Christians must be perplexed
“Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing which has come to pass,” urged the shepherds on the night when Jesus was born.
And, for thousands of years Christians have made a similar pilgrimage at Christmastime to the little town of Bethlehem to worship at the site of Jesus’s birthplace, housed in the Church of the Nativity, and adored as one of the holiest sites in Christendom.
But not this year. Bethlehem has shut down.
There will be no long lines, no room in the inn, all souvenir shops closed, a few places of worship opened.
The Israel/Hamas War has brought a smoldering halt to all the joys and expectations of blessings from above and all the cherished sights and scenes that have drawn millions of tourists to this holy shrine.
Bethlehem still remains that little town of the beloved carol, but this Christmas it is deserted â€” save for homesters and innkeepers and hotels and attractions that have shut their doors in the wake of the awful turmoil taking place across the Gaza strip and the brutal butchering and loss of blood that has traumatised the world.
This war is not being fought in isolation. The nightmarish effects are not confined to the Gaza north and south or in penned up areas on the streets and lanes. The war, started from a vicious attack by Hamas raiders, has gone way beyond the act of immediate retaliation expected from the Israeli, and has brought humanity to a new low with the struggle for a pyrrich victory so far accounting for the loss of an estimated 19,000 lives on one side, and an estimated 1,100 on the other.
We would have hoped that as Christmas approached the two sides would have called for a ceasefire in respect and with regard to Bethlehem, just 6 miles south of Jerusalem.
But, ah, Bethlehem. How still we see thee lie. The streets usually overflowing with tour buses and colourfully dressed pilgrims in the days before Christmas are nearly empty this year. So are the hotels, the gift shops, the restaraunts, the tour agencies. It’s a deserted village.
According to the international news agencies, in a release this week: “In a show of solidarity with the Palestinians of Gaza, church leaders and elsewhere in the Holy Land have asked local Christians to avoid public displays of celebration, and to instead intensify their prayers for the war’s innocent victims.”
Christmas or no Christmas the bloodshed continues, and we watch in shock and disbelief as the Holy Land becomes a prolonged killing field with thousands displaced forever from their homes, with buildings crumbled into the ground, water cut off, fuel nowhere to be found, and, worse, food and water nowhere in sight.
Christmas cannot be the same this year because, even as we worship on Christmas morning and sing “Hark the herald angels…”, and remember the wonderful birth of that baby boy in the humble stable, we are saddened and shocked by the pictures on television and the relentless killing and extermination of families, villages, towns, and standard of living debased by soldiers some of whom have turned on their own.
Christians must be perplexed. Caught up in the war as innocents. The dwindling number of Christians who live in Gaza claim that they are under attack from Israeli “terrorists”. More fuel has been added to the fire with the shooting of two Christian ladies by Israeli soldiers last week. Is this a thorn in the side of Christianity? Should Christians be taking sides? After all, Israel, the chosen nation of God, does not accept Jesus as the Messiah, does not accept Jesus as the Son of God, does not believe in the Trinity, and is still waiting for the true Messiah to come.
Israel’s religion comes to a full stop at Malachi, chapter 4, the last book in the Old Testament. The Jews, the people of God, believe in the same God that Christians worship, but they stop short of the New Testament, the standard-bearer gospels of the Christian faith.
On the other hand, Hamas, the revolutionary Government of Gaza, is regarded by dozens of countries, including naturally the United States, as a radical Islamic terrorist group, dedicated passionately to the destruction of Israel and the enshrinement of its own religion, Sunni Islam, as the only religious order fit for the Palestine State. Hamas won the 2006 parliamentary elections in Gaza and in 2007 violently seized control of the Gaza Strip from the internationally recognised Palestinian Authority.
Therefore Christians, as far as shared religious roots go, will back Israel, but are asked to pray for an ending to the hostilities and the fighting, and to pray for God’s guidance on both sides.
Many Christians in Jamaica are shocked and disappointed at the relentlessness of Israel in this war, believing that Israel is flying in the face of Jesus’s example and commands. Indeed, Paul says in his letter to the Romans, chapter 12, verse 19: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord,’.” And I am not taking that out of context.
So Israel is in a quandary, for that verse appears in one of their favourite Old Testament books, Deuteronomy 32: 35: “How odd, of God, to choose, the Jews,” was this tongue-in-cheek poetic exchange coined by British journalist William Ewer in the early part of the last century. Indeed.
Christians in Jamaica and all over the world who support Israel want to see an end to the wanton killing and destruction now taking place on God’s Earth.
We want to go back to Bethlehem and join the shepherds as they made their way through the night to look for the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
On that night Bethlehem had taken on a festive air as hundreds who had turned up for the census were making time for partying and joyful reunion with family and friends. The streets were crowded with shoppers seeking souvenirs. It was Grand Market time, with hawkers peddling, customers bargaining, and music and dancing at every street corner.
No one had time to notice the non-descript couple who moved anxiously from building to building trying to find a haven for the pregnant girl. One person finally took pity and led them to a little stable around the back: “It’s not much, you can rest on the hay, a little water, and that’s all I have, take it or leave it, Sir.”
On Earth, that moment was just a minor distraction from the music and the lights and the dancing as the street-goers partied like never before. But in heaven, that was the signal, the time for go, the finger-snapping moment for God to come into the world, not as a spirit, but as a humble, frail, mortal man in flesh.
And, as the baby made his first cry, a most marvellous thing had happened on a hillside several miles away. The mightiest of archangels presented himself in a flash of light to a nervous, frightened, quivering set of shepherds. He made the formal announcement, and then the rustics, spellbound, saw the curtains of the sky rolled back to the four corners of the globe as a host of angels filled the heavens singing that first Christmas carol: “Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth, peace and goodwill to all men.”
It made music around the world, but for those magical moments only the shepherds heard it, and only the shepherds saw the angels.
But in the stable behind the inn, the baby’s tiny hands tapped out a gentle applause, and His mother knew that He was listening.
On the hillside, the concert was over. The heavenly choir took its exit. The curtains were restored. The shepherds wept. They were considered the lowest caste in the society of that time, yet God had chosen them for one of the greatest honours in the whole of human history.
This is our hope, and this is our prayer, that we may once more go to Bethlehem, in peace, and see this thing which has come to pass.