Melkite Greek Catholic Church
IN 1868 REV PHILIPS BROOKS, rector of an Episcopal church in Philadelphia, wrote “O Little Town of Bethlehem” for his Sunday School. He had visited the Holy Land a few years earlier and he wanted to share something of that trip with his young parishioners. Could he have imagined that people would still be singing that simple tune today? Rev Brooks was far from the first person to be intrigued by Bethlehem, an insignificant place by worldly standards but one of lasting religious importance to both Jews and Christians. First settled by the Canaanites over 1400 years before Christ, the town was called the “house of Lahama,” a local fertility god. When the Israelites conquered the town during the first millennium bc they reinterpreted the name to mean “house of bread” (beyt lehem). Arab Palestinians, the local population today, call it the “house of meat” (beyt laham).

Bethlehem in the Old Testament

The first mention of Bethlehem in the Bible is in the Book of Genesis: “So Rachel died and was buried on the road to Ephrath that is, Bethlehem.  And Jacob set a pillar on her grave, which is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day” (Genesis 35:19-20). Ephrath is a Hebrew word for “fertility,” recalling the old Canaanite meaning of the name. The two names are often placed side by side in the Old Testament. Jews consider Rachel’s grave as one of their holiest sites. It is also revered by Christians and Muslims. The pillar marking the burial place of Rachel was replaced during the Ottoman era by a tomb-like shrine which remains as a place of pilgrimage today. Rachel’s connection with Bethlehem is noted in St Matthew’s Gospel. Quoting Jeremiah 31:15, Matthew describes the mourning for the Holy Innocents as “Rachel weeping for her children” (Matthew 2:18).

Home of Jesse, Father of David

The town is next described as the home of Jesse, the father of David, Israel’s future king. The Prophet Samuel is sent there by God to identify the next king of Israel: “Fill your horn with oil, and go; I am sending you to Jesse the Bethlehemite. For I have provided Myself a king among his sons” (1 Samuel 16:1). Jesse parades his sons before Samuel but the prophet does not choose any of them. Finally, “Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Are all your young men here?’ Then he said, ‘There remains yet the youngest, and there he is, keeping the sheep.’ And Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Send and bring him. For we will not sit down till he comes here.’ So he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, with bright eyes, and good-looking. And the Lord said, ‘Arise, anoint him; for this is the one!’ Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward” (1 Samuel 16:11-13). David becomes an attendant to the current king, Saul. He is present when the Philistine warrior, Goliath, challenges the Israelites to send out a champion to face him. David volunteers and slays him with his slingshot. Saul names David commander of his troops but David’s growing popularity eventually turns Saul against him. It is only after Saul is killed by the Philistines that the leading men chose David as their king. The highpoint of David’s victorious reign is the capture of what would be his capital, Jerusalem, which would be then known as the city of David. The actual site of David’s city, to the southeast of the present Old City of Jerusalem, has been excavated since the nineteenth century.

Bethlehem, City of David?

While Jerusalem is repeatedly called the City of David in the Old Testament, St Luke’s Gospel is the only place in the Scriptures where Bethlehem is given that distinction. We are told that “Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David…” (Luke 2:4). Why does Luke identify Bethlehem in this way? Luke gives Bethlehem, the city of David’s birth, the royal title proper to Jerusalem to accentuate the paradox that, despite Jesus’ humble origins, His is a royal birth. St Matthew does the same thing when he quotes the following prophecy of Micah: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2). When St Luke uses the title “City of David” for Bethlehem he makes an unspoken comparison between Christ and His ancestor in the flesh. David was born a man of the soil who was later chosen to be king. Jesus was an eternal King who took upon Himself the humble circumstances of being born in a cave and laid in a manger. David is a shepherd who became a king. Jesus is a King, worshipped by the shepherds, David’s successors. While David transcended his lowly birth, Jesus transformed His, making it the object of our songs.

The Basilica of the Nativity

One of the most important churches which the empress St Helena commissioned during her trip to the Holy Land in the early fourth century is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The site on which it was built had been revered for years by people in the area, as Origen attests: “If anyone wants further proof to convince him that Jesus was born in Bethlehem besides the prophecy of Micah and the story recorded in the Gospels by Jesus’ disciples, he may observe that, in agreement with the story in the Gospel about His birth, the cave in Bethlehem where He was born is pointed out, with the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes. What is shown there is famous in these parts, even among people alien to the faith, that indeed Jesus, who is worshipped and reverenced by the Christians, was born in this cave” (Contra Celsum, book I, chapter LI). The church soon became one of the chief shrines in the Holy Land and a favorite destination of pilgrims. Eusebius of Caesarea, in his Life of Constantine written in 335, notes that “the most pious Empress honored the Theotokos’ pregnancy with wonderful monuments, embellishing the sacred cave with all possible splendor. And soon thereafter the emperor himself honored it with imperial offerings, adding to his mother’s works of art with costly presents of silver and gold and embroidered curtains” (Life, 3.43). The church built by St Helena – a rotunda overlooking the cave with an attached nave and atrium – was destroyed in the sixth century during a Samaritan rebellion against Roman rule. It was rebuilt by Emperor Justinian in 565 in the form which remains to this day: a Greek basilica-style church built over the underground Grotto of the Nativity, the shrine marking the traditional place of Christ’s birth. A silver star under the altar, supposedly marking the “exact spot” where Christ was born, was added by the French in the eighteenth century. The basilica itself is administered by the Greek Orthodox patriarchate, which shares control of the grotto with the Armenian and Roman Catholics Churches. There are several chapels on Manger Square, surrounding the basilica, the largest being the Latin Church of St Catherine of Alexandria. There are also Armenian, Greek, and Latin monasteries attached to the basilica.
CHRISTMAS TREES ARE EVERYWHERE: in homes and churches, parks and stores, offices and government buildings. In an age when people have fought to keep crèches in (or out of) public spaces, few seem to have challenged the presence of Christmas trees in those same venues. After all, the crèche is “religious” and the tree is not. Right? As to its origin, that statement is true. The decorated trees introduced in Estonia and Latvia in the fifteenth century had no Christian significance. They were the focus for revelry: people sang and danced around the tree much as the English did around the maypole. The first decorations were tidbits – fruit, nuts, paper flowers – which the children were given on Christmas Day. In Germany and other European countries where a non-liturgical Protestantism was dominant, there was little in the way of religious customs on the holiday. The Christmas tree, which spread from Germany into western Europe and eventually throughout the world, was more a symbol of holiday cheer than a commemoration of the nativity of Christ.

