Tag Archives: Bethlehem

The Book of Ruth:

Ruth 1-4:

Naomi and Ruth come to Bethlehem:

The Book of Ruth is revered for its messianic typologies in both Judaism and Christianity.  The setting is in the city of Bethlehem, the future birthplace of both King David, the messianic precursor, and to the future messiah, Jesus.  Ruth and Naomi, “So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem.” (Ruth 1:19)  Ruth is a pagan Moabite woman but makes a dramatic confession of faith in the God of Israel: “But Ruth said, “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16)  Ruth is much like Rahab, who abandoned her paganism and idolatry and sided with Israel and their God, Yahweh.  

The Courtship of Ruth and Boaz, and the Eucharist:

The pagan Moabite woman Ruth meets Boaz, a saintly man from Bethlehem, and then, begins their marital courtship.  This begins with eating bread and wine: “Come here, and eat some bread, and dip your morsel in the wine.” (Ruth 2:14)  Ruth ate of the grain and bread and the wine, “and she ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over.” (Ruth 2:14)  This language is strikingly similar to Jesus’ miraculous feeding of five thousand with the multiplication of the loaves of bread, “And they all ate and were satisfied.  And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over.” (Mt. 14:20)  Boaz is the potential bridegroom giving his potential bride bread and wine to eat to satisfy her.  Jesus is the divine Bridegroom who gives His bride the bread and wine of the Eucharist to feed His Church.  The love and courtship of Ruth and Boaz mirrors the love and courtship of Christ for His Church.  Ruth was a type of the Church, forsaking her pagan past of the Gentiles and embracing the true faith of God of Israel.  

Ruth and Boaz at the Threshing Floor, types for the Church and Jesus:

Naomi devises a plan for Ruth to go meet Boaz down on the threshing floor as he is wrapping up the day’s barley harvest.  She is seeking the marriage betrothal of Ruth and Boaz.  Naomi tells Ruth, “See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor.  Wash therefore and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor.” (Ruth 3:2-3)  The barley harvest was marked in Israel’s liturgical calendar with the Feast of Unleavened Bread.  The Feast of Unleavened Bread was the liturgical feast that Jesus instituted the Eucharist in the Last Supper, and transformed the bread into His Body and the wine into His Blood.  The setting for the marriage betrothal courtship between Ruth and Boaz then was a foreshadowing to the Eucharist banquet, the future wedding supper of the Lamb. St. John used the same language in describing Jesus, comparable to Boaz: “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the granary, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Mt. 3:12)  John the Baptist describes Jesus as the harvester with a “winnowing fork” clearing the “threshing floor”gathering His wheat.   

Ruth’s Preparations and Baptism:

Naomi tells Ruth to prepare for the wedding betrothal as Boaz, the potential bridegroom, is winnowing barley at the threshing floor.  She tells Ruth to “wash”and “anoint herself,”and then, “put on your best clothes.”  Ruth, the potential bride, was to wash and anoint herself.  This was a foreshadowing to the Sacrament of Baptism, where one is washed in the holy waters of Christ’s sanctifying grace, and anointed with His holy oil.  The baptized are made new creations in the water and oil of the sacrament.  Their souls are washed clean, and have put on new pure white clothes for their souls.  These are the pure fine white linens of the saints in Heaven.  

Spread Your Wing, Marriage Betrothal, and Christ, our Kinsman Redeemer:

