Driving up the road in the area of Rachel's Tomb, the traditional burial place of the wife of Jacob, one comes to a crossroad. In the middle of this intersection is a giant guard tower, one of many along Israel's 400-mile “separation wall,” part of which encloses Bethlehem. Painted on the tower is a sign for the neighboring Caritas Baby Hospital — a hosptial described by Pope Benedict XVI on his 2009 visit as “one of the smaller bridges built for peace."
It is possible at this crossroads to turn either left or right. Either way, one will run into Jesus.
If we turn to the left and travel 100 yards, we encounter the compassionate face of Jesus. Here, Caritas Baby Hospital provides medical assistance to more than 38,000 suffering and disadvantaged children a year. The hospital accepts every child, irrespective of religion, nationality, or social background. The dignity of the human being is at the center of all their efforts.
Hospitals, clinics, schools, and institutions like these are vital to the mission of the church. Yet especially here in the Holy Land, we are also called to a deeper understanding and compassion.
For that we need only return to the intersection and turn right.
One hundred yards to the right of the crossroad, we encounter a different face of Jesus — the suffering face of Christ. Here, he calls us not just to provide, but to understand and to walk along with him. He asks us to consider, "Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?" For many, it is a harder road and so one less taken. Down this road is the home of a Christian Palestinian family.
Recently I had the privilege of attending the Mass led by Pope Francis in Bethlehem’s Manger Square. I am not a Catholic – but like many who are not, I have been inspired and touched by Pope Francis. I do not know what is it exactly that draws me to him! Is it his humility? His compassion for the poor? His social justice concern? His true ecumenical spirit ? Maybe all of the above!
Back to Manger Square. It was truly a special day. There were Palestinian Christians from all over Palestine and Israel. There was a sense of euphoria in the air. I have never seen Bethlehem like this before. I have never in my life witnessed Palestinian Christians with so much joy and jubilation. People were excited. Nuns were dancing in the streets. There were hymns, flags, smiles. For few hours we forgot we were occupied.
However, the most iconic moment during the Pope’s visit to Bethlehem did not take place in the Manger Square, nor the Nativity Church. It took place next to the Separation Wall.
The visit of Pope Francis to Palestine, though initially intended to be a simple ecumenical meeting with the Patriarch of Constantinople, has turned into an enormous opportunity for His Holiness to reaffirm his commitment to peace and justice in a land that so desperately craves these things.
Francis’ visit is both timely and crucial. We Palestinians heard him clearly when he said: “We must restore hope to young people, help the old, be open to the future and spread love. Be poor among the poor. We need to include the excluded and preach peace.”
Christmas is the one time each year when much of the world turns its gaze to Bethlehem, the West Bank town at the heart of the Gospel account of Jesus’ humble birth in a stable.
But Bethlehem may be in for a second round of global publicity in the span of a few months with the expected visit of Pope Francis in May.
In an interview earlier this month, Francis confirmed rumors that he planned to travel to the Holy Land — probably stopping at sites in Jordan, Israel and the West Bank in the Palestinian territories — and said preparations were underway.
Then last week the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, the top Catholic official in the region, revealed that the visit was set for May.
Given the political and religious combustibility that attends almost any event in the Holy Land, a papal trip was bound to be fraught and a debate over the visit quickly erupted as Israeli newspapers reported that the preliminary itinerary for Francis’ pilgrimage has him spending just one full day in Israel proper — probably arriving in Jordan on Saturday, May 24, traveling to Israel on Sunday morning, then celebrating Mass in Bethlehem on Monday before heading back to Rome.
BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Two weeks before Christmas, one of the most powerful storms to hit the Middle East in a century dumped several inches of snow on the hills of Bethlehem.
In addition to shuttering schools and businesses, the storm caused runoff to trickle down the walls of the Church of the Nativity, built above the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
Fortunately, the water damage was relatively minor, church officials say, thanks to a rare cooperative venture already underway to repair the basilica’s roof, leaky windows and old wooden beams, some 1,500 years old.
“There were still leaks, but thanks to the scaffolding that was erected for the restoration work, the damage was controlled,” said the Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, custodian of the Holy Land for the Roman Catholic Church.
In what some are calling the biggest miracle in Bethlehem since the birth of Jesus, the three churches that share responsibility for the Nativity church put aside centuries of tense relations this past year to ensure the job gets done.
Every year, a chorus of Christians join together to bemoan the “War on Christmas,” lambasting their enemies for taking Christ out of Christmas, and yearning for the days when everyone remembered the reason for the season.
