Magazine article The Christian Century

Christmas Presence

Magazine article The Christian Century

Christmas Presence

Article excerpt

THERE WILL BE no Christmas celebration in Bethlehem's Manger Square this year. The annual festivities have been canceled because the organizers have deemed it inappropriate to celebrate in the midst of the conflicts and violence.

It is difficult to understand the political complexities of the Middle East and easy to feel despair about any possible solutions. The loss of a Christmas celebration in Manger Square is a particularly troubling symbol for the region, and a painful sign of the Palestinian plight.

Might it also be a troubling sign theologically, especially for Christians who live outside the Middle East? It is troubling in the first place because so few of us are aware of the plight of our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters. For too many people, a Palestinian is a terrorist. Palestinian priest Elias Chacour often begins addresses in the United States by opening up his jacket and saying, "I am a Palestinian. I am not a terrorist." Too many of us have an image of Israel and Palestinians that precludes recognition of our historical and contemporary ties to Palestinian followers of Jesus. As a result, we do not recognize what is at stake for a Christian presence in Bethlehem.

Many of us have sentimentalized Christmas in Bethlehem. Dorothy Jean Weaver, an American New Testament scholar currently on sabbatical in Bethlehem, diagnoses the problem in an e-mail newsletter:

   It was not an especially pretty world.... The Palestine of Jesus' day was a
   world of grinding poverty for the masses, hard labor for a daily pittance,
   wealthy tax collectors who made their fortunes by extorting money from the
   impoverished, and brutal military occupiers whose preferred method of crowd
   control was crucifixion .... Nor was the town of Jesus' birth an especially
   peaceful place, and hardly the idyllic Bethlehem of our beloved Christmas
   carol, lying "still" under the "silent stars" in "deep and dreamless
   sleep."

Weaver then describes present realities: "Two thousand years later the picture looks strangely similar. The Palestine of Christmas 2000 is a world of massive unemployment and growing poverty. And the Bethlehem of Christmas 2000, with its sister cities Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, knows only too well the terrifying sounds and scenes of war."

When we sentimentalize that "little town" of Bethlehem, we also sentimentalize the Jesus who was born there.

As Weaver puts it:

   When God comes to be with God's people, it is not to an idyllic, fairy-tale
   world.... There would in fact be no need for "God with us" in that "never
   never" world. … 
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