Ephrathah. It’s one of those strange biblical words we only hear at Christmastime, an enigmatic reference in the famous messianic prophecy of Micah. It would be easy to filter it out – I’be done that for years – but names mean something, don’t they? Names have power.
Ephrathah is the ancient name for the region around Bethlehem. It gets its name in Genesis 35, in which Rachel gives birth to Benjamin but tragically dies in the process. In commemoration, Jacob names the place Ephrath, which most commentaries will tell you means ‘fruitful’.
So Ephrathah celebrates birth, new life. Looked at through a prophetic lens it speaks of the birth of Jesus in the manger, the birth of the Messiah, of the Saviour. This is the birth we celebrate at Christmas, Ephrathah becoming fruitful again with the coming of redemption. A place that’s written off as a one-horse backwater town is the source of something amazing. All of this is true.
And yet Ephrathah has another meaning. Someone in its etymology are darker connotations, because Ephrathah can also mean ‘ash heap’.
This isn’t a joyful meaning. It reflects the tension in the story: Jacob may have gained a son here, but he also lost his beloved wife. The celebration of new life is cut through with mourning. Hope and despair hold each other close.
In some traditions, the second candle on the Advent Crown is the Bethlehem candle. We remember the place where Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph travelling there on a hypothetical donkey, no room at the inn, all of that. And, because this is part of our Christmas celebrations, it becomes a joyful scene.
But the story is marked with tragedy: the Slaughter of the Innocents is never far away and Jesus himself came into the world already on a journey to a cross. Bethlehem’s fruitfulness is accompanied by its ashes.
There are a lot of scared people out there. Many are mourning. Maybe, this Advent, we need to make more space for that sadness and fear, amid the tinsel and the office parties. Because it’s only in acknowedging the ash heaps of life that we can discover hope; only by facing the mourning that we can begin to heal.
And may Advent become a time of healing and hope for each of us, as the hopes and fears of all the years embrace each other in Ephrathah.