The Tree of Life

What opponents of Christian Christmas symbols do not realize, however, is that the tree was a symbol of Christ long before the Germans introduced it into their holiday observances. Furthermore, it a more richly symbolic presentation of our faith in Christ than the merely historic picture painted in crèches. It not only says that Christ has come; it proclaims what His coming means for us. During the last week of the Nativity Fast, a kind of “holy week” observed before Christmas in the Christian East, we sing the following troparion at every service: Bethlehem, make ready for Eden has been opened for all. Ephrata, be alert for the Tree of Life has blossomed for from the Virgin in the cave. Her womb had become a spiritual Paradise, wherein the divine Fruit was planted – and if we eat of it we shall live and not die like Adam. Christ is coming forth to bring back to life the likeness that had been lost in the beginning. Like much of our liturgical hymnody, this troparion incorporates a theme drawn from the writings of the Church Fathers. We find its imagery in the Commentary on Proverbs of the third-century Father, St Hippolytus of Rome: “The Fruit of righteousness and the Tree of Life is Christ. He alone, as man, fulfilled all righteousness. And with His own underived life He has brought forth the fruits of knowledge and virtue like a tree, whereof they that eat shall receive eternal life, and shall enjoy the tree of life in paradise, with Adam and all the righteous.” The hymn is built upon a pair of images taken from the Scriptures. In the story of creation in Genesis the Tree of Life was the giver of immortality from which fallen man could not be allowed to eat (see Gen 3:22). Were he to do so, Genesis suggests, sin would live forever. For us, however, Christ is the source of our immortality. He is the Tree of Life and, sinners through we are, we are called to eat of this Tree and live forever. We also find the Tree of Life in the last chapter of Revelation, the last chapter of the Bible. There the Tree is in the center of the New Jerusalem, the ultimate Paradise. For St Augustine and other Fathers, “Paradise is the Church, as it is called in the Canticles…the Tree of life is the holy of holies, Christ…” (St Augustine The City of God). Christ, at the heart of the Church, gives us life through the Holy Spirit who works in the Church. In the troparion Christ is also called the Fruit of this Tree planted in the spiritual paradise of the Virgin’s womb. This brings us to the Gospel story of Christ’s conception where Mary’s cousin Elizabeth proclaims – with countless generations after her – “Blessed is the Fruit of your womb!” (Lk 1:42)

Restoring the Likeness

Finally the troparion returns to the imagery in Genesis to give us the spiritual purpose of Christ’s incarnation. “Christ is coming forth to bring back to life the likeness that had been lost in the beginning.” Many Fathers saw in Gen 1:26 a key to understanding the mystery of our existence. There God resolves, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” They saw in the word image the range of qualities that set us apart from the lower creation: a resemblance to God in our nature. This remained in us after the fall, although in a damaged or scarred way. In the term likeness they saw the resemblance to God by our behavior, which had been lost through sin. We may still look somewhat like God (the image in us) but we surely don’t act like Him. In His own person Christ is the perfect likeness to God. “He who sees me sees the Father,” we read in Jn 14:9. He is the new Adam, who starts humanity anew in Himself and gives us a share in His renewed nature. In His incarnation He assumed our human nature so that we might share in His divine likeness. In the words of the patristic adage, “God became man so that man might become God.” If they knew the Christmas tree as the symbol of Christ, the Tree of Life, secularists might happily welcome the mangers and cribs and shepherds and animals of the creche in the public sector and strive to banish Christmas trees instead!
Vespers sticheron: Come, let us rejoice in the Lord! Let us proclaim the present mystery by which the partition has been broken and the flaming sword withheld: now shall the Cherubim let us all come to the Tree of Life. As for me, I am returning to the bliss of Paradise whence I had been driven by the original disobedience. Behold, the Image of the Father and His immutable Eternity has taken the form of a servant! He has come down to us from a Mother all-pure, and yet He has remained unchanged: He has remained true God as He was before, and has taken on Himself what He had not been, becoming Man out of His love for man. Wherefore, let us raise our voices in hymns and sing: “O God who was born of the Virgin, O our God, have mercy on us!” Lete: Heaven and earth are united today, for Christ is born. Today God has come upon earth, and man has gone up to Heaven. Today for man’s sake is seen in the flesh He who by nature is invisible. Therefore let us give glory and cry aloud to Him: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, which Your coming has bestowed upon us, O Savior. Glory to You!”

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