Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

December 15, 2014

“The Bethlehem Explosion”

The following lesson centers around the poem "The Bethlhem Explosion" by Madeline L'Engle. The accompanying background material and lesson is taken from The Catholic Spirit: An Anthology for Discovering Faith Through Literature, Art, Film, and Music by Michel Bettgole, OSF, and James D. Childs.

Author Background

Madeleine L’Engle (1916–2007) was a prolific writer of more than sixty books in a variety of forms, including fiction, fantasy, biography, poetry, and prose. She is best known, however, for her children’s books. Her book of fantasy, A Wrinkle in Time, won the distinguished Newberry Medal for Children’s Literature. Madeleine L’Engle was a woman of profound religious faith. She felt strongly that all writers, especially Christian writers, had a vocation from God to bring hope and light into a darkened world. As she said in her book Walking on Water, the writer has a duty “to further the coming of the kingdom and to turn our feet toward home.”

Before the Reading

It is God’s will to reveal himself and his purpose for humankind. However, God has not made his revelation known all at once. He has revealed himself to humanity in stages. First he spoke to Adam and Eve, and made a covenant with them to send a Redeemer who would defeat death and sin. He then spoke to Noah and granted him dominion over all the things of the earth. Next, God spoke to Abraham and the Patriarchs and to Moses and made an everlasting covenant with the people of Israel. Finally, the Lord  made himself most perfectly known through the revelation of his Son, Jesus Christ. “In times past. God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophet; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe” (Heb 1:1–2). All Salvation History leads up to the moment when Christ comes into the world as true God and true man. In her poem “The Bethlehem Explosion,” Madeleine L’Engle writes about a common experiment in a chemistry class. Because she sees the world with the eyes of faith, this common experiment becomes a sign and a metaphor for the coming of Jesus into the world.

“The Bethlehem Explosion”

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the world should be enrolled. And Joseph too went up from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child (Lk 1:1, 4–5).

The chemistry lab at school

was in an old greenhouse

surrounded by ancient live oaks

garnished with Spanish moss.

The experiment I remember best

was pouring a quart of clear fluid

into a glass jar, and dropping into it,

grain by grain, salt-sized crystals,

until they layered

like white sand on the floor of the jar.

One more grain—and suddenly—

water and crystal burst

into a living, moving pattern,

a silent, quietly violent explosion.

The teacher told us that only when

we supersaturated the solution,

would come the precipitation.

The little town

was like the glass jar in our lab.

One by one they came, grain by grain,

all those of the house of David,

like grains of sand to be counted.

The inn was full. When Joseph knocked,

his wife was already in labour; there was no room

even for compassion. Until the barn was offered.

That was the precipitating factor. A child was born,

and the pattern changed forever, the cosmos

shaken with that silent explosion.

Reading for Comprehension

1.   Where was the chemistry laboratory located?

2.   What does the student do with the individual grains of salt-sized crystals?

3.   What is meant by “supersaturation”?

4.   What happened when the final grain was dropped into the solution?

5.   What is the final event that causes “the silent explosion in the cosmos” that completes God’s plan?

Reading for Understanding

  1. What aspects of the birth of Jesus are represented in the poem by: the glass jar, the grains of crystal, the silent and violent explosion in the glass jar?
  2. An explosion destroys the surface order of things to reveal the power that lies beneath. Read John 1:1–3. Explain how Christ’s birth reveals the dynamic love of God that was present from the beginning of creation.
  3. God speaks to us as individuals at various stages of our life. In a gradual manner or by a sudden event, he makes himself known to us and enables us to see people, events, and God himself in a clearer way. Examine a decisive moment in your life. What did it tell you about yourself or the world? How would your life be different if that event had never occurred? How did God speak to you in this event? What was the Lord trying to tell you?


God revealed himself to Israel, his Chosen People, over a long period of time. Read the following stories from the Bible:

  • the creation of Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:4–24);
  • the freeing of the Israelites from Egypt (Exodus 14);
  • the prophecies about the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52:13–53:12).

How can each of these episodes be compared to the grains of crystal described in L’Engle’s poem? Read the account of the Transfiguration found in Matthew 17:1–8. How is this manifestation of Jesus in glory another example of a “silent explosion”?

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