Bedlam at Christmas

by David Morstad

At the outskirts of London sits the oldest facility for people with psychiatric disabilities in Europe. The hospital was founded in 1247, while Henry III was on the throne. Today, it is a highly regarded hospital and center for psychiatric research affiliated with King’s College, London.  But, chances are, you may know it by a decidedly different reputation.

Bedlam. That is the name we know. The asylum was known as Bedlam, a name that has become synonymous with chaos, turmoil and pain.   Centuries ago, it was said that people could hear the screams and cries well beyond the stone walls, and fear and ignorance reigned. The conditions in the asylum were deplorable beyond reason. It was built over a sewer which served both the hospital and the surrounding area and waste would routinely leak into all parts of the building. Primitive medical practices, ridiculous by today’s standards, were often chainsworse than the original ailment. Perhaps worst of all, public visitors were welcomed as a means of raising hospital income. On public holidays, large crowds would descend upon the hospital for the purpose of macabre entertainment.

The subject of the notorious asylum came up recently when I heard friends lamenting their hectic holidays. “It’s supposed to be a season of peace and joy,” they said, “but instead, it’s complete bedlam.” I’m not sure they understood just how profound their observation was.

It has become such a commonly used expression that the word’s origin has been lost on many. The name of the infamous asylum was never “Bedlam”. The word we know is the result of the colloquial pronunciation by the local working class residents in that part of London. The name, in actuality, is Bethlehem. Originally, Bethlehem Royal Hospital.

Today, Christians sing of Bethlehem as a place of “deep and dreamless sleep” where “silent stars go by”; yet, a place named Bethlehem once heard screams from people chained to its own walls. It is the height of paradox, of course, but it comes with deep meaning.

Bethlehem PicGiven what we’ve read in the Gospel of Luke, the little town of Bethlehem was experiencing commotion of its own in those days. One can only imagine the anger and frustration of a town full of people weary from travel, with no place to stay, all because of a government order whose purpose was to more effectively tax them. For a small town, unaccustomed to crowds and commerce, it must have been…well…Bedlam.   But that is where God chose be that night, and it is where God chooses to be today. God hears our cries, walks amid our fear, and quietly invites us to a wholeness beyond our chaos.

For many, the mayhem of the endless holiday marketplace is offensive to the preferred image of silent nights and quiet streets, but God is not afraid to walk there.

May we seek the child in the midst of the bedlam.

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