But have we all forgotten? There has always been a war on Christmas. In fact, conflict lies at the very heart of Christmas. To those who say that Christmas is all about peace on earth, a quick look at the second chapter of Matthew and the largely overlooked story of King Herod reminds us that this peace comes at a price. For it is the kind of peace that can only come through conflict. Before caroling, there was weeping in Ramah.
It’s no surprise that most Christmas pageants leave out the Herod story. King Herod jealously guarded his power, killing anyone who got in his way. When he learns of Jesus’ birth, he declares the first war on Christmas. Herod doesn’t just want to kill Jesus. He wants to destroy him, taking Christ out of Christmas once and for all. When his efforts are thwarted, he resorts to genocide to ensure Jesus’ demise, murdering every male infant in Bethlehem. This, for Herod, is a bargain to rival any department store sale: The lives of Bethlehem’s youngest? A mere pittance for unrivaled power.
In other words, Herod gets it. Herod, more than anyone else in the story so far, sees this poor, refugee child for who he really is — a rival king.
Mr. President, just like the many other visitors that we receive here in this land, we would do our best to overwhelm you with our cultural hospitality and our traditions. I would seize this opportunity to not only welcome you to visit Bethlehem, but also to welcome all U.S. citizens to visit my small city.
I invite you, Mr. President, to be in my city within the nation that has a dream of liberty — a dream that goes in rhythm with all nations’ right of self-determination. We have embraced, as other nations, our pursuit of democracy, human development, and security. We have tumbled through our pursuits and have made mistakes, and because like all humans, as part of our human nature, we slip. We have built, learned, developed, and made our existence known to all nations.
Mr. President, I hope that in your visit you would not only enjoy the blessings of the Holy Land, but be encouraged to return and experience this city to its fullest. After you finish your presidency you will be able to visit without a big security escort and you will enjoy wandering the old streets and spending time in the old city of Bethlehem when you come back with your family.
President Barack Obama is planning to visit Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity as part of his visit to Palestine/Israel. The Church of the Nativity, of course, is not the only thing to see in Bethlehem. I suggest that as the president enters the town, from Jerusalem I presume, that he takes a look to his right, and he will see the separation wall. It is hard to miss. It is that ugly concrete structure that gives you the impression that you are inside a big prison. I am sure the president will notice how the wall is killing life in Bethlehem, cutting deep into our neighborhoods.
As he continues on his way through the main street, I suggest he pays attention to his right, to the Azza Refugee Camp. I hope it reminds him of the misery of more than 5 million Palestinian refugees today, who are still waiting in hope for a just resolution to their suffering.
Advent suggests so many mysteries of God's patience. One rarely commented case is God as Father and embryo. It is extra Biblical so imagination can only begin to tell the bizarre tale. Gabriel's annunciation and appearance to Joseph begins the period of waiting and soul searching, but a remarkable gap exists in the Advent story. Luke 1:56 makes this cursory remark as though it would suffice:
Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.
Presumably the second trimester of Mary's pregnancy is treated with a passing reference. If we simply take the divine conception of Jesus at face value, there was a moment in human history where God existed as Father in the heavens and embryo in Mary's uterus. Paradox of paradoxes. The Creator in utero.
One of the most fresh and challenging interpretations surrounding the Christmas narrative was produced by South Africa’s renowned theologian, the late Steve de Gruchy. In regards to the Magi and their visit with Joseph, Mary, and the newly born Jesus in Matthew 2: 1-12, de Gruchy offers a striking proposal surrounding the biblical text and its direct relationship with cooperative efforts between those in the so-called global north and south.
Among other things, a key insight into this portion of the Christmas narrative is that God is revealed through the vulnerability of poverty and marginalization. The main characters of the Christmas plot are not wealthy and prosperous high-rollers, but the downtrodden and vulnerable poor who stand as deliberate reminders of how God is in solidarity with those who are too often forgotten and oppressed. If Mary and Joseph were people of wealth and privilege, they surely would have received room at the inn, yet God shows an alternative to the common hierarchies of status in our world, and such pushed-aside people are given highest priority as the bearers of Christ.
The disturbing footage of the monks fighting in Bethlehem’s Nativity Church has been seen around the world. This is not the first time such a fight has erupted. The natural reaction any Christians should have upon seeing this footage is shame. It is difficult to even describe in words what one feels when he sees Christian clerics involved in such violence and rage!
