Why the Lord was Born in Bethlehem
by Bishop George deCharms
Seven hundred and fifty years before the advent of the Lord, the prophet Micah foretold the place of His birth, saying: "Thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, 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" (5: 2). This prophecy was well known to all who were familiar with the ancient Scriptures. The simple shepherds to whom the angels appeared on the night the Lord was born may not have been aware of it; but when they "made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child - "Behold, Ι bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord" - many who heard it must surely have remembered the prophecy, and have wondered if this were not indeed the promised Messiah. The wise men from the east knew about the star from a much earlier prophetic saying; but because they did not possess the Jewish Scriptures they had probably never heard of Micah. However, when they asked King Herod, "Where is He that is born King of the Jews?" the chief priests and scribes, quoting the words of that prophet, indicated that they should seek the child in Bethlehem.
It is wonderful to realize that even before the dawn of history it was ordained, of providence, that the Lord, when He came, should be born in Bethlehem of Judea. It seems strange that this should be so, for Bethlehem was an obscure and tiny village, one of the least "among the thousands of Judah." It is so old that no one knows when it was first in habited. It is not connected with any momentous events of national importance, and we find surprisingly few references to it in the Sacred Scripture; yet what is there said, when viewed in retrospect, forms a perfect chain of circumstances running through the entire story of the Jewish nation, and leading unmistakably to the crowning event of the Lord's birth. In this fact there lies a hidden meaning of profound spiritual import that could not be revealed before the Lord had made His second coming.
The Writings tell us that "Bethlehem" represents the "spiritual of the celestial." By this is meant the truth we perceive spontaneously when the mind is inspired by heavenly love; that is, by love to the Lord and charity toward the neighbor. What is then seen is the truth concerning God; and especially this, that God is Man. To establish that truth eternally in the minds of men was the supreme purpose for which the Lord was born into the world.
How can it be said that the Lord came into the world to proclaim the truth that God is Man? Surely this idea of God, like the little town of Bethlehem, is old beyond remembrance. The first created men so thought of Him when the angel of Jehovah appeared to them in vision. Moreover, the idea of God as human is the very first idea of all to be impressed upon the wakening mind of every infant; impressed by the loving care of a mother, who seems to the child as one who has all power, who knows all things, and who is everywhere present at all times, an unfailing guardian and merciful provider. Out of this impression the whole concept of God arises in every human mind, a concept which is later strengthened and confirmed by the teaching of the Word, which everywhere presents the idea of God as a Heavenly Father.
This explains why everyone as it were instinctively thinks of God as Man, and why this has always been so. As we read in the Heavenly Doctrine: "Thus did the ancients before Abraham, and after him, see God; thus do the nations in countries outside the church see God, from an interior perception [even though they know not who He is] . . . thus do all little children and youths, and simple and well-disposed adults see God. . . . [In fact] the whole heaven and every one there has no other idea of God than as Man; nor can he have any other idea, since the whole heaven is a man in the largest form, and the Divine that proceeds from the Lord is what makes heaven; consequently, to think of God otherwise than according to that Divine form, which is the human form, is impossible to angels . . . [and] this idea of God flows in from heaven with all in the world, and resides in their spirit. . . . This is said in order that it might be known that it is intuitive in man's spirit to see God as Man" (AE 955).
Concerning Bethlehem, we are told that it was originally called "Ephrath" or "Ephratah," a name meaning "fertility"; but after the land had been conquered by the Israelites, under Joshua, the name was translated into the Hebrew tongue and became "Bethlehem," which means "the house of bread." Here Benjamin, the youngest son of Jacob, was born; and, later, David, the youngest son of Jesse, was also born here. Here, too, by Divine command, Samuel anointed David to become the king of Israel; and for this reason Bethlehem was called the "city of David." Moreover, the Lord promised David, saying: "Thy seed will Ι establish forever, and build up thy throne to all generations" (Psalm 89: 4) ; a prophecy which could not be fulfilled literally unless it referred to the Messiah, of whom it was foretold that He was to come from the house of David (Isaiah 11: 1; Jeremiah 33: 15-18). This is why the angel, at the annunciation, said to Mary: "Behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb and bring forth a son, and shalt call His name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of His father David: and He shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of His kingdom there shall be no end" (Luke 1: 31-33).
