Bethlehem: City of Sheep and Bread

Happy Christmas!

I have always loved the Kings College Cambridge introduction to their Festival of Readings and Carols that invites us to go ‘in heart and mind to Bethlehem’. I’m incredibly fortunate to have made regular visits to Bethlehem over the past twenty-seven years. I’ve been inspired both by the landscape round Bethlehem and by the Palestinian people who live today in this ‘City of David’.

Photo of Bettir Valley in 2013

On a recent visit I reflected more deeply on the place of the shepherds in the story of Jesus’ birth. The importance of their work to ensure that the Passover celebrations at the Temple in Jerusalem were provided with sacrificial lambs hit me for the first time. Bethlehem is only five miles south of Jerusalem, and is in a traditional sheep farming district that has existed from at least the time of David, the faithful shepherd boy who became King of Israel.

In the time of Jesus, thousands of families would arrive for Passover: some estimates are of up to a million people. They would all need to buy a one-year old lamb to sacrifice for their Passover meal to take place. The rebuilding of the Temple before and during the time of Jesus had hugely increased the number of Jews from near and far who arrived for Passover each year. It was a massive annual operation.

These Bethlehem shepherds, who were raising their lambs every year for the above, were that night seeing the Lamb of God—and he was even lying in an animal feeding trough. What an extraordinary thing! Why had I not perceived this before!

Photo of a Bethlehem Street in 2013

The other crucial food for the Passover celebration was unleavened bread. It’s Interesting that the word ‘Bethlehem’ actually means ‘House of Bread’. For Christians, there is a sense in which bread replaces lamb, as we are also invited ‘in heart and mind’ to the Last Supper and wonder at the command of Jesus to ‘do this in memory of me’. The ‘Lamb of God’ invites us to look to the cross, and then to enjoy his continuing sacramental presence through the bread and wine in this transformational way.

I have always wondered at the link between the death of Jesus and the receiving of bread and wine. I now find myself increasingly captivated by the link between the birth of Jesus and the bread and wine. His longing to be present today, through those who ‘receive him’, so he can continue to walk the streets of our villages, towns and cities, is a source of much inspiration and conviction. It’s a conviction that is closely linked to the spirituality of JSP. Our desire to see the church ‘re-shaped’ through intentionally adopting his mission priorities is only made real as we welcome him and appreciate his lowly presence amongst us: the Body of Christ today.

I invite you to go ‘in heart and mind to Bethlehem’ and do more ‘wondering’ this Christmas.

Gordon Dey