This incident reflects at least two major deficiencies within the Palestinian Christian community. The first is the status of the church and how it is still controlled by foreign powers. Palestine and the "holy sites" have always attracted Christians who want to control these places. Everyone wants a share of the place. This is the story of the church in Palestine in a nutshell. Though we have called this place home for centuries, we have never in reality governed ourselves, as a people or as a church. Wars have emerged over control of the sites, from the crusaders, through the Crimean War, to our modern era, where a fragile "status quo" from the days of the Ottoman Empire governs the relationship between the different church families and who controls what in the holy sites.
At the center of the nativity picture is that baby in the manger.
That baby Jesus will be many more things as his life, death, resurrection and eternity continues but here in the straw, and central to everything he will do and be, he is a symbol of grace.
This is what Christianity boils down to. This is it at its most naked. Shed the tragedies of Christian history, the boredom of what you’ve experienced in Church (how was that possible!), the legalism that has oppressed your youth or whatever else has damaged your perspective of God and you are left with this amazing concept of grace.
Put most simply, grace is the “unmerited favor” of God.
A hegemonic power that separates and excludes is not of Jesus. I came away from the deep darkness settling on the land of the Holy One to declare along with my fellow Kairos delegates that, to paraphrase Bishop Marianne, “the fate of the free world depends on a civil society committed to Christ and a persistent, all-encompassing faithful non-violent tenacity pursuing creative and compassionate resistance.“
We must respond to those faithful ones behind both sides of the walls who are saying to us, “Come and See and Be with the people.” We must feel what Jesus felt as he witnessed tyranny and empire – the principalities and powers that oppress and dispossess and kill the poor for whom He had a heart. Please listen to the cries of the oppressed and act today in doing at least one small thing to bring a just peace…make a personal and if possible corporate choice in this critical moment of God’s Kairos.
If all who hear the “Bethlehem Call” respond then momentum will build for the liberation of all God’s children in the Holy Land.
I noticed this Christmas season, for the first time, that not only were Mary and Joseph forced to migrate under Rome’s census; not only was the Incarnate God born into a humiliating space — but, as they fled to Egypt, they never registered in Bethlehem with the census. A dream, an angel, told the migrant father to gather his family and run from the authorities. Unaccounted for in the empire, baby Jesus’ first movement in this world was a government-evading trek through the desert by night.
I think about this as, right now, my friend Estuardo is probably crouching in the dark somewhere in the desert along the Mexican border. At the same time my wife and I hang electric Christmas lights on our tree, get out our nativity sets, and read familiar illustrated books about the stars in the sky above the shepherds. Estuardo has told me, from previous voyages across the border by night, how clear the stars are when hiding from the border patrol lights.
In the Incarnation, Christ brings hope to a world where, for the time being, Herod is still king, and all is not as it should be. Christmas includes the story of a terrible genocide — a traumatic refugee experience for young Jesus and his parents, and all the worse for those parents who were not warned in a dream and thus did not escape to Egypt before their infant sons were murdered — but as evangelicals we seldom reflect on this part of the story. (Catholic & Anglican Christians remember these victims on the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28, a practice I adopted for the first time last year.)
The great hope of Christmas, though, is that it represents the entry into history of a Prince of Peace, who will eventually dethrone Herod and Caesar and set all things right. We’re still living in that tension: Christ’s kingdom has been inaugurated but is not here in fullness yet, as the injustice of last December’s DREAM Act vote and a thousand other tragedies of poverty, conflict, and marginalization throughout our globe remind us. So Christmas is a time for mourning and for hopeful joy: and it is entirely right that Advent is a time of eager and expectant yearning. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!
I’d like to share some Advent reflections from my former professor at North Park University, Scot McKnight. He is in the midst of a series that points to what Advent is supposed to remind Christians of. It’s a simple message with deep meaning: Jesus is King.
It's that time of the year again, the joyful season when Jeff, my iTunes DJ, starts spinning holiday music when I choose "random" from the play options on my keyboard.
I almost always have headphones on with music playing as I work each day, and the surprise of what Jeff, as I call him, comes up with — especially when he reaches into the way-back machine for sonic fodder — is a daily delight.
Oh joy! It's long been one of my favorite unconventional Christmas songs but I'd forgotten about its many charms until I was taking my first sip of coffee today.
The song, which appears on David's 2006 album Vista, is a take on the Natvity story seen through David's remarkably creative, often childlike sensibilities. Here's a taste of the lyrics:
Few will chose to follow
Out of all the star invites
Most will hide safe inside
With the lantern turned up bright
Waiting for a miracle