Christmas in Occupied Bethlehem (or why we must face the darkness to experience the Light)

The light of Christ is a persistent light. It shines through the most powerfully oppressive darkness, shines in the midst of devastation, disaster and upheaval, yet without explaining them, justifying them, or making sense of them. The gospel of incarnation and resurrection is not the answer to a set of questions. It is a persistent and defiant light…(Kenneth Leech)

Twenty-one years ago, I celebrated Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. In 1990, Bethlehem still lived under the boot of Israeli military occupation.  The first Palestinian Uprising was still in full force; my little group from Saint George’s Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem had to acquire special passes from the Israeli military to enter the West Bank to mark the birth of the Prince of Peace. The Middle East was just weeks away from the Gulf War which would commence with the American bombing of Baghdad , followed by the retaliatory Iraqi SCUD missile attacks on Israel.

Two months previously, I witnessed firsthand the aftermath of what was then the bloodiest day in Jerusalem since the 1967 War. On that mid-October day, seventeen Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli security forces outside of the al-Aksa mosque complex (or Temple Mount).  Seven of those people died at the Lutheran hospital at which I was interning. The floors of the grand Augusta Victoria Hospital literally ran with blood that terrifying afternoon.

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The folks back home were rightly thrilled with the idea that I would be attending Christmas Eve services near the site of Jesus’ birth. I had spent every Christmas Eve except for this one at my grandparents’ cozy home in the tiny hamlet of Portage, Ohio. My favorite part of the evening was our obligatory sojourn down the street to Portage United Methodist Church for candlelight services following my grandmother’s always magnificent dinner. The service concluded the same way each year; after hearing the Christmas story, we would light candles while singing “Silent Night” and quietly process from the darkened sanctuary.

I not only felt close to my family during those services  (how I loved to hear my grandmother sing). The idyllic and peaceful nature of the Christmas narrative made my childhood world feel safe and secure. Sure, as I got older, some holes began to appear in the literalistic theology with which I was raised. But I drew comfort from the predictability of celebrating Jesus’ coming in such a warm, enclosed environment. I suppose that that the Christmas story had become for me theological “comfort-food.” What is more heart-warming than a manger scene, complete with baying sheep, adoring wise men, and serenading shepherds?

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The reality of occupied Bethlehem on the eve of war was appallingly different from the idealized projections of my American childhood. As we passed through several military checkpoints that night, I encountered dozens of stone-faced, heavily armed soldiers on the lookout for would-be terrorists (or protestors). Armored vehicles roamed Bethlehem’s darkened streets, which were under curfew. A helicopter gunship hovered not far from Nativity Square, breaking the silence of the night with its whirling blades. Inside the Church of the Nativity itself, the congregation was limited to a spartan crowd of diehard Palestinian Christians. Most international Christians had cancelled their pilgrimages to the Holy Land with the looming threat of a Middle East conflagration.

Aside from the stark external scene, my faith that damp December night was in the process of being shattered. I had neither the emotional nor spiritual resources to cope with the trauma I was witnessing. The binge, blackout drinking that I had started to do in college became a regular occurrence for me.  By the end of college, the  “gentle Jesus, sweet and mild” of my middle-class, Midwestern childhood had been replaced by the “do-gooder, ” ethical role-model Jesus of liberal Protestantism.  Both of these versions of Jesus began to seem irrelevant in a land haunted by the screams of violence and oppression.

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And then I heard the Christmas story again, this time not from the confines of a comfy pew but from the ramparts of a town under siege. Our little group of Anglicans worshipped on the roof of the Church of the Nativity. One of the English clergymen, with us, the Rev. Peter Crooks, had spent the previous decade in Beirut until the threats of kidnapping and assassination became so prominent that his family had to leave their beloved Lebanon for the relative “peace” of neighboring Israel/Palestine.

In his meditation that night, Peter pointed out that the Bethlehem below us was far closer to the reality of the Bethlehem into which Jesus was born than the “Little Town of Bethlehem” imagery of traditional lore. Like late 20th century Bethlehem , the City of David in the first century was a town under occupation. Rome ruled Palestine with an iron fist, using the half-Jewish, puppet-king Herod to do its bidding with the locals.

According to Luke’s narrative, Jesus was born in Bethlehem because that is where Joseph and Mary had been forced to go by the imperial authorities in order to register for taxation purposes. In Matthew’s account, King Herod becomes so agitated by the news of Jesus’ birth that he orders every boy in Bethlehem under the age of two to be executed to prevent any threat to his corrupt regime. Joseph is warned of the coming slaughter in a dream and flees with Jesus and Mary to Egypt to seek asylum.  As with tens of millions people in today’s world, Jesus, the Anointed One of God, begins his earthly mission as a homeless refugee.

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Hmm, the celebration of Christmas did not seem such a quaint undertaking with a helicopter gunship hovering nearby and the whiff of tear gas floating through the chilled night air. As connotations of mistletoe, overstuffed stockings, and Jolly Old St. Nick faded from relevance, I heard the angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth with new ears:

Do not be afraid. I bring to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord…Suddenly a great company of heavenly hosts appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’ (Luke 2.10-14)

From the vantage point of a war zone, Christmas is not merely a charming tale about a cute baby being born in a barn; the great good news of Christmas Eve is the startling claim that God has come to dwell on earth in human form. And not merely to be honored by doting wise men and adoring shepherds watching their flocks by night. This Emmanuel (which means, “God is with us”) child

has come to show strength with his arm, to scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, to bring down the powerful from their thrones and to lift up the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things and to send the rich empty away (Luke 1.51-53).