Ruth sneaks up to Boaz in the night and lies down next to him on the threshing floor as he slept. Boaz wakes up to discover a woman at his feet, but unaware of who it was at first.  Ruth replies to Boaz: “I am your servant Ruth.  Spread the wing of your cloak over your servant, for you are a redeemer.” (Ruth 3:9)  To “spread your wing” of your garment over someone was a betrothal ritual in ancient Israel, which had allusions to martial intimacy.  The prophet Ezekiel speaks of God betrothing Israel by spreading His cloak over her: “I passed by you again and saw that you were now old enough for love. So I spread the corner of my cloak over you to cover your nakedness; I swore an oath to you and entered into covenant with you—oracle of the Lord God—and you became mine.” (Ez. 16:8)  Ruth was asking Boaz to take her in marriage betrothal, with obvious erotic tension.  Many biblical translations, such as the RSV, obscure the truer meaning of the word “next kinsmen,” when its literal meaning is “redeemer.” The Hebrew word is “gaal”(גאל) meaning, “to redeem, buy back, act as closest kinsman.” The levirate marriage was when the next-in-line brother-in-law would “redeem” and marry the widow of his brother and raise the children.  Ruth was confessing the Boaz was her redeemer.  The next-in-line “kinsman-redeemer” literally purchased the life of the widow for health and safety.  This was a prefigurement to the Church confessing that Jesus would be her Redeemer.  Christ is our “kinsman-redeemer” who purchased for us the rewards of eternal life.  Jesus used the same phrase when He lamented that Jerusalem would not accept His marriage betrothal: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you!  How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Lk. 13:34)  

Boaz defers for the next closest Kinsman, and John the Baptist:

At this point, Boaz obviously was taken by Ruth and wanted to marry her, but he decides to adhere to proper Israel custom, saying: “Now, I am in fact a redeemer, but there is another redeemer closer than I.” (Ruth 3:12)  Boaz decides to give this next closest kinsman a chance to marry her first.  In this instance, the unnamed next closest relative prefigures St. John the Baptist, as the Jews were taken by him and asked if he was the Messiah.  John the Baptist was the “best man” and not the Bridegroom himself, so he too deferred to the Jews, saying a closer kinsman was yet to arise to marry them.  John the Baptist, much like the unnamed closest kinsman, confessed to the Jews that he would step aside for the true Bridegroom, the closest Kinsman-Redeemer: “He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full.  He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn. 3:29-30)  John the Baptist defers the “marriage betrothal” to Israel in favor of the true Bridegroom, Christ, who would marry humanity.  

Thong of Whose Sandal and Marriage Betrothal:

St. Isidore of Seville made this connection: “Just as he [the unnamed relative who refused to marry Ruth] told her he was not her kinsman but then afterwards Ruth was united with Boaz, so Christ, who is the true bridegroom of the church, whom the sayings of all the prophets proclaim, was deemed worthy, from all Gentile nations, to claim the Church, to present to God the Father unnumbered people throughout the whole orb of the world, because his kinsman took off the sandal.” Removing the sandals of the bride was an ancient custom regarding the transferring of the bride.  St. John the Baptist makes this marital connection as he stated he was not worthy to remove the thong of the Messiah’s sandal: “even He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” (Jn. 1:27)  St. John the Baptist confesses, like the unnamed kinsman to Boaz, that he was not worthy to marry, i.e., transfer the sandal, the bride, the Church, or the prefigurement of Ruth.  In the marriage of Ruth and Boaz, he removes and transfers her sandal: “Now it used to be the custom in Israel that, to make binding a contract of redemption or exchange, one party would take off a sandal and give it to the other.  This was the form of attestation in Israel.  So the other redeemer, in saying to Boaz, “Acquire it for yourself,” drew off his sandal.” (Ruth 4:7-8)  

The Marriage of Ruth and Boaz, and their son Obed, and the Lineage of Jesus:

Boaz accepted Ruth as his wife in marriage saying, “I will act as redeemer.”(Ruth 4:4)  In the town of Bethlehem, Ruth and Boaz were married and came together as husband and wife. And, Ruth bore him a son in Bethlehem: “Blessed is the Lord who has not failed to provide you today with a redeemer.  May he become famous in Israel!” (Ruth 4:14)  The son born in Bethlehem was a prefigurement to the son, Jesus, who would later be born in Bethlehem and become the Redeemer of His people, Israel, and the whole world: “They named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.” (Ruth 4:17)  Obed would become the father of Jesse, and then, the grandfather of David.  David was the messianic prefigurement and lineage to Mary and the Messiah-Redeemer, Jesus.  Ruth, the pagan-Moabite woman, who converted to Judaism, became a mother in the Messianic lineage of Jesus Christ.  Her son Obed, born in Bethlehem, would herald the prophetic type of another son, Jesse, and then, the messianic type of King David, also born in Bethlehem.  Jesus, born in Bethlehem, became known under the messianic title “Son of David.”  

