I thank my father principally for three things. The first was his willingness to take a child’s thought seriously enough to debate with it intelligently. The second was his advice that, if you have heroes, it is always wise to look at their feet. The third was that he never pretended there was someone other than himself inside the costume of Father Christmas. I am, as a result, incurably questioning, doubtful of heroes, and a lover of realism.
Christmas in Israel is a curious experience, and one that invites looking for reality inside the costume drama. Bethlehem will once again be the setting for a world-class broadcasting opportunity. But just as there was ‘no room at the inn’ for Jesus then, there is little welcome for Jesus now in a city dominated more by the Muslim call to prayer and the relentless Israeli search for security than by Peace and Goodwill to all.
In Israel proper, Christmas is a happier experience. Christians of all traditions feel drawn together across their many denominational differences. Prince Albert’s penchant for Christmas trees has spread to Arab and even to some Jewish homes, though the risk of a rabbi’s pastoral call may influence its public display! What is more, we evangelicals get two bites of the Christmas pudding, so to speak, by virtue of both the western and eastern dates receiving magnanimous recognition from all concerned. What is truly beautiful is that Christmas in the Arab Christian culture is celebrated by giving time more than things to one another. The two weeks that separate east and west in their choice of date are filled with family and friends, meals and conversation, warmth and laughter. And without the British dependence on alcoholic improvement to these gatherings, having a good time means having time for goodness. Here, at least, there is Peace and Goodwill aplenty. Bethlehem is never far away, though. One could drive there in two hours from Galilee, and many local Christians have relatives in that area. Palestinians can’t drive here in two hours, sadly. The West Bank is easier to enter than to leave, even with some relaxations in honour of the Christian festival.
To go there is to enter history in other ways than visiting the Church of the Nativity. It is to enter the drama of the Middle East and take a front seat. Take off the Christmas costume of this awful, wonderful place and you see more of Father Time than Father Christmas. Its past may be Christian but its future is Muslim. The skyline is dominated by minarets rather than church spires, and the call to prayer sounds forth much louder than the church bells. It used to be also a place of Jewish pilgrimage, but the sacred burial place of beautiful Rachel is now an ugly fortress. It was ‘The House of Bread’ but has become a poisoned chalice in Israel’s reluctant keeping. It is a place beloved in principle for its profound associations with Jewish history and Scripture. It is a place despaired of in practice for its modern realities: occupied territory that cannot be released without a serious risk to Israel; the town of David that is no place for any Jew; the grave of Rachel where Ishmael is even now reclaiming his rights from her husband Isaac. Even the fact that it is the birthplace of Christianity is no great comfort to a people whose story is awash with Jewish blood that was shed in Jesus’ name. This is a country where the past is ever-present and the future is a dream. Islam sees Ishmael’s birthright yet to be liberated. Israel sees David’s kingdom yet to be fulfilled. Christians see only a bleak future for themselves as their number spirals downwards and their voice is ignored.
But what of the present? Is there any hope? None in violence and not much in current diplomacy, I fear. But born in Bethlehem was one we call The Prince of Peace. His teachings may offend in many respects both Jew and Muslim, and that is the reproach of the cross. But his pacific title was earned by singing the song of King David himself: Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it (Ps.34:14). Neither Christians, nor Muslims, nor Jews can escape that call to face our past realities. God grant some will heed its call to deal with present ones.