Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Christmas in the real Bethlehem

Lighted candles in Church of Holy Sepulcher - Jerusalem
photo by ilirjak rrumbullaku / flickr

(Jim Pitts, good friend and colleague has written a sermon about his experience in Bethlehem at Christmas. With a group of Furman University students. This is a fine sermon and I recommend it to all. Far cry from our Christmas cards--well, so was the first Christmas.)

Our plan was to spend the evening in Bethlehem.  Gifts from America for our Palestinian hosts had been purchased and packed.  We would travel by taxi the winding five miles south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.  An evening of animated conversation, trays of sweets and Middle Eastern coffee, were waiting in the community of our Lord's birth.  

photo by Rusty Stewart / flickr
In a land where the normative word for tourists is "No Problem!”, Usami and Maged reluctantly told me that our simple evening out with friends and relatives was proving difficult and possibly dangerous.  As you are aware, their land has been embroiled in a protracted protest by Palestinians of Israel's military occupation of the West Bank.

Young Palestinians are no longer willing to be submissive and second-class occupants of their former homeland.  They have taken to the streets, armed primarily with rocks, to challenge a military Goliath.  Travel to Bethlehem was problematic, if not impossible.  Not wanting to endanger our friends or ourselves, we agreed that Bethlehem would have to wait for another time. 

However, an alternative was possible on the other side of the old city. Should we be
photp by Rusty Stewart / flickr
agreeable, we could have dessert and conversation with believers at a nearby hotel in East Jerusalem.  Boarding a bus in the winter night, we rode around the walls of the old city, crossing a few blocks from west to east.

Inside a small conference room, our Furman travel study group crowded together with a half dozen or more Palestinian youth to listen and learn of their hopes and fears.  To facilitate our conversation, there would be a brief presentation to the entire group and then we would break up into small groups for discussion. 

A professor, whose university had been closed by the Israeli government, agreed to speak and visit with us.  He shared with us that he was a Christian, his mother was a Moslem, and that he had friends who were both believers and non-believers, Arab and Jew. 

He continued his remarks by observing that several Furman students had said to him that this year and this place just didn't seem like Christmas.  They were reflecting on the deprivation and destruction, hardship and horror that had dimmed the festive lights and muted the advent celebrations.  The professor countered by saying that his young friends were mistaken.  This Christmas, he said, was similar to the first.  

photo by Rusty Stewart / flickr
He then proceeded to tell the gospel story and trace its parallels to the present.  I sat spell bound as the romance and fantasy of my Christmas picture were exposed as wishful thinking and nostalgic denial.  The light of scripture projects a different view of a very real world.  

Both then and now, Bethlehem is a tensile town, not one of decorative metallic ribbons, but of tension and stress.  It is a place of occupation, not of productive work, where soldiers are on patrol attempting to establish peace with weapons of war. 

The Intifada, a conflict without resolution, continues. The town of Jesus’ birth is dark and deserted – without festive streetlights, without choirs in Manger Square, without pilgrims waiting in line outside the Church of the Nativity to reverently descend the stairs beneath the altar and visit the grotto where the baby was born. The sacred place where the eternal and divine became finite and human is still and silent. 
In past months, Palestinians from the Bethlehem area have been killed in rock throwing
photo by Eneas De Troya / flickr
clashes and gun battles with Israeli soldiers. Travel restrictions keep tourist and other non-Palestinians out of biblical Bethlehem. 

A spokesman for the municipality stated, “In view of the very bad situation we are living in, it doesn’t make sense that we celebrate while there are still closures, and so many people have been killed.  Celebrations for Christmas have been canceled!” 

It’s beginning to look a lot like the first Christmas!  At the time of Christ’s birth, a foreign army occupied Bethlehem, children were slaughtered, terror was widespread, and people did not feel safe or secure.  Joseph and Mary even decided to flee the land with the baby.  

Terrible things were happening in and around Bethlehem when Christ was born.  Yet, there was also rejoicing; there was hope that life could be beautiful and that misery would end some day.  The misery caused by people, by greed and by wanting to rule others, could and should end.  

Christmas in Bethlehem on the 2000th plus anniversary of Jesus’ birth reminds us of our responsibility 
•         to try to put an end to such misery; 
•         that the world the world is still struggling for justice, for peace, for love;
•         that we should not despair, but resolve to stop this struggle.
•         and to keep hope alive!

photo by Rusty Stewart / flickr
What was true at Christ’s birth is still true today. Life is sacred.  On the one hand, life is so valuable that some are ready to give their life away so that the world will be a better place to live in.  On the other hand, life is so terrible that we have to do something to change it.  Christmas in Bethlehem embodies the same paradox that existed when Christ was born: in order to preserve life one has to be ready to give it away, a paradox exemplified by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

“No,” the professor protested, “it is not true that Christmas in Bethlehem does not look like Christmas.”  He went on to say, “It is Christmas as celebrated in New York and Atlanta, London and Hong Kong that does not look like Christmas.”  That is where kids are drowned with presents; where people die because of an overdose of drugs or in a car driven by a drunk; that doesn’t look like Christmas.  Where people have lost their senses, including their sense of responsibility that doesn’t look like Christmas.   It is Christmas as celebrated around that the world that is a distortion of and aberration of the real spirit and message of Christmas.  

The message of Christmas is a call for hope and action in the face of evil.  The fact that Christ was born in a cave, in a manger, is not a call to idolize the cave or the manger but a reminder to us of the absurd and evil conditions in the world.  It is a call to action so that babies will not have to be born in a cold and unhealthy cave or in a manger.  The message transcends the tribal and cultural questions of “Who is a Jew?”  Who is a Palestinian? to the more fundamental question of “Who is human?” or  “Who is a child of God?” 
photo by Tania Liu / flickr

Christmas in Bethlehem today reminds us that Christmas is not a religious observance demanded by God or in the Bible, but a reminder to us that previous to and beyond the holiness of the occasion, there is a concrete oppressive and evil reality, and that Christ did not come to celebrate that reality but to humanize it, to change it.  

In the name of the newborn baby in the stable, and the young man on the cross,   
I encourage you to remember that Christmas is a celebration of God’s reach to humankind.  
God in Christ reaching, forever reaching humanity’s feverish flight.
God in Christ touching, lifting, healing, meeting hurt with loving care.
God in Christ reaching, forever reaching, birthing hope amid despair. 

It is beginning to look a lot like the first Christmas!  
In the true spirit of Christmas, I ask, “How are you going to respond?”  

Together in God’s name and in the tradition of St. Francis,
let us resolve, beginning this Christmas, 
to be instruments of reconciling peace:
where there is hatred, let us sow love,
where there is injury, pardon
where there is doubt, faith
where there is despair, hope
where there is darkness, light
where there is sadness, joy. 

To you and to all of our brothers and sisters, both near and far, Merry Christmas!

photo by Rusty Stewart / flickr

--Roger Lovette / rogerlovette/

No comments:

Post a Comment