For the first time in recent history, Christmas has been canceled in Bethlehem. Although churches in this birthplace of Jesus will still hold religious services, the twinkling decorations that usually light up this West Bank city will remain dark this holiday season.

Bethlehem’s officials have scrapped the annual Manger Square Christmas tree lighting and fireworks display, Christmas parade and holiday market. The festivities of Christmas seem out of step with the gravity of war.

The idea of a darkened Bethlehem in 2023 leads us to consider what the first Christmas must have been like, in that same place, more than 2,000 years ago.

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The night was interrupted by a sudden celestial glow as an angel appeared and announced the good news of Christ’s birth to shepherds in the fields, quickly joined by “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God” (Luke 2:8-14). A shining star cast its light over Bethlehem, guiding the wise men to worship Jesus (Matthew 2:9-11). But all too soon, the joy of those days was overshadowed by anguished grief. 

You may remember the story. The angel told Joseph in a dream that King Herod was plotting to murder Jesus. Joseph, in obedience to God’s command, took Mary and Jesus and fled to Egypt that night — just in time.

In a fit of satanic rage, Herod decided to eliminate any potential “King of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2) by killing every Jewish boy aged 2 and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding region (Matthew 2:13-16).

To describe how Bethlehem’s families responded to the ruthless massacre of their innocent infants and toddlers, the Gospel writer Matthew quoted a prophecy from Jeremiah 31:15: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children” (Matthew 2:18). 

This brutal slaughter of Jewish children must have looked similar to the harrowing images we saw in our newsfeeds on the days following October 7, 2023 — when Israel was wracked once again by the sinister bloodshed of family members, friends and neighbors.

There is real tension in the Christmas story. Christ’s birth seems like it should have been a triumphant moment for God’s people. At long last, here was the long-awaited Messiah, whose coming signaled the end of oppression, pain, and despair. The Savior was born!

But it wasn’t long before first-century Bethlehem had to bury its slain babies. God had arrived, yet the power of sin and death remained. How could one small town bear to experience its brightest night, followed by one of its darkest days?

Christmas contains a mystery: the restoration that God’s people had expected to happen all at once would instead unfold over time. Israel’s hope began to spread the rays of its dawning light in Bethlehem, at the first Christmas. “For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn,” the Christmas carol says. But the light grew slowly. God works on His time, not ours. There was more to be accomplished, more to be revealed.

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From our vantage point, Christ’s birth feels like it has been followed by an unnecessary delay filled with pain. God came to earth. He became one of us in order to save us. Yet here we are, two millennia later, dealing with the same issues. 

We still feel the sting of death. Too many tables will have empty chairs this year, as they have every year since Christ’s birth. Is Christmas really “good news,” then? Is it still worth celebrating?

I think the answers are found in my favorite Christmas carol, “Joy to the World.” When Isaac Watts composed this hymn in 1719, he did not intend it to be a Christmas carol. His focus was not so much on Christ’s first coming as a baby in Bethlehem, but on His second coming one day as the righteous King of the earth, who “rules the world with truth and grace and makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love.” 

As I point out in my new book “Are We Living in the End Times?,” “the Old and New Testaments link the first and second comings of Jesus. What God started at Christmas two thousand years ago will be completed at Christ’s return. Right now, we live in the in-between time with all the attendant pain and heartache. But one day earth will receive her King, who has promised to vanquish the sting of evil, injustice, and death forever and ever.”

This glorious, eternal future began many centuries ago on an unsuspecting, dark night in Bethlehem. We can thank God that the baby who was born in that little town will return soon to finish what He began on that blessed Christmas day. 

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