Bergsma and Pitre summarize the Book of Ruth as such: “in stark contrast to the book of Judges, demonstrating that during this anarchic period of Israel’s history, there was one place where true piety toward the Lord continued to be practiced: Bethlehem. Out of this idyllic community, from a noble Israelite (Boaz) and a virtuous Gentile (Ruth), will arise David, the good king so strongly desired at the end of the book of Judges.  A short romance of great charm and elegance, the book of Ruth’s spiritual sense speaks of the nuptial relationship of Christ with the Church and of the individual believer with Christ though the messianic wedding banquet of the Eucharist.”  (p.350)  

Pilgrimage to the Holy Land – Dec. 23, 2018

I was privileged recently to go on a pilgrimage with Fr. Dwight Longenecker and forty-eight other pilgrims to the Holy Land.  We were retracing the steps of the Magi from Jordan into Israel.  The pilgrimage was based on the historical detective work that Fr. Longenecker produced in his book Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men. One of the main points of this intriguing book is to demythologize the story of the Magi and root them in history.  Why does this story need demythologizing?  There is nothing overtly harmful to the faith in the present-day retelling of the “three kings,” typically named “Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar,” who come from distant countries like “Persia, Babylonia, and India.”  The only issue is that parts of it are fable.  It is these fable-parts that are used to attack the faith, calling it just another made-up myth of the Church.  Fr. Longenecker’s book blunts this attack by placing the Magi in a historical context.

Modern secularists like to cast a wide net, portraying not only Christmas, but also the life of Christ as fable.  They say there was no virgin birth, no miracles, and no resurrection.  According to them, we can know very little about the historical Jesus, what he did or said, or even if he existed at all.  God becoming man is just another made-up story, falling into the genre of ancient Near East mystery religions.  In short, Jesus is a myth.  Worse yet, the people who believe the myth are foolhardy and weak of mind.  Marx and Lenin called religion the ‘opium for the people.’  Prominent atheist Richard Dawkins even goes so far as to write children’s books trying “to save kids” from the perils of religion.  Christmas is scary!  

In one sense, they are right.  Christianity is myth.  Christianity highlights the themes of good and evil, tragedy and triumph, supernatural feats and ordinary failings.  The archetypal hero with a thousand faces can be seen in the Bible.  These profound undercurrents of truth run deeply through the human soul.  Christianity is a myth, but it is, as C. S. Lewis called, a ‘true myth:’ “a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”  God’s myth is greater than man’s myth, as it is incarnational in nature.

C.S. Lewis’ good friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, penned a modern-day mythic tale in his Lord of the Rings books, weaving in Catholic themes about heroes, truth, death and redemption.  G.K. Chesterton spoke about Christianity as the fulfillment of myth as well: “The Catholic faith is the reconciliation because it is the realization both of mythology and philosophy.  It is a story and in that sense one of a hundred stories; only it is a true story.” God’s true story is revealed to us in the events of the life of Christ.    

Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton used myth in the truest and most profound sense of the word.  That is, all the spiritual truths that percolated up into ancient man’s mind found their realization in the person of Christ. The use of myth today is more of the petty, slanderous kind, with accusations of “untruth.” Think of the ancient Christian “Icthys”fish symbol (“Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” used by 1st century Christians to mark secret meeting spots in the time of pagan persecutions), which is now mocked on cars with the labels “science” or “Darwin.”  The irony is that the more science digs into Christianity, the more evidence of its truth is discovered.  This has been no more evident than in recent Biblical archeological discoveries.  

Fr. Longenecker’s book establishes the Magi in history, just as many of the archeological sites we visited on our pilgrimage fix Judaism and Christianity in history.  There are the caves at Qumran near the shores of the Dead Sea where nearly a thousand scrolls or fragments of scrolls were discovered beginning in 1947.  These are the writings from the Jewish religious sect known as the Essenes, contemporaries of Jesus.  The archeological discovery found copies, in part or in whole, for nearly all the books of the Hebrew Bible, except Esther. More importantly, the 2,000-year-old scrolls show only minor divergences from modern translations of the Old Testament. This proves the many textual critics of the Bible wrong.  The text of the Bible has remained intact and substantially unchanged throughout its history. 

