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


Christmas in the Holy Land: Part One

Christmas in the Holy Land: Part One

Monday December 23 2019

In the first of two pieces written by the Church of Scotland's clergy in the Holy Land, the Rev Kate McDonald offers her thoughts for Advent and beyond from Tiberias.

It is with these lofty words from Isaiah that our liturgical year starts anew.

In the darkness of winter, we wait with anxious anticipation for the coming of Jesus, our Saviour. In Tiberias, as in many churches throughout the world, we prepare ourselves for Christmas by lighting the candles on our Advent wreath, in HOPE, for PEACE, in JOY, with LOVE, hearing each Sunday the words from our holy scriptures speaking to the deepest longings of our hearts.

We begin our year in HOPE, and our readings for the first Sunday of Advent offer us poetic visions of the promised kingdom.

The ancient words of the prophet Isaiah assure us that one day God will judge between the nations, and settle disputes of mighty nations. Then they will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war. (Isaiah 2.4)

We HOPE for a time of political stability across the Middle East.

We HOPE for an end to violence, corruption, oppression, persecution.

We HOPE for a time when instruments of death are transformed into tools for the flourishing of land and people.

The prayers of the psalmist resound through the millennia and join with the prayers of those who worship at St Andrew’s Tiberias every Sunday: Pray that Jerusalem has peace: ‘Let those who love you have rest. Let there be peace on your walls; let there be rest on your fortifications’. (Psalm 122.6)

We HOPE that the holy city will be divided no more.

We HOPE that it will see an end to bloodshed.

We HOPE that all who live there may have rest and worship in peace.

We hear Paul’s promises to the church in Rome as though they are directed at us: The night is almost over, and the day is near. (Romans 13.12)

We HOPE the darkness of grief for loved ones lost in conflict is coming to an end.

We HOPE the nighttime of fear and trauma is almost over.

We HOPE the daylight of justice is near.

But as I name these hopes, inspired by the poetry of the prophet, the psalmist, and the apostle which I hold so dear, I also hear new words, words of a poet from Gaza, Mohammed Moussa:

I walk through my streets,
among scars of old losses,
the rubble of broken lives.
How do I say farewell
to those memories?
I feel cold.
It’s getting colder.

My dear city,
I have to say goodbye.
I’m tired of your losses,
of your sorrows,
even of your joys.

I’m tired of hope.

I’m tired of hope. These weary words serve as a stark reminder to us that in the depths of suffering, when there is little sign of change and the world seems not to notice or care, HOPE can feel like a weight, a burden too heavy to carry.

I hear this weariness expressed often in conversations with friends and colleagues and neighbours and partners here in this land as the conflict seems increasingly intractable, when national and international politics are dominated by narratives of power, suspicion, and greed. Activist burnout, compassion fatigue, apathy, cynicism, all say I’m tired of hope.

It can be hard to hold onto HOPE when swords remain swords and Jerusalem’s walls witness daily violence and the dark night seems endless.

It can be hard to read Matthew’s gospel on that first Advent Sunday telling us that nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows. (Matthew 24.36)

It can be hard to hear the promises of our scriptures, the promises of our God, and not reduce them to mere possibilities in some vague future we’ll never see.

But Matthew reminds us that when it comes, the return of the Lord will be a radical disruption to our present reality. Our gospel writer presents us with apocalyptic scenes of some taken and some left. People caught unaware and unprepared. The Lord coming like a thief, unexpected, unannounced.

Here in the north of Israel I feel the urgent need of Advent HOPE, as all around I witness the traumatic effects of so much violence and injustice throughout the region.

Jürgen Moltmann wrote: ‘Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.’

So here, we do not light that first candle of HOPE in the darkness; we light it against the darkness. It is an act of resistance, of defiance, made in protest against a darkness which seeks to extinguish our hopes.

It is a sign of our HOPE for the One who comes like a thief in the night, breaking into our world and our lives despite all the security measures we’ve installed, all the walls we’ve built, all the barbed wire we’ve wrapped around our hearts. It is a symbol of our HOPE in a Saviour who intrudes and turns our world upside down, with every intention of taking from us everything that is burdening us, everything that has made HOPE feel so heavy.

We are a small community at St Andrew’s Tiberias; very few Christians live here, so some Sundays only two or three of us gather. There are no signs during the season that Christmas is coming. There are no Christmas carols playing in the shops. There are no decorations on the houses. There are no Christmas trees or light displays. There are no communal preparations, no sense of expectation, no eager anticipation.

But by beginning our year by lighting that first candle on the Advent wreath, we affirm our belief that the One who is our HOPE has already come, is present amongst us, and that we are joined by our brothers and sisters throughout the world who wait and pray with us for Christ’s return.

Throughout the Advent season, we continue to light candles against the darkness, praying for those who are tired of HOPE, for those who cry out for PEACE, for those who feel no JOY, for those who long for LOVE.

And on Christmas Eve, a day which for many in our region will come and go as any ordinary day, I will open the church and wait. Maybe two people will come. Maybe twenty. Maybe more. It doesn’t really matter. Because as evening falls, we will sing familiar carols. We will hear again the great stories of our salvation. We will pray. And we will light the candles, one by one, ending at last with the Christ candle and the Promise it holds: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot extinguish it.

The Rev Kate McDonald is associate minister at the Church of Scotland's congregations at Jerusalem and Tiberias: St Andrew's. She blogs at

Tomorrow: the Rev John McCulloch reflects on Christmas in modern-day Bethlehem