Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Bethlehem or Bedlam

In an article published in 1996, English Theologian, Don Cupitt, said that "Christmas is the Disneyfication of Christianity". I winced when I read that characterization of Christmas. It hurt because it contains an embarrassing element of truth. Almost all of us participate in the commercialization of Christmas.

In the rush to meet the deadline of December 25th, there is nothing we will hear more often than expressions of exhaustion, and nothing we will see more than increasing chaos. The chaos is not only in the traffic and the milling masses in the malls, it is in the frustrated lives of people who are spending money they cannot afford to part with to buy gifts that people do not need and/or want. Surely the Lord, God Almighty, and his Son Jesus, never intended for life to be like that, especially on a holiday built around a holy day. Let me tell you a story.

In the year of 1247, the Roman Catholic Church built a hospital in London which was named "St. Mary of Bethlehem". It was a good hospital, and within two generations it had gained considerable prominence as one of the few hospitals in Europe where the mentally ill were treated like sick human beings instead of animals. When Henry the Eighth seized all the property of the Roman Catholic Church in 1536, St. Mary of Bethlehem was completely converted into a mental hospital accommodating some 50 or 60 patients. Soon the hospital changed its philosophy and degenerated into a holding pen where mentally ill people were warehoused, abused and belittled.

Down through the years the English people contracted the name of the hospital from "St. Mary of Bethlehem" to simply "Bethlehem". In the dead of the night residents living near the hospital could hear the distressed cries and clamor of the mentally ill patients. Over time people contracted "Bethlehem" to "Bedlam" as a slang term for the hospital. Thus the beautiful idea of "St. Mary of Bethlehem" as a place for the humane treatment of the ill devolved into a place where the weak were abused and neglected, a place that spawned a new word --"Bedlam" -- a word we continue to use today to mean confusion and chaos.

We human beings seem to have a way of taking something given to us for "good" and turning it into something perverse. "Bethlehem" becomes "Bedlam", a cradle becomes a cross, and God's gracious gesture of love is taken as an intrusion into our way of life.

At first blush God's ways seem so incongruous. They are so strangely foreign to our view of reality and so different from how we might have chosen to do something. A 13th century Spanish King by the name of Alphonse the Wise was shown a hand-cranked mechanism that demonstrated Ptolemy's theory of planetary movements. After studying the device and the astronomical theory it represented, Alphonse remarked, "Had I been present at the Creation, I would have given some useful hints for the better ordering of the universe".

We almost always think that things would have come off working better had God consulted us before acting.

God's ways seem strange in our view of reality. In the Book of Isaiah (55:8-9), we are cautioned, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts".

Bethlehem was God's idea of how to get the message of truth across to the world. We would have never thought of doing it like that!

After World War Two, a French soldier suffering amnesia was sent to his home town. When he got off the train, he looked at the people at the station and said, "I do not know who I am". Because he had been so disfigured by facial wounds, three families claimed him as belonging to them. So, he was taken to one village after another and allowed to walk around by himself. Finally, he entered a village and a light of recognition came into his eyes. He walked unerringly down a side street, through a little gate, and up the steps to his father's house. The old familiar surroundings restored his memory, and once again, he knew who he was and where he belonged.

We are like amnesia victims in a shell-shocked world. We have forgotten who we are and where we belong until we get to Bethlehem. But in Bethlehem we unerringly make our way down a side street where a star stands over a manger, and we suddenly know we have found the way home. We know we are at the only place where we can be saved from our insanity and the bedlam of our man-made world, the only place where we can claim our true identity. Bethlehem is where we belong. It is the place where God stands in the doorway of the world and speaks a language we understand.

Many years ago the great preacher, Phillips Brooks, spent Christmas in Bethlehem. While there he wrote a hymn we love to sing, which gives the right perspective of this holiday season, the purpose of which is to honor the great event of God coming into our world.

"O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie;

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by,

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light;

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given;

So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.

No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,

Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in."