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Bethlehem: Here Dawned the Light of the World

BY Archbishop Renato Martino

November 21-27, 1999 Issue | Posted 11/21/99 at 2:00 PM

 

The following speech, titled “Bethlehem 2000,” was given at the United Nations on Nov. 10.

Introduction

On 18 Nov. 1998, this assembly adopted without a vote the historic Resolution 53/27 on Bethlehem 2000. The Holy See welcomes that initiative of the general assembly and expresses its special sincere appreciation to all who made it possible. My delegation equally commends the intention of the general assembly to revisit this item at the dawn of the third millennium.

The resolution on Bethlehem 2000 is rich in content and far reaching in its application. It recalls that “the Palestinian city of Bethlehem is the birthplace of Jesus Christ and one of the most historic and significant sites on earth” and notes that “the world will celebrate in Bethlehem, a city of peace, the onset of the new millennium in a global vision of hope for all peoples.”

It “welcomes the impending arrival of this global, historic celebration in Bethlehem of the birth of Jesus Christ and the onset of the third millennium as a symbol of the shared hope for peace among all peoples of the world.” It “expresses support for the Bethlehem 2000 Project, and commends the efforts undertaken by the Palestinian Authority in this regard.”

Since the adoption of the resolution, additional fora were held in Rome and elsewhere on Bethlehem 2000. Those undertakings and others to follow present a fitting preparation for the bimillenary occur-rence of an event which links heaven to earth and individuals and peoples with each other.

In line with the contents of this resolution, my delegation would like to dwell mainly on three aspects of the item Bethlehem 2000, namely, the city of Bethlehem, the person of Jesus born there, and the message Bethlehem conveys to all peoples of every age.

At the Center of History

Bethlehem stands at the crossroad of history, giving us a profound vision of the past and pointing to a new way of peace and hope. With the etymological connotation “house of bread,” Bethlehem enters in the records of history in the 14th century B.C. For almost four centuries it remained on the margins of history until the 10th century B.C. when the great King David made Bethlehem “his house” (1 Samuel 17:12,15). After King David and until the beginning of this era, Bethlehem was almost left in oblivion.

Still, it hiddenly contained a continued lineage of solid hope and unquenched expectation. The fulfillment of that hope and expectation was the birth of Jesus, Son of David, in Bethlehem. Jesus’ lowly birth “gives Bethlehem its unique place in the mind and heart of the world” (Pope John Paul II, Address to the Members of the Organizing Committee of the International Forum Bethlehem 2000, Rome, Feb. 18).

Though the message of Bethlehem was, among others, the promise of peace, “Bethlehem's history since then has often been marked by violence” (Ibid.). Yet, millions will flock to the relatively small city of Bethlehem during the coming year in search of that peace announced at the birth of Christ, for themselves and for the world. Considering the “religious, historical and cultural dimensions” of the millennium event, the Bethlehem 2000 Project planned by the Palestinian Authority is a laudable initiative.

Bethlehem stands at the crossroad of history, giving us a profound vision of the past and pointing to a new way of peace and hope.

As Christ is the patrimony of all of humanity, so too, Bethlehem, his birthplace, is the patrimony of humanity which necessitates special protection and guarantees “ensuring free and unhindered access to the holy places in Bethlehem to the faithful of all religions and the citizens of all nationalities.” The resolution on Bethlehem 2000 clearly makes such provisions.

Bethlehem Needs Peace

After decades of violence, what Bethlehem and its inhabitants need most today is peace. Peace delayed could become peace denied, and whichever side holds the peace talks back will be judged responsible by history for accumulating negative consequences and for further escalation of violence. It is the sincere hope of the Holy See that all actors play their respective and relevant roles, “so that the millennium may be celebrated most appropriately in an atmosphere of peace and reconciliation” not only in Bethlehem, but also in Nazareth and the Holy City of Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Middle East. The Sept. 5 agreement of this year contains promising provisions in that direction and we earnestly hope that their full implementation will take place in the given time frame.

In the child born in “Bethlehem of Judea” (Matthew 2:1), God identified himself with the poor and abandoned, the displaced and the refugee, victims of injustice and the outcasts from the mainstream of society of all ages and places.

Jesus born in Bethlehem and brought up in Nazareth in a carpenter's family, had one fundamental message for humanity — the message of love. He exemplified in himself the message of a serving love because he did not live for himself but for others. The concept of love found in the person of Jesus a new definition: self-giving. He sealed that definition with his own blood on the cross.

The vision of self-giving love includes everyone and excludes no one; it respects life and calls for the dignity of every human person, invites to an option for the poor and the oppressed, it demands justice for all and envisages the principle of solidarity in the world. It teaches that giving is loftier than receiving and calls for a new social order. Such a vision has to be the underlining current of the new era.

The spirit of Jesus’ self-giving love lives on today and continues to inspire millions, as in the past two millennia. Hence, he is not a religious leader of the past but a heavenly beacon of love and life for men and women who seek in darkness for the sense of life, and who suffer the wounds of violation of the dignity of their persons. To a world possessed by egoism and introversion, Jesus of Nazareth makes his invitation for conversion of hearts and in the midst of hatred and oppression, he intones the good tidings of fellowship and solidarity.

Bethlehem was the meeting point of heaven and earth proclaiming glory to God and peace to men of good will. The first visitors to experience God's peace in the manger of Bethlehem were the humble shepherds from the neighboring valleys. The wise men in search of peace were also guided to that lowly abode by a star of hope.

The first truth about the peace announced in Bethlehem is that it is not man-made but God-given. At the same time, men and women are not merely beneficiaries of that gift but real actors in preparing the venue for that gift. Jesus himself calls “the heralds of peace, blessed"(Matthew 5:9) as he calls blessed “those who hunger and thirst for justice” (Matthew 5:6). But only in humility, like the shepherds and the wise men of Bethlehem, will peace be given to us.

Peace on Earth?

Peace is not merely the absence of war. It is growth in harmony. Growth of the entire creation, with the human person at its center, toward the creator. Disturbing that harmony of essential and fundamental relations, peace will become a mirage. Keeping the right relation between God and man and between man and man, the vertical and horizontal dimensions of human life, is a precondition for peace.

Peace is only possible where a will to reconciliation exists. Hatred begets only hatred. Reconciliation requires courage and generosity. Letting the old wounds of hatred and violence bleed again is to deny peace a chance. The call to forgiveness was the final message of Jesus. Where the will to forgive prevails, war and conflict will find no place.

At the end of the second millennium, and in the wake of the divisions and wars, violence and atrocities that have often marked its years, the human family needs a moment of self-examination. It badly needs such a moment to realize the evil of which humanity is capable.

It needs it equally to commit itself to a new life, devoid of egoism and hatred. Concretely that means a resolve and commitment to a new ideal in life. If that ideal is the self-giving love, exemplified in the person of Jesus, our entry into the new millennium will be a decisive and positive step in history.

The United Nations, by its very definition, is the organization holding the noble mandate of maintaining international peace and security. Yet, no other place in the world is aware of the difficulties in maintaining peace in the world as the United Nations organization.

The awareness that peace is a gift of God, would make the international community better realize its limitations and look for means to create the right environment in which that gift is received.

That exactly is the role of this unique organization, and the start of the new millennium could be the propitious occasion to enter into such an awareness.

The call of God to humanity 2,000 years ago in the babe of Bethlehem is one of hope, not one of fear and anxiety.

His extended and embracing hands are a symbol for all. Let self-giving love and God-given peace be the guiding principles for the human family entering the new millennium. And let it be especially so for the people in and around Bethlehem and throughout the Middle East.

Archbishop Renato Martino is permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations.