The Bethlehem factor

The Bethlehem factor has affected more than just our theology of place: it has changed how we think about everything.

Detail from Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano (c.1370-1427).
Detail from Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano (c.1370-1427). Credit: IanDagnall Computing / Alamy Stock Photo

‘Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by’. I have sung the carol about the little town of Bethlehem at least eight times already this year, and have been particularly struck by those words. Not least because they have proved controversial of late. Earlier this month the website formerly known as Twitter was engulfed by controversy as it was suggested that the current situation in the region made singing ‘How still we see thee lie’ an act of gross insensitivity. Leaving aside the modern refusal to think in any terms other than the depressingly immediate and literal, Bethlehem did have deep and dreamless years. After the birth of Christ, long centuries of backwater-dom followed. Even its Catholic bishops didn’t live there, a quirk of the Crusades meaning they were instead resident in the Burgundian village of Clamecy.

Though they were aware of, and sought to manage, its religious significance, to the Ottomans, Bethlehem was quite literally ‘a little town’, or ‘kasaba’ according to the meticulous system of categorisation so beloved by the bureaucrats of the Sublime Porte. They were primarily interested in its potential as a tax farm rather than as the site of the incarnation. Even the site of the Nativity itself became a place obsessed with the minor and the petty rather than the immanent. Throughout the 1800s arguments between Catholics and Orthodox broke out, often with physical violence. Sometimes these were small-scale: a fistfight over the colour of a new curtain in 1869. Sometimes they were more serious: a dispute over who stole the star on the top of the church in the early 1850s arguably led to the Crimean War.

When François-René de Chateaubriand visited in the early 19th century, his primary impression was of a place ‘miserable and isolated’. Like tourists before and since, he too moaned about having to pay for every little thing, partly as a result of the exorbitant Ottoman tax regime. By the time the author of the hymn, the future Bishop Brooks of Connecticut, visited it in 1865, it was in much the same state. Yet Brooks managed to convey something very distinct about Bethlehem: that it was precisely its smallness and sleepiness that made it special.

He wasn’t the first, of course, to identify something special about this. Micah, who made his prophecy in the 700s BC, predicted that Bethlehem would be the place where a new sort of saviour would emerge. ‘And thou, Bethlehem Ehratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel, whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting’. The idea that this of all places would be the place where a saviour would arrive seemed as unlikely in 700 BC as it did at the start of the 1st century AD, as it does now.

Bethlehem, therefore, is a cipher. A deliberate code for a non-place. It could be Rotterdam or anywhere, Liverpool perhaps, but certainly not Rome. At the time of the birth of Christ, the eternal city was the centre of the universe, the nursemaid of emperors, warlords and tyrants, the grandest and greatest urban enterprise humanity had ever attempted. Bethlehem was more than just a backwater: it was as far from Rome as Roman geography – and society – could imagine.

Perhaps the best rendering of this contrast was written by Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, a Roman poet of the 4th century AD. His poem, O Sola Magnarum Urbium is now most often rendered as the hymn ‘Bethlehem of Noblest Cities’. To have declared the little town as superior to Rome at its absolute height would have seemed insane to the Romans. Yet, it is a testament to just how much Bethlehem has transfigured our expectations and concepts of what is good or noble, that we instinctively know what the inference is today.

Today, of course, is an even more subversive time to assert the holiness of the little town. In 2023, Bethlehem is not so much sleepy as troubled. Dreamless sleeps have become daily nightmares. There will be no nativity scene this year, rather, in light of the destruction across the Holy Land, the figure of the infant Christ will lie in a heap of rubble. Yet still, Brooks’ words have resonance: ‘the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight’. Either the incarnation embraces the darkest moments of human existence, and offers hope for them, or it has no real relevance at all. Chocolate box theology helps nobody.

This is at the heart of what we might call the Bethlehem factor. This is, in essence, the contrast of its smallness with the magnitude of the message imparted there. The fact that this backwater is the place of the actual incarnation of the living God, with all its consequences for both divinity and humanity is monumental precisely because of its paradoxical nature, precisely because of its ridiculousness. It opens up the potential for any place, however unlikely, to become holy.

The Bethlehem factor has affected more than just our theology of place: it has changed how we think about everything. Secular liberalism might like to imagine its concern for the individual or its concern for the needy comes from the Athenian agora or the Roman senate or, perhaps most superstitiously of all, is simply magically imparted in our brains at birth, but in reality all the specific concerns for what is right or true or beautiful to people in the West flow from the manger. From Bethlehem.

Of course, it isn’t just their manger, though some long imagined it to be so. Bethlehem is, if anything, even more the centre for the despised or rejected or supposedly uninfluential corners of the globe. Indeed, it is the hope of little towns everywhere. Why? Well, the revelation of God made man there, the idea of humanity hallowed and changed that was birthed in its dark streets has shaped the world and will continue to do so as the silent stars continue to go by.


Fergus Butler-Gallie