This is the night when God’s kingdom of justice, peace, healing and mercy enters history in a dramatic, new way. God’s Christmas kingdom calls into question our allegiance to what St. Paul labels the “principalities and powers of this world” (which take many forms and go by many names). This Christmas kingdom directs us away from our own frantic pursuits of comfort, power, and control and allows us to experience the true freedom found in serving one another and living in communion within the bliss of God’s Eternal Now.

God’s kingdom comes and transforms history using methods that might appear nonsensical, if not downright scandalous from the perspective of the kingdoms of this world. As a good, upstanding citizen of the American Empire in 2011, I pay homage to many thrones: Wall Street, the Mall of America, Big Medicine, the Pentagon, the Apple Store, Hollywood, Harvard….

The Christmas King beckons me to worship at some very different altars: in a stench-filled barn in the Palestinian countryside; along the back roads of Galilee, shoulder to shoulder with a throng of lepers, prostitutes and other social outcasts; on a hill called Golgotha where a naked, battered corpse lies nailed to a bloody cross; inside an empty tomb on a spring Jerusalem morning.

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It was in Bethlehem that I began to see the importance of always viewing Christmas in light of Easter. Our Christmas celebration of Incarnation (of God becoming flesh and dwelling with us) is a pie-in-the-sky exercise in sentimentality (and now consumerism) unless we remember WHY God came in Christ Jesus: to mend a broken world and to conquer the powers of sin, evil, and death.

As the Anglican spiritual theologian Kenneth Leech has put it,

The saving power of the Christmas celebration depends upon the truth that Christ is risen from the dead. It is the presence of the risen Christ in the eucharistic mystery which transforms a nostalgic memorial into a source of light and glory….It is the joy of the resurrection, of the Christ who is present through his conquest of death and decay which enters our hearts at Christmas.

Leech tells us that both Christmas and Easter are “festivals of light,” moments in which we are reminded of the destiny that God intends for each of us – to become “divinized,” to share in God’s light and life and love, from glory unto glory.

To see the centrality of the symbol of light as common to both incarnation and resurrection is to see how inseparable are the Christmas and Easter mysteries…Without Easter, Christmas has no point; without Christmas, Easter has no meaning. Both incarnation and resurrection have significance because in these events God is glorified in the flesh. The flesh becomes the source of light, the raw material of glory.

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Leech asserts another truth (the ignoring of which nearly cost me my faith): there is no Easter glory without having first passed through the dark night of surrender and of death. At many moments of my spiritual journey, I have sought what the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous calls “an easier, softer way.”

I want to be safe, pain-free, and in-control. I am comfortable with a Santa Claus God who gives me what I want, when I want it. Perhaps this is why I laugh so hard at the Baby Jesus prayer from the movie, Talladega Nights. How often does Ricky Bobby’s self-aggrandizing, consumerist spirituality look like my own ego-centered posturing and pleading with God!

From a Christian perspective, one problem with viewing  God as cosmic Santa Claus (who has his own “naughty” and “nice” lists which he uses to reward the “good” people and punish the “bad” ones) is that it flies in the face of the Scriptural account of who Jesus is, why Jesus came, what he taught, how Jesus acted, and the manner in which he died. The “health, wealth, and prosperity” gospel of large segments of American Christendom (Mainline, Catholic, Evangelical, and Liberal versions included) seems to have a lot more in common with the “Gimme, Baby Jesus” of Ricky Bobby than the Messiah we find in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

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The Jesus of the Gospels invites us to an ongoing journey of radical transformation (conversion). While the Jesus Way might look foreboding at first glance, it is the path to peace,  fulfillment, happiness, and freedom far beyond our most wild imaginings.

In order to take that journey, we must not be afraid to hear the cries of a world in pain, to enter into the great anguish of one another’s broken hearts, to touch the sorrow of those who are suffering. For, as Kenneth Leech again reminds us, we cannot fully enjoy the Light of Christ until we have entered the darkness of death.

The gospel of incarnation and resurrection cannot be preached in an authentic and truthful way unless it faces the terrible reality of homelessness and meaningless death. It is these two realities which provide the only possible material context for the light of Christ.

For it is the homeless unwanted Christ of Bethlehem and the naked condemned Christ of Golgotha that the light shines with its strange persistence and its baffling power to draw people to its shining, enabling them to become dynamic agents in the historical process, lights in the world…It is a transforming light. As Paul says, we are being changed into the likeness of the Lord whose glory we have seen. (Kenneth Leech)

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I credit that Christmas Eve in Bethlehem with initiating a shift in how I live in relationship with God. A lot has happened in my life in the subsequent two decades: the birth of four amazing children; the painful ending of some significant relationships; the witnessing of hundreds of deaths as a hospice and hospital chaplain; work with persons living with severe mental illness; the losing and finding of numerous ecclesial homes; the discovery of new spiritual paths, friends, and teachers. Change is a constant with which I am intimately familiar.

While I cannot pretend to understand the tragedy and trauma to which I have been a witness, I know in my heart that the Light first made known as a babe in Bethlehem continues to emanate rays of compassion, healing, and mercy, even in the most despair-ridden situations. Blessed Pope John XXIII knew of which he spoke when he penned this Christmas prayer:

O sweet Child of Bethlehem, grant that we may share with all our hearts in this profound mystery of Christmas.  Put into the hearts of men and women this peace for which they sometimes seek so desperately and which you alone can give to them. Help them to know one another better, and to live as brothers and sisters, children of the same Father. 

Reveal to them also your beauty, holiness and purity.  Awaken in their hearts love and gratitude for your infinite goodness.  Join them all together in your love. And give us your heavenly peace. Amen. (Pope John XXIII).

Happy Christmas, friends. May Christ’s Light lead you home this night and in the nights to come.

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