The story of Jesus' birth is a familiar one.
A number of versions can be found on line, describing the story from early prophecy through to Jesus' birth in a stable in Bethlehem and the need to the child safe from the evil plots of King Herod.
Revealed in these accounts, and information about Bethlehem itself, are a few tidbits of interesting trivia.
An excerpt from Luke 1:26 to 2:40 of the New International Version of the Bible explains how Joseph, upon learning Mary was pregnant with a child he had not fathered, could have broken the engagement. In fact, under Jewish law, Mary could have been put to death by stoning.
Instead Joseph treated her with kindness and, in the end, heeded the words of an angel who appeared to him in a dream reassuring him his marriage to Mary was God's will. In spite of the public humiliation he would face, he stuck by his woman. Perhaps this noble quality is one of the reasons God chose him to be the Messiah's earthly father.
Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem on the night of Jesus' birth, to adhere to a decree by Caesar Augustus that a census of the entire Roman world be conducted. Their presence there thrust the sleepy town of Bethlehem into the spotlight. Angels, shepherds, wise men and stable animals are all familiar components of the Nativity, but most accounts agree Jesus would have been at least two years old by the time the wise men arrived on the scene.
But all accounts still place Jesus in Bethlehem when the Magi, following a star, found him there. Sneaky King Herod had his ear to the ground as they made their journey, however. He secretly met with the three wise men, hoping to learn where he could find Jesus. He told the Magi he too wanted to worship, but he was plotting to kill the child. The Magi, not taking their "wise men" standing for granted, skirted around Herod's plotting after being warned in a dream. They found the child, worshipped him, offering treasures of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but they stayed clear of Herod.
It seems interesting that the names of the three wise men are seldom mentioned, but the gifts they brought are. What, then, is the significance of the three gifts?
Gold, as a precious metal, has an obvious significance, that Jesus is King of kings and worthy of royal gifts.
Frankincense, although also valuable, is perhaps less discernable. Derived from the resin of Boswellia trees, it has many medicinal and soothing properties. In ancient cultures, and even today, frankincense is burned during religious ceremonies, as it is believed the smoke carries prayers to God. Frankincense, perhaps, signifies Christ's role as healer and his role in bringing us closer to God.
Myrrh has a more sinister meaning. Also valuable, and used as both incense and perfume, myrrh's most common usage at the time was as an embalming fluid in Egypt. It likely signifies that Jesus was sent to die for the sins of mankind. John 19:39 reveals myrrh was used in the burial of Jesus.
So, over 2,000 years ago, Bethlehem was a hotbed of intrigue and miraculous happenings, and it's Biblical history stretches back far into Old Testament times.
Modern Bethlehem - the name means house of bread in Aramaic and Hebrew and the house of meat in Arabic - is one of the most prosperous towns in Palestine. That prosperity is based on a thriving agricultural sector and many successful businesses.
The town, a mix of ancient and modern, Christian and Muslim, is also a major tourist destination, with all the accompanying commercialism such status carries.
The commercialism of Manger Square, the core of Bethlehem's hub of religious activity, was toned down in a major renovation in 1998-99. Movement through the square, surrounded by the Church of Nativity, Church of St. Catherine and Mosque of Omar and the Palestinian Peace Centre, is restricted to pedestrians only. It is described as a meeting place for local residents, pilgrims and tourists. The new character is said to be that of peace, calmness, fresh air and dignity.
At the centre of the square is a pattern of Arabic origin, discretely inlaid with big stone settings. When twilight sets, the pattern is transformed into a lattice of luminous points.
Across the ages, the events that took place in Bethlehem have retained their significance, and every Christmas the tale of the birth in a manger, like the tiles in the square, illuminates our hearts.