By Father Nicholas Rottman.
Okay, I’ll admit it, “O little town of the House of Bread” does not have quite the same ring to it as “O little town of Bethlehem.” But, although not helpful for singing, it may be very helpful for our faith to know that “Bethlehem” means exactly that. The name is old Hebrew and comes from bêth (house) and lehem (bread). As Christians, we recognize immediately the significance. Bethlehem, the “House of Bread,” was the place where Jesus Christ entered the world on that first Christmas morning. How does Jesus describe himself later on in his public ministry? “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst” (Jn. 6:35). In this passage, Jesus emphasizes that he is the nourishment, the food that we as believers need to strengthen us as we make our pilgrimage through this land of exile. But what sort of nourishment is this? Is it just a purely spiritual nourishment? No.
By the time of Jesus’ birth, Hebrew was not the spoken language of the Jewish people, but rather Arabic. Interesting, the Arabic equivalent of bêth lehem is bêt lahm, which means “house of meat.” You just can’t make this stuff up! Jesus promises that he will feed us not just by some spiritual power or grace but also with his own flesh and blood: “My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. […] This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.” (Jn 6:55–56, 58) In the holy Eucharist, Jesus provides food for the world — the food of his body, blood, soul and divinity. And God symbolically prefigured all of this through the name of the town where he was born. Christ, born in the House of Bread, has become our food for the journey of life.
This Christmas, we should have a new appreciating of the Nativity Scene thanks to the meaning of “Bethlehem.” There in a manger — a container for holding food and feeding hungry animals — lays the Bread of Life who will sacrifice his flesh to give us new life. Bethlehem is truly both the House of Bread from Heaven and the House of the meat of Christ’s body. Indeed, this is why it is so important that we celebrate Christmas (Christ-Mass) by attending holy Mass and receiving the Body of Christ in holy Communion.
As we prepare for that celebration through the Advent season, let us remember that Christ can come to us every day — every day can be Christmas —because of the holy Eucharist. St. Bernard of Clairvaux said that there are three comings of Jesus Christ (see Sermo 5, In Adventu Domini, 1-3). The first, which we are preparing to celebrate at Christmas, is his coming as man at the Incarnation. The second, which we look forward to with a mixture of anticipation and fear, is his coming to judge the living and the dead at the end of the world. In between these two comings, said St. Bernard, is a third coming. That is Jesus’ mysterious and sacramental coming to us in the most holy Eucharist. By our worthy reception, may we ourselves become a new Bethlehem — a house of the Bread of Life and a house of the meat of Christ’s body in the most holy Eucharist.
Father Nicholas Rottman is a priest in the Diocese of Covington, currently on sabbatical.