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  • Reverend James Squire

A Different Kind of Christmas

Photo by Jamie Street


When I attended a course of study at St George’s College in Jerusalem, the buildings were modeled after Oxford but there was one difference. There was barbed wire across the top of the walls and a steel gate that was large and was opened and closed with heavy machinery. The college looked like an armed camp. It sat between the Israeli and Palestinian sections of the city.


The college had over scheduled the students in the dorm rooms so my group was asked to live in the Palestinian section of the city. We were assured that living there would be safe, but I wondered if that were true why all the barbed wire and a steel fence. Their message seemed incongruent!


I thought initially that being reassigned to the Palestinian section would reduce the quality of our learning at the college. As it turned out living in the Palestinian section was as valuable a learning experience as anything that would occur within the safety of the walls. Living in the Israeli section was like living on the mainline where I currently live. Living in the Palestinian section was like living in an impoverished area.


During our time at the college the course of study made use of traveling to places that were part of the biblical narrative. We traveled to many places where we were walking on the same soil and brick that Jesus traveled.


When we were making our way to Bethlehem which is in the Palestinian part of the country, I don’t know what I expected, but it was a different expectation from those traditional scenes that are depicted today in various art forms. Those renderings of the appearance of the city are rather idyllic.


That was not what I experienced when entering the city in its modern-day rendering. Artists would have to find a different brush, a different canvas, and a different depiction of Jesus’ birth in a manger. As our bus was about to enter Bethlehem, we were stopped. Israeli soldiers boarded the bus equipped with their uzis. They checked our papers and permitted us to enter the city. Since all the jobs are in Jerusalem, the Palestinians have a daily ritual of being checked as they leave and return. Street vendors mixed with the rest of us hoping to get some money to supplement what may come home from those who work in Jerusalem. My expectation was that I would be taken to a barn or cave to see that place where Jesus was born. I was wrong.


I was struck again with the disconnect from my idealized version of Bethlehem and today when I saw the picture in today’s Inquirer. The headline of an article written by William Booth and Sufian Taha was “Bethlehem cancels Christmas celebrations.” “Who can sing ‘Joy to the World’ today?’ asks the Reverend Munther Isaac, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church.


The picture depicts rubble of destruction. “The newborn Jesus is swaddled in a kaffiyeh amid rubble in a Nativity scene, expressing solidarity with the people of Gaza at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. If Jesus were born today, he would be born amid a pile of rubble.”


“Christian leaders here are careful to condemn the surprise attack on Israeli communities on October 7 when the militants killed 1,200 people and took about 240 more hostages, triggering current hostilities. But they are more focused on the war since. The Israel Defense Forces, fighting to eradicate Hamas, have killed more than 20,000 people in Gaza, the enclave’s health ministry said Friday. With water, food, and shelter all short, the international aid groups warn a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding.”


“In his annual Christian message, Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Hanania spoke this year of mourning – and condemned Israel’s prosecution of the war in Gaza as “ethnic cleansing and genocide. Christian clergy here use similar language, blaming the failure to protect the innocent on world leaders including President Joe Biden.”


On this Christmas Eve when Jesus is born in a manger, there must be a call for moral clarity. When I attend Church today, it is the image of my time spent in the city of Bethlehem that I will see in my mind’s eye. No rose covered glasses and idyllic pictures can wipe away Jesus born in the rubble of war.

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