Bethlehem is a little village of Palestine, about 770 meters above the sea level of the Mediterranean. Its name in Hebrew means “City of Bread.” “Behold,” writes Dom Guéranger, “the reason why the Living Bread come down from heaven (Jn 6:41) chose to reveal Himself to you there. Our fathers ate the manna of the desert and they died (Jn 6:49); but behold the Savior of the world who comes to sustain the life of the human race by means of his flesh which is truly food (Jn 6:56).
The prophet Micah had announced the Savior of the world would be born in this city of the tribe of Judah (Mic 5:2ff). And Isaiah had prophesied: “From the stem of Jesse,” – that is, from the family of David – “one day a sprout shall spring and from its root a shoot shall flower, and that day the root of Jesse shall be a standard to the people” (Is 11:1-10).
At the time of the birth of Jesus, in Palestine, subject to Rome, King Herod reigned but with only a limited authority. The true sovereigh was the Emperor Octavian Augustus, at the apex of his power and prestige. When Augustus decreed a census for the Empire, St. Luke attests that “everyone went to register themselves, each one to his native city” (Lk 2:3), and because Joseph was “of the house and family of David, he went into Judah to the City of David, which is called Bethlehem” (Lk 2:4).
Joseph respected the established law, even if he would never have placed it before the divine law. When he heard the announcement of the census, he would have had no doubt about his duty to go to his native town of Bethlehem, and to bring along with him on his journey, as St. Luke relates, “Mary his wife, who was with child.” St. Luke uses the term “went up” because the journey to reach Bethlehem was long and tiresome, especially in winter, during the rainy season. It would take four days to travel the 130 kilometers from Nazareth to Bethlehem on foot, on a mountainous road.
Joseph made the journey on foot with Mary, with the help of a donkey to carry their luggage. Mary was in the ninth month of her expectancy, and there was the risk of placing the life of the Divine Child in jeopardy. The reason for this bold decision was the abandonment to Providence which seems to characterize the life of Mary and Joseph. The two spouses were not able to be separated while they were about to fulfill the mystery of the Nativity. Joseph obeyed the law of the Empire and Maria did not want to leave the apparent father of Jesus at the moment when the birth of the Child was drawing near. They abandoned themselves knowingly to Divine Providence, but the unknowing instrument of Divine Providence was the Emperor, who made millions of people throughout the entire Roman Empire move, all for the sake of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, who had to be born where the prophet Micah had announced: in the city of Bethlehem.
When Joseph and Mary reached the city, they tried to find a place to stay, but the could not find one, “because there was no room for them in the inn” (Lk 2:7). The little village was crowded as it had never been before, beginning with the caravansary, a large space open to the sky enclosed by a wall and flanked in its interior by arches and rooms which opened onto the great courtyard. “A cluster of men and beasts, all thrown together in one place where they sang, slept, and ate” (Giuseppe Ricciotti, Vita di Gesù Cristo, Tipografia poliglotta Vaticana, Roma 1940, p. 274). This was probably the place that Luke called “the inn.”
The Blessed Mother and St. Joseph probably asked for a separate place, where they would be able to rest without being in the midst of all the confusion and contemplate divine things. St. Luke says that “for them” there was no room. They were perhaps judged to be fanatics or eccentric because of their purity and their spirit of prayer. The spirit of the caravansary was a spirit of confusion and compromise. There was hospitality offered, but only on the condition of mixing with the world, with its din, with its spirit.
In the caravansary, they discussed politics, current affairs, the scandals of Herod and his court, but what was missing was love for the truth, for the good, for justice. How many spiritual riches could have been obtained that night by anyone who would have given hospitality to the Lord! How happy would our souls be if they did not so often shut the door to the voice of the Lord! But humanity today resembles a caravansary, the large and chaotic inn where there is a place for everyone, but not for the Holy Family.
The glance of Joseph now fell on a little cave situated a bit to the east, on the slope of the hill on which the ancient town was built. It served as a stable, like so many caves of its sort in Palestine, and St. Luke confirms this when he speaks of a manger. There is an evident contrast between the illuminated city, full of people talking, and the silence of the cave. The cave of Bethlehem recalls the caves in which down the centuries the saints and anchorites retired in flight from the world. But above all it is a symbol of the cave of the soul, of the attitude of interior recollection which every Christian ought to have in the midst of the world’s din. It was in this cave that the Savior was born, and today the holy Grotto of the Nativity is the glory of Bethlehem.
In the chaos of the modern world, we pray in front of the Manger and ask to receive the spirit of the cave of Bethehem. The spirit of the cave is not the spirit of the caravansary, dominated by chaos and indifference to divine things. Indifference is sometimes worse than vice; it is the closure of the soul to all that is pure, elevated, and transcendent. It is the practical atheism which is immersed in the pleasures of life, in the search for one’s own well being, in the preoccupations of the world. The inhabitants of Bethlehem were not wicked like those of Sodom and Gomorrah, but they closed their doors to the Holy Family, they were the first to reject Jesus who knocked at their doors. Their worldly spirit is opposed by the spirit of Bethlehem, which is the spirit with which Mary and Joseph recognized in the Baby Jesus the King of Kings, the Redeemer of humanity, the Savior of the world.
The spirit of Bethlehem is the spirit of purity and of steadfastness, it is the spirit of one who is able to lift himself up, to transcend the things of the world in order to ground himself on the truth and to contemplate divine mysteries. The spirit of Bethlehem is the spirit of the Angels, of the Magi, and of the shepherds. The Angels came down from heaven to announce to the shepherds the birth of the Savior (Lk 2: 8-14). The shepherds were the most simple creatures. They kept watch in the night. They guarded the flock. They are a symbol of those who today keep vigil, preserving and guarding the Word of God. The Shepherds of Bethlehem adore the perfect Shepherd, the archetype of all Pastors, Jesus the Good Shepherd, who from the moment of his birth offers the holocaust of his life for his flock.
Jesus the Good Shepherd is the model of all the Pastors of the Church who, over the course of the centuries, are called to imitate his example. But when the pastors abandon the flock or transform themselves into wolves, the flock of the faithful must ask for the spirit of simpicity and fidelity of the shepherds of Bethlehem, in order not to lose the way to the Cave of Bethlehem, so as to rediscover the Baby Jesus in the holy cave and adore Him.
Today the world is immersed in shadows, and what calls itself “pastoral” has confused the ideas of many Pastors of the Church. For this reason, we invoke the holy shepherds of Bethlehem, who today exult in heaven with the Baby Jesus, and we ask them to assist a disoriented flock here on earth, to pour out the spirit of Bethlehem on all the faithful who are righteous of soul, who want to crown Jesus, the King of the world, as the Prince and Founder of peace. (Roberto de Mattei)
Translated by Giuseppe Pellegrino