A comment we sometimes hear during the Advent season from our friends in the West is that celebrating Christmas in the Holy Land must be something very special. As Christmas draws near I’d like to take the opportunity to reflect upon this idea.
Why should celebrating Christmas in Israel be something special? I can think of at least three reasons:
1. Modern Israel and the Palestinian territories (West Bank and Gaza) constitute the physical space within which the key events of Christmas took place. Jesus was born a two-hour car-drive from our doorstep (Bethlehem in the West Bank) before fleeing to Egypt via Gaza and then returning to settle in Nazareth (in Israel).
2. Culturally and religiously, Jesus was both Middle Eastern as well as Jewish. Christmas in Israel means Christmas in the reconstituted Jewish state, Christmas in Nazareth (or Bethlehem or Gaza) means Christmas among oriental Christians, who share much of the cultural background of Jesus.
3. As far as the Old Testament prophets are concerned, the Holy Land is the land of prophetic promise, a stage not only for past events of salvation history but also an image for the final establishment of God’s heavenly kingdom on earth.
Seen through these lenses, I can see why many would like to celebrate the birth of the Messianic king of the world in the land of his birth. But how do I personally experience Christmas here in the land? My experience is as ambivalent as the Christmas story itself. Let me explain in light of the three above-mentioned points:
1. Biblical Geography: Christmas celebrates the birth of God’s king who will rule over God’s kingdom—this is why in Advent we read the Isaianic prophecy of the “child” who has been born unto us, upon whose shoulders the government will be (Isaiah 9:6). And yet if we read further in this prophecy, we see that a decisive characteristic of the sphere under his rule is the elimination of the cosmic consequences of the Fall from the physical order of creation: “the lion shall eat straw like the ox” (11:7) and the wilderness will be “like Eden,” the “desert like the garden of the LORD” (51:3). How does this affect my experience of Christmas here?
Although it is true that travelling this beautiful region can be a great stimulus to the imagination, lending colour and contour to the Biblical stories, if it is Christmas that I am thinking of then the current state of Israel’s flora and fauna and even geography can only be testimonies to the unconsummated nature of the kingdom of Christ—a signpost pointing me away from the present towards his future coming rule.
2. Biblical cultural background: Christmas celebrates the birth of the king to whom every knee will bow (Romans 14:11; see Isaiah 45:23) and to whom worship will be offered “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9). In the sphere of this kingdom, every culture will embody the will of God, “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). How does this affect my experience of Christmas here?
The diversity of cultures in the region is fascinating and in many respects living in the East brings me closer to the cultural background of the Bible. Yet if it is Christmas that I am thinking of, then I can only conclude that even here, every culture “falls short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Christ’s call for radical obedience in light of the coming Kingdom (e.g. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount) explodes the ethical norms of every culture (e.g. Matthew 5:11, 39, 44; 7:1, 24; 8:21) and only remains fragmentarily fulfilled in the Church’s struggle to hear and submit to the voice of the Resurrected Lord. Like the land itself, the established cultures leave me yearning for the return of the King.
3. Biblical Promise: The Biblical prophecies of Christmas all mention the land. This makes sense, for what use is a king without a land to rule? Furthermore, when one reads these prophecies in context (Isaiah 7:10-16; 9:2-7; 11:1-10; Micah 5:2) one sees that the relationship between the “king” and the “land” is always configured in a specific way: the Land into which the King is born is in desperate need of redemption; it is perverted by wickedness, oppressed by the enemies of God, and thus far removed from its calling to be the locus of God’s New Creation. The job of the king is to redeem it. How does this affect my experience of Christmas in Israel-Palestine?
I think it is here, in light of the prophetic message itself, that my experience of celebrating Christmas in the “Holy Land” helps bring home the reality of Christmas—in all its ambiguity. In the gospels Christmas is portrayed as an intensely mysterious intersection between heaven and earth, between the revelation of glory and its continued hiddenness in a shame-ridden world. In the version of Luke we read of unsuspecting shepherds at night being suddenly surrounded by the light of heaven, blown away by an almighty angelic choir … only to be sent to an animal stall with a baby in a feeding trough and nothing but their verbal testimony to convince the neighbours. In Matthew we read of a mysterious star leading foreign wise men to travel enormous distances to honour the king of the Jews, and yet the current king of Judah initiates a mass slaughter to try and eliminate him, and so he must flee abroad before returning to grow up in obscurity in “Nazareth” (“What good can come of Nazareth”?). In John we read of the divine person called the “Word of God,” existing before all time and space and the means of its creation. This Son of God takes on flesh as Jesus of Nazareth—and is rejected by his own because it does not have the “ears to hear.” Mark leaves out the stories of Christmas and Easter altogether and presents us with a hidden Messiah who was often misunderstood by his own disciples.
Celebrating Christmas in Israel-Palestine means celebrating “news of great joy for all the people” in the midst of ongoing hiddenness. For those who don’t just pass through as tourists or as pilgrims on a mission to tap into a holiness contained in rocks, water, and reconstructed polities, Israel-Palestine remains a land marked by pain and trauma and the general corruption of the human heart. Perhaps the most famous symbol of this right now is the separation barrier surrounding the Christmas town of Bethlehem, but the reality goes much deeper. It is within this context that one must search for signs of the arrival of God’s king on earth, a king currently reigning from heaven but preparing to return. Where do I personally see signs of Christmas in my own context in Nazareth and the surrounding region? I see it in those moments when the reign of Messiah breaks through the darkness, establishing itself in the hearts of his followers and bringing a foretaste of the kingdom to come through transformed lives. For example: In an Israeli prison where new birth is proclaimed to inmates and Jesus is praised in a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic; in a poverty stricken village where the love of Christ is demonstrated in practical, relational ways to families and children; in churches, Bible studies, personal relationships and in a theological seminar when the Holy Spirit descends upon the written word of God and infuses it with the authority of Christ to evoke awe, praise, repentance, hope, and renewal—thus establishing a “bulwark” of the future in the present. For me, these are moments of “unveiling,” when the otherwise hidden reign of the king on Zion becomes visible on earth. And in those moments I know that Christmas is slowly but surely reaching its goal.
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