The theme of this year’s Advent emphasis at ABC is on the kaleidoscope of ways Christmas is viewed through the eyes of many cultures. In our sermons, we’ve focused on the major traditions represented in our own worshiping congregation, but through Messenger articles this month, I’m trying to view this from a more global perspective.
This has brought me to Bethlehem. That tiny little town where Jesus was born is today at the center of the complex interweave of cultures, religions and ethnicities that we call the Middle East.
Over the centuries, Bethlehem has been a point of religious and political activity of all sorts. It has been battled over among various Christian and Muslim forces, and the population represents all those kingdoms of the past. From a sleepy sheep herding town of a few hundred, it has become an active commercial center of 27,000.
The number of people in Bethlehem increases dramatically during the Christmas season, with nearly 100,000 tourists and pilgrims filling its numerous hotels. Because of the variety of traditions, Christmas is celebrated for over a month. Roman Catholics and Protestants observe Jesus’ Birthday on December 25; Greek, Syrian and other Orthodox denominations on January 6; and Armenian Orthodox (only in Palestine) on January 18.* During this extended Christmas season, a dazzling variety of worship and celebrative opportunities can be experienced by the many holiday visitors.
Christmas activities center on Bethlehem’s Manger Square. Facing the square is the historic Church of the Nativity, first established by the Emperor Constantine in AD 327 on what was believed to be the site of Jesus birth. In front of the church is a 55 foot Christmas tree lit up spectacularly, beginning on December 6, with forty thousand lights. The actual festivities start on Christmas Eve (December 24), with a celebrative parade, dramatic fireworks and midnight mass in the church. As the later Christmas dates approach in January, there are renewed flurries of activities featuring the traditional practices of each unique culture. At Christmas time, Bethlehem is a happening place.
However, less than two miles from Manger Square is a dark shadow that is a reality twelve-months of the year. Three refugee camps, originally established during the founding of the State of Israel between 1948 and 1950, continue to be home to 15 to 20 thousand individuals, who live a bleak and hopeless life. At Christmas time, the city becomes a contradiction between the festive lights at Manger Square and the stark struggle for existence of these refugees of Middle East tensions and wars.
So, this Christmas, 2015, in a world preoccupied by the acute ideological and theological tensions focused in the Middle East and fed by hundreds of years of misunderstanding and mistrust, Bethlehem seems the perfect symbol. Its all here, the myriad tribes and nations coming together, the three great religions all originating from an ancient encounter between God and Abraham, human celebration and human suffering side by side.
Inspired by his 1865 visit to Jerusalem, Episcopalian Pastor Phillips Brooks wrote his famous Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” Its almost as if he was living in our time when he penned the line, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” There are great fears, and there are great hopes. These lie sided by side in modern Bethlehem. The Baby Jesus is Gods response to both.
*Because of a calendar glitch in 1752, Armenians in Jerusalem, and only in Jerusalem celebrates this later date.