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Home  >  Features  >  Christmas in the Holy Land: Part Two


Christmas in the Holy Land: Part Two

Christmas in the Holy Land: Part Two

Tuesday December 24 2019

In the second of two pieces written by the Church of Scotland's clergy in the Holy Land, the Rev John McCulloch describes Christmas in today's Bethlehem

A stone’s throw away from the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square Bethlehem, the artist Banksy has stencilled a mural on a church door entitled ‘Peace on Earth’. The text-based artwork is asterisked with the commonition ‘Terms and conditions apply’. In occupied Bethlehem, the very place where Christ was born into our world of suffering, Banksy’s words are a poignant reminder of the political realities here today.

Christmas in Bethlehem is a big occasion. In the preceding weeks, lights go up all round the old city, and an imposing Christmas tree is placed in Manger Square, not far from the Church of the Nativity (built on what is believed to be the place where Jesus was born). The smell of falafel, roasted corn on the cob, shawarma and freshly brewed coffee fills the air, as thousands flock to Manger Square to join in the celebrations. Shops stay open late, and the cafés and restaurants are bustling with pilgrims from near and far, together with local Palestinians.

Christmas in Bethlehem is not only celebrated by the dwindling Christian community here. Many Muslims flock to the old quarter to join in the seasonal festivities. Live Christmas music performances on the stage in Manger Square stop during the calls to prayer, out of consideration and respect for a town where the majority is now Muslim. The haunting calls to prayer echo out of the Mosque of Omar, located just a few hundred metres away from the Church of the Nativity.

The Christian community of Bethlehem and its surrounding villages has reduced drastically in size over the 52 years of military occupation, and most markedly after the Separation Wall was built. In the late 1950s, the Christian population stood at around 86%. Today, it is just over 10%, and falling. With the holy sites in Jerusalem now out of bounds, and many unable to access the green farming areas that now lie in Area C on the other side of the Wall, many Christians have decided to leave.

There is no question that the decline in the most ancient Christian community in the world overshadows Christmas in Bethlehem. In Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories as a whole (including the Gaza Strip), Christians represent approximately 1.9 % of the total population. Whilst Christmas represents a joyous occasion here, and a rare opportunity for warmth and light in a city that feels cold and empty during the harsh winter months (very few homes here have heating, and there are barely any trees from which to get firewood), it is also tinged with an air of melancholy and resignation.

Standing in Manger Square on Christmas Eve, you experience these varying emotions. On the one hand there is anticipation in the air, at a time when the world’s attention focusses on Bethlehem; but the reality of Occupation overshadows the city.

TV cameras beam images of the crowds across the world, and in churches across Scotland and beyond the faithful sing hymns and carols that transport them in their imagination, to idealised and saccharine images of Bethlehem that belie the political realities of 2000 years ago and now.

What some may not realise is that Bethlehem has three refugee camps (Aida, Al Azza and Dheisha), which originated after the 1948 Nakba (‘Day of catastrophe’), when Palestinians fled what is now the State of Israel, leaving their homes and possessions behind, displaced within their own land with no prospects of ever returning. Near Aida camp there is a Christmas tree adorned with gas canisters, a reminder of the realities of the day to day situation here. The children of Aida camp are some of the most tear-gassed children in the world. Living in the shadow of the Wall, there are no spaces for them to play.

One cannot help being reminded that it is as a refugee, fleeing from violence, that our God chooses to incarnate into our world. Our King, born into social exclusion and with a death-threat hanging over him, comes to show us what God is really like, and to establish a kingdom not based on military might and violence, but one which associates with all who are exiled, cast out, crushed and occupied.

O little town of Bethlehem
how still we see you lie!
Above your deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by;
yet in your streets is shining
the everlasting Light;
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in you tonight.

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend on us we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in;
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Emmanuel.

The ‘hopes and fears’ that the hymn writer speak about are to be met in a Saviour who refuses to be born into wealth and entitlement, which would be normal of an earthly King. Instead, his coming into the world initiates God’s subversive upside-down kingdom, where ‘power is made perfect through weakness’.

The plea in the final verse of the hymn, for our Saviour to ‘come to us’ and ‘abide with us’, echoes the cry down through the centuries of all of sighing humanity, who long for healing and hope, in a world where the weak are crushed by structural injustice, that like the Occupation, has become depressingly normalised. Inequality, exclusion, and violence are the modern ‘Herods’ of today, which cast their death-shadows over the weak and the vulnerable.

Christmas in Bethlehem, like elsewhere in the world, it a reminder of how light comes into our world. But nothing is taken for granted here, and the mural of the two cherubim who are trying to prise open the wall with crowbars is a reminder that, whilst many celebrate Christmas, our world at large does not welcome the one who comes with salvation and healing on his wings. That was the same in the days of Herod as it is today. Our world has not learnt the ways of peace, and continues to reject the Prince of Peace.

Leo Tolstoy, who had experienced war and being under siege in Sevastopol during the Crimean War once wrote: All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Tolstoy understood that in a world of suffering, pain, unanswered questions and undemanding cycles of war and conflict; all we have to hold onto is love.

The message of Christmas is that love has come into our world, and it keeps coming again and again. The love that came down at Christmas cannot coerce or change by force, but comes to each one of us, with the invitation to partake and share of that love.

In Bethlehem at this time of year, so many are yearning for hope, dignity and freedom. The season of Christmas always comes at the darkest point in the year, and perhaps this is why it is so compelling, and continues to capture the minds and imagination of so many across the religious and non-religious divides.

Our prayer, this year and over the years, is to see peace and justice return to this land where God took on human flesh.

The Rev John McCulloch is minister of Jerusalem and Tiberias: St Andrew's

Yesterday: The Rev Kate McDonald reflects on Advent and Christmas at Tiberias