The significance of this may in some measure be seen when it is known that the idea of God as Man is the primary and most essential truth of all religion. Without it there can be no love or worship of God. It is the gate of entrance that opens the mind to the perception of all spiritual truth. It is that, therefore, which makes the mind spiritually fertile, and feeds the soul with the bread of heaven. It is that alone which enables man to combat and overcome the sensual appearances which threaten to destroy all faith in God. Benjamin was born when "there was but a little way to come to Ephrath," because he represents the "medium" or the "intermediate" between truth and love, between what we learn by means of our senses and what we inwardly perceive from affection or love. As the mind acquires an increasing store of knowledges by way of experience, every one naturally begins to think in terms of time and space and the physical properties of material things. So thinking, he is tempted to deny that God is Man, for God must be infinite. He must be everywhere present throughout the unfathomable reaches of the universe; while man, as we know him, is a tiny creature, extremely finite, limited both in mind and body. God must possess all knowledge, while man in an entire lifetime can become acquainted with only a small fragment of the vast store of wonders the world has to offer. God must be .the acme of perfection, while man manifests passions which can by no means be ascribed to Divinity.
At first, during childhood and youth, this contradiction is not fully realized, and the idea of God as Man persists in spite of it; but the time comes when the issue must be squarely faced. There appear to be but two possibilities: either God is not infinite, or He is not Man. Many cling to the idea that God is Man, yet ascribe to Him finite qualities and human imperfections. This is unavoidable with children; and many, throughout life, innocently continue to think of God in this way. But if man confirms the idea that God is not infinite he falls into idolatry. On the other hand, those who confirm the idea that God, being infinite, cannot be human, can think of Him only as a formless mechanical force at the center of the universe, an implacable fate. This idea destroys every possibility of love and worship. It makes a mockery of religion, rejects the efficacy of prayer, and plunges the mind into materialism.
There is, however, a "medium," an "intermediate" that delivers man from both these alternatives. It is this that was represented by Benjamin, and later by David, who overcame the enemies of Israel and made possible the peace and prosperity which were enjoyed in the days of Solomon. And the victories of David foreshadowed the triumph of the Lord over the hells, and the redemption of the race to be accomplished by Him at His coming.
Bethlehem represents the intuitive perception that God is Man, a perception that is mercifully implanted in the mind of every human being from earliest infancy. Everything recorded in the Word concerning that city depicts the way in which the Lord, in His providence, preserves that perception, both in the race and in the individual. He preserves it because only in this city can the Lord be born; only out of this idea can a true vision of God arise. The Lord Himself is the only medium through whom the apparent contradiction may be reconciled. Only by God taking upon Himself a finite body by birth into the world, and by the gradual process of glorification removing from it every finite limitation that He might rise from the grave leaving nothing in the sepulcher; only by showing Himself to His disciples after His resurrection, a perfect Man over whom death had no power; only by revealing His glorified Human in the truth of the Heavenly Doctrine wherein He may be seen as infinite love and infinite wisdom in human form, could He demonstrate that He is Man: not because of the body, but because of the love and the wisdom that together create the body and form the spirit of man within it. Only thus could He lead man to think of Him with rational insight, not from space and time and the properties of matter; but as Divine love in Human form, and thus from the very essence that makes man to be man. In this idea of Him there is no limitation, but infinite humanity in all perfection - a Heavenly Father to be loved and worshiped as the source and author of all power and all mercy, our Creator and our Savior to eternity. Bethlehem, the intuitive perception that God is Man, is the only source from which this spiritual understanding, the rational vision of God, can arise. Here alone can the Lord be born for us. The heaven-sent ideas of infancy and childhood are the manger in which He must be cradled. But the Heavenly Doctrine, given at His second advent, is the only medium whereby these childish ideas may be lifted up above the binding appearances of the senses, that the Lord may be seen as He truly is in His glorified Divine Human, fully united with the Father, the infinite Soul of all the universe. The possibility of that vision was assured to all who would be willing to hearken to His Word when He came by birth into the world. This was why the angels rejoiced and sang for joy. It is why that joy will fill the heart of everyone today, and in all time to come, who sees in the Heavenly Doctrine the fulfillment of the promise given: "Fear not: for, behold, Ι bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord."
-New Church Life 1958;78:537-541