In a beautiful Christmas carol we sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie . . . The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” It brings memories of the announcement of the good news to the shepherds by an angelic choir in the middle of the night that a Savior has been born in the city of King David’s birth, Bethlehem. The heavenly host sings: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). Jesus is the Prince of Peace, born in a poor stable to a young couple from Nazareth.
Through the centuries Christian pilgrims have gone to Bethlehem to pray in the Church of the Nativity. The original church was commissioned by Emperor Constantine in 327 A.D. After its destruction, the Emperor Justinian rebuilt it in 565 A.D. While the ancient building is undergoing repairs at this time, Christian pilgrims continue to visit and pray there.
Pope John Paul II went to Bethlehem during the great Jubilee of 2000. He said: “Like so many pilgrims before us, we kneel in wonder and adoration before the ineffable mystery [of the Incarnation] that was accomplished here.” But the Holy Father also pointed out that “even the great church built over the Savior’s birthplace stands like a fortress battered by the strife of the ages. The Crib of Jesus lies always in the shadow of the Cross. The silence and poverty of the birth in Bethlehem are one with the darkness and pain of the death on Calvary … from Manger Square we cry out to every time and place, and to every person, ‘Peace be with you!’” Sadly, today the birthplace of the Prince of Peace remains a place of strife and violence.
When Pope Benedict visited Bethlehem in 2009, he said that “for men and women everywhere, Bethlehem is associated with [a] joyful message of rebirth, renewal, light and freedom. Yet here, in our midst, how far the magnificent promise seems from being realized! How distant seems that kingdom of wide dominion and peace, security, justice and integrity,” which Jesus was sent by the Father to establish.
The angel had announced to the shepherds that the Child Jesus will be “a sign” for them. On his pilgrimage to Bethlehem in 2014, Pope Francis pointed out that Jesus “remains the sign of God’s tenderness and presence in the world.” He added that “today too, children are a sign. They are a sign of hope, a sign of life, but also a ‘diagnostic’ sign, a marker indicating the health of families, society, and the entire world.” How are the children today — here and elsewhere?
Jerusalem used to be about five to six miles north of Bethlehem, but today its boundaries have been greatly extended. One can see Jerusalem from Bethlehem although there is also an ugly wall separating West Jerusalem in Israel from Bethlehem in the West Bank, a Palestinian territory. With tensions continuing and increasing in the Holy Land, especially in recent days, the status of Jerusalem has a profound effect on all people for whom Jerusalem is a unique city, sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
Pope Francis has said recently, Jerusalem has “a special vocation to peace.” As we sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” at this time of year, let us heed the Psalmist who urges us “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!” (Ps 122:6). Let us also pray for peace in Bethlehem, throughout the Holy Land, the Middle East, and the world! As followers of the Prince of Peace, we are challenged to be peacemakers in a chaotic, divided, violent world. Our faith in the risen Lord Jesus and our commitment to the gospel impels us to strive for peace!