There’s strong evidence that St. Mary’s of Bethlehem, an ancient hospital in London noted for its care of the mentally ill, is the source for the word bedlam, meaning chaos and cacophony. The account has it that the word Bethlehem underwent the process of contraction common in English until it became cockneyfied into bedlam. The name for the town where Jesus was born gradually decayed into a word synonymous with the cries of the mentally ill.
It may be helpful for pastors to recall this bit of etymology as they move through Advent and into the celebration of the Incarnation. Not only are there additional services of worship to plan and lead, but the stresses of the season also increase the requests for pastoral care. Add to those tasks the lamentable state of the economy and the expectations of the Christmas-and-Easter folk that something fresh, new and exciting be provided just for them – ours is a consumer culture, after all – and the pastor’s life can veer toward the bedlam-ish side of the scale.
How to recover Bethlehem?
Let the Holy Spirit do the heavy lifting, as He did at Pentecost, when He delivered humanity from the bedlam of Babel and gave it a common salvation story. Give away the need to preach the finest sermon on Incarnation since John penned his Logos discourse, and let the scriptures and hymns carry the freight. Isn’t this what Handel did in Messiah? “Comfort, ye, my people,” wasn’t original to George F., was it?
Don’t be afraid that the congregation will hear too many lections and carols; that cannot happen. The Sacred Story has enormous power to surprise even the pew-calloused afresh. And it has been known to shock some folk into the company of the Magi. Relax and summon in the Spirit.
Director of Theological Education and Conference Relations
Duke Clergy Health Initiative