The pilgrimage also allowed us to see first-hand that we are now in a ‘golden age’ of biblical archeology.  Ironically (to some), this golden age is powered by scientific advancements and new disciplines; things like archaeoastronomy, Lidar studies, and ground penetrating radar, to name just a few.  There are examples of new discoveries everywhere you go in Israel and Jordan. In 1986, two fisherman and amateur archeologists uncovered the “Jesus boat” in the muddy lakebed in the Sea of Galilee during a severe drought.  The fishing boat was radiocarbon-dated to between 120 B.C.-40 A.D., or roughly the time of Christ.  The Apostles would have fished in a boat exactly like this one.  In 2004, the “Pool of Siloam” was discovered, where Jesus cured a blind man by having him wash mud out of his eyes. (Jn. 9:7)  A drainage repair crew working on pipe maintenance uncovered large stone steps down into the pool.  In 2007, archeologists discovered the long-lost tomb of Herod at his Herodium fortress.  In 2009, while building a retreat house along the northern side of the Sea of Galilee, crews unearthed the remains of a first century synagogue at Magdala (home of Mary Magdalene).  This discovery is now the oldest synagogue in the Galilee, with the oldest known representation of the Temple on the “Magdala Stone,” and is likely one of the hallowed grounds where Jesus frequented and taught.  

In October 2016, a renovation project funded by National Geographic was done at the tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  Some historians had previously believed that the original cave was not there, not that old, or doubted that this was the actual site of Christ’s burial (and resurrection) at all.  An archeologist using ground-penetrating radar, however, proved them wrong.  He was able to determine that the original cave walls were, in fact, still present. The simple cave is still there underneath the millennium of marble, icons and incense of the ornate Edicule shrine. 

Mortar samples, taken from between the limestone cave-surface and the marble slab of the tomb, carbon-dated to about 345 A.D.  This is exactly the right time frame when the Emperor Constantine would have discovered the tomb and built the current shrine around it.  The Emperor Hadrian had built a pagan temple to Venus over the Christian holy site, as a means to cover up Christ’s burial spot, and presumably to stop Christian worship there.  Constantine subsequently destroyed the pagan shrine and excavated the site around 326 A.D., nearly matching the 345 A.D. date, and lending credence to this being the actual location of Christ’s tomb.  Modern science again proved the historical veracity of Christianity.  

At no place in the pilgrimage did Old Testament typology burst forth more into New Testament history than at “Shepherd’s Field,” an eastern suburb of Bethlehem.  It is the site traditionally where the angel announced the birth of Christ to the shepherds tending to their sheep.  The shepherds were the precursors to the Magi in worshiping the Christ child.  The prophet Micah had made an ancient prophecy (8th century B.C.) of the birthplace of the Messiah in the city of David, Bethlehem: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me, one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”(Micah 5:2)  The Messiah, “the Son of David,” would be born in Bethlehem, like King David before him. 

This is the prophecy that was cited to king Herod by his wise men, when the Magi came looking for the newborn king of the Jews.  Herod also perverted this into his maniacal slaughter of the innocence in Bethlehem.  At Shepherd’s Field, the angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds, saying: “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”(Lk. 2:12) This “sign” would be the fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy.  The shepherds and the location were not coincidental either.  

These were no ordinary sheep and no ordinary shepherds.  Shepherd’s Field is where thousands of lambs were born and used for the daily sacrifices, and more importantly, the Passover sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem, as intimated in the ancient Jewish oral tradition of the Mishnah(e.g., Shekalim, 7.4) and Alfred Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Bk.2, Ch.6).  The “shepherds” were not ordinary shepherds either, but most likely Levite priests.  They were specifically stationed there at Shepherd’s Field to pasture the sheep and preserve the newborn lambs ‘without blemish’or ‘broken bone,’ to meet the requirements of the Law for Temple sacrifices.  The unblemished lambs were then chosen from Shepherd’s Field in Bethlehem and kept for the annual Passover sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Shepherd’s Field and Bethlehem highlight the convergence of Christ, biblical prophecy, God’s true myth, and archeology.  Jesus was the fulfillment of the angel’s announcement to the shepherd-priests. It is fitting that when the shepherds came to the manger, they found not a baby lamb, but the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.  Jesus is the true ‘Lamb of God,’who was the fulfillment of the Passover sacrifice of the lamb, in order to take away sin and keep us from death.  John the Baptist knew Jesus fulfilled this typology of the Passover lamb, saying: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”(Jn. 1:29)  Like many of the Christian sites in the Holy Land, the scriptures, Old Testament typology, and history come together to reveal the divine plan in the person of Jesus Christ.

