‘A place for us’: Christmas Eve in Bethlehem
In December of last year, I was working as an Ecumenical Accompanier (EA) in the South Hebron Hills of the West Bank. Having a day off close to Christmas, my teammates and I headed to Bethlehem. We were to meet teams from other areas of the West Bank at the Bethlehem Inn and return to our placements Christmas Day. On the 24th, a few of us walked to Manger Square. It was very busy with tourists as well as Palestinian Muslims and Christians. We went into the Church of the Nativity and listened to priests and monks as they walked up the aisle with candles, singing and chanting. Later, I saw Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, arrive at the church to attend Christmas Eve mass as he does every year.
Several of us, however, headed to the Lutheran Christmas Church for the Christmas Eve service. We could get a bulletin translated into English and the service was conducted in several different languages. There were tourists from many countries singing familiar songs in their own languages.
Bishop Munib Younan conducted the sermon in English. I would like to share part of that sermon. Keep in mind that we were in an area under occupation, with Palestinian Muslims and Christians facing many hardships – many of which I had recently witnessed.
In his sermon, the Bishop likened the inn to those in positions of privilege. There was no room in the inn for Mary and Joseph. Today there is no justice and peace to be found with those in position of privilege and power. There still is no room for Jesus. Instead peace and justice must come from a stable – a lowly place and among ordinary people – the grassroots.
The Bishop went on: “I continue to hope and to believe that peace based on justice is possible. The grassroots are ready. But what about those in the inn? Are the world politicians ready, or are they afraid for their power and their interests? The babe born in Bethlehem asks them not to play with the fate of his followers. Do not play with the dreams of our children – Palestinian and Israeli, Christians, Muslims and Jews. Our children want peace, not war. They want to hold the future in their hands, not guns. They want a childhood to remember, not a childhood to survive. They want life, and life abundantly.
“Jesus, the child born in Bethlehem, cries out from the manger, calling leaders and politicians to boldly seek justice. History will remember those who swim against the tide to build a peace based on justice, guaranteeing a place in the inn not only for Arab Christians, but for other religions and other nations. We continue to believe there is a place for us in this region, just as we believe there is no place for extremism and violence.”
After being in the West Bank, I wondered what has become of the promise of peace and goodwill. I have wondered where God is in all of this. I came here to observe life under occupation and in my actions show Christ. But instead I have felt empty and disheartened.
Most of the villages we visited are now under demolition orders or have already been demolished. Yet here I found people who would always welcome us and serve us tea and share freshly baked bread. I was thinking of that when listening to the words of the Bishop and how Christ came to earth in humble surroundings among a people living under occupation.
And I realized that is how I experienced God. It was over a cup of tea in humble surroundings among an oppressed people.
God coming in the most unexpected of places.
May you find God in unexpected places this year as you seek to live out God’s mission of love, peace and justice.