.
But sorrow is not the only legacy of Bethlehem. It also serves as the backdrop for one of scripture’s greatest depictions of love. When Ruth honors Boaz by showing interest in the older man, Boaz pursues her through the right of kinsman-redeemer, willingly accepting into the congregation of Israel an individual who by Law should be excluded. God would use them in the line of Kind David, by whom Bethlehem would be known.
This is the third way in which Bethlehem was uniquely ready for a central role in the birth of Christ: Bethlehem’s connection with royalty. David would be the first king with whom God would make an everlasting covenant. David would be the standard by which a later king’s heart for the Lord would be compared. David would be the first King known by God for bloodshed that leads to a prolonged period of peace.
Bethlehem would become the geographical location in which God would permanently take on human flesh. It would become the point at which the first prophecy that God spoke to the serpent in the garden would be fulfilled, for God did not speak hope to Adam and Eve in the garden out of a reaction to sin. Rather, He spoke out of His preparation. He spoke from a plan in place before the existence of evening and morning and days. He spoke out of the desire to bring peace, to seize right relationship through blood, to offer what Cicero describes as “freedom in tranquility.”
The echoes of the first Christmas are heard in the hope of the second. God has reclaimed the right relationship with humanity lost in the garden through the conflict of the cross, but the world still feels the absence of peace on earth, knowing too well the sentiment of Longfellow:
And in despair I bowed my head
"There is no peace on earth," I said
"For hate is strong
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
But we can have confidence in His plan, that He Himself will be our peace, breaking down “the barrier of the dividing wall.” For in Bethlehem, we catch a glimpse of the His plan, ”things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for for those who love Him."