Diving even deeper into the Old Testament symbology, Jesus is the Passover lamb who must be eaten. He is the fulfillment of God’s true myth rooted in history.  The little town of Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’ in Hebrew and ‘house of meat’ in Arabic. Bethlehem intimates the ‘bread and flesh’ of Jesus in the Eucharist.  Jesus was also placed in a manger (i.e., a feeding trough), symbolism hinting that he is food that gives life.  It is no wonder that when the shepherd-priests found the newborn Christ-child, as the angel had announced, “all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.”(Lk. 2:18) This same wonder is with us still in the ongoing afterglow of the birth of Christ.


The Incarnation of God into Our Lives – December 25, 2015

The Incarnation of God as man is a scandal. The first century Jews were expecting a Messiah, but did not conceive that he would be the Son of God Himself. They expected a messianic political leader. Jesus, being the second person of the Trinity, could very well have descended from Heaven ablaze in His divine power and majesty to establish His kingdom. Yet, we know this is not what happened. The Son of God came in obscurity, humility and poverty. This is the second scandal of the Incarnation. The divine being was born as a baby, completely dependent and helpless, to a poor family in a small village, placed in an animal manger. God came as the least among us. Chesterton called this “an idea of undermining the world.” This is the great paradox of Christianity, God as man, and even, God as an infant, the divine hidden in the ordinary, the exalted humbled. So intimate is His love for us that the Creator entered His creation, coming personally in search of us. How few recognized the extraordinary baby in their midst in that most ordinary scene in Bethlehem? How often still do we fail to see God in our ordinary circumstances each day?

The Incarnation is, at its most basic and profound level, a love story. It is the love of an infinitely merciful God for a broken and lost humanity. God came into our world on a search and rescue mission, to save us from our sins. Jesus did not come as the expected conquering king, rather, He came as the unexpected suffering servant. He chose to enter into our state of life, to follow the same path as all of us, of being born, growing up, laboring as an adult, and ultimately, dying. In doing so, He chose to take on the lowliness of our human nature, the ordinariness of our circumstances, and the drudgery of our every day lives. This is truly an amazing thing to contemplate. Jesus, the divine being, chose to spend most of His life, approximately thirty years, living a private, ordinary existence just like yours and mine. God chose to live like us in the small, mundane details of our lives. But why?

We know the ultimate purpose of the Incarnation is the Redemption, culminating in Jesus’ passion and crucifixion. Yet, to state the obvious, Jesus was God even before His public ministry. When He worked as a carpenter in Joseph’s workshop, He was God. When He obeyed Mary His mother, He was God. Jesus’ redemptive mission did not begin with His public ministry. It began with His Incarnation and birth, and continued along the spectrum of His whole life. As the Catechism states, “Christ’s whole life is a mystery of redemption.” (CCC 517) One aspect of Jesus’ mission was to restore humankind to its original dignity and vocation. Jesus recapitulated within Himself all of our ordinary human actions, our daily routines, our human institutions, such as the family, our sufferings, our jobs, and our ordinary human vocations. Jesus lived all of this. God deemed no stage or circumstance of life unworthy of His presence. He lived these in order to sanctify them, consecrate them, and restore them.

Each of Jesus’ actions were performed with the salvific power of the Godhead, infusing them with infinite moral value not limited by time or space. We can be united, even now, with Jesus in our humanity. This is part of the on-going love story, and is perhaps the third scandal of the Incarnation. We can partake in Christ’s mysteries, and He can continue to live them in us and through us. If we do so, in communion with the Church, the infant Christ of Bethlehem will be born again into our hearts and our souls. And, we too, like the Magi in the Epiphany, can recognize Christ in our midst and adore His presence in our lives each day.