Bible Study and Teaching

Bethlehem or Belen?


What did Mary’s Christmas look like? Bethlehem, a straggling village, possessed one main street surrounded by homes built of clay and brick. Farms, orchards, and cattle lands lay along the outskirts of town. Residents came largely from two cultural backgrounds, but lived side by side.

It sort of reminds me of Belen, New Mexico – it’s counterpart and namesake. Two Spaniards, Captain Don Diego Torres and Antonio Salazar, Torres’ brother-in-law, founded Belen in 1740. They named it Belen, Spanish for Bethlehem, in honor of that town. The 40 families who founded Belen began a community based on agriculture, and also built homes made of adobe brick. By the 19th century, Belen’s economy expanded into sheep herding, and the town grew. After New Mexico became a territory of the United Stated in 1846, immigrants began arriving and Belen developed a main street that served as a mercantile center.

Bethlehem means “House of Bread.” Early on, both the eastern and southwestern cities were agricultural based. Remember, Ruth “came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest” (Ruth 1:22).

Just as Belen expanded into sheep herding, we know that Bethlehem did the same. Luke tells us that “country shepherds living out in the fields; keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8).

Both Belen and Bethlehem are drive-by towns situated between two major cities. Belen falls between Albuquerque and Socorro, while Bethlehem lies between Jerusalem and Hebron. Since each city enjoys close proximity to a thriving metropolis, their residents work in the larger labor pools nearby.

What one commentator wrote about Bethlehem could equally be said of Belen: “And yet, from some cause or other, it never rose to any eminence, nor ever became the theater of any action or business.” Who knows why either city never made a greater claim to fame?

Try to describe a resident of Belen compared to one from Albuquerque or another big city:

  • Probably shops at a mercantile rather than a mall, Wal-Mart not Macy’s
  • Likely wears denim (the modern version of ancient burlap) rather than diamonds
  • No doubt they eat beans and rice instead of sushi or sashimi.
  • Perhaps drives a pick-up (our modern donkey) in lieu of a luxury class car (camel).
  • Instead of dressing in heels while sitting behind a computer, those from Belen are more likely to farm in the dirt wearing cowboy boots
  • No doubt, they’d rather attend a ho-down over a symphony (BTW, did David invent country music in Bethlehem? He used to sing to the sheep while roaming the country)

The point? Mary celebrated a simple Christmas with common people like shepherds and weary travelers. And these people got it! They understood the importance of the Christ child. Mark wrote, “The common people heard Him gladly” (Mark 12:37). Not so the religious leaders or King Herod the monarch. They conspired to destroy the Savior and His birthplace.

Do you want a Mary Christmas? Keep it simple! Focus on people not presents. Seek the Son not the sparkles. And don’t let the big city take Christ out of Christmas.