Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas Eve- Star-Crossed Christmas

by John Daniel Gore

Text: Isaiah 11:6-16

“Bethlehem must be such a mystical place to spend Christmas,” a family friend commented in a recent e-mail. The tourists think so. A shop-keeper once complained to me that droves of people spewed from buses, in and out of the Nativity Church, and back onto the buses without visiting Bethlehem’s Old City area. All ‘Holy’ sites are like that. Pilgrims carry their Easter vision with them from the hotel to the Holy Sepulcher and mill for an hour in the vortex of waiting bodies to kiss a rock. At the Garden Tomb this November, where Jesus was never buried nor rose, pilgrims sang hymns of praise that grated my nerves: I was burned out this November. The Gaza conflict followed...

I see Israeli occupation daily, working by the Annexation/Apartheid Wall. At my office we like to say that the occupation would prevent Mary and Joseph from reaching Bethlehem but pregnant Mary would have stayed in Nazareth if not for Roman occupation (—matrices of control). When the wind howls past my window, I think the Holy family wished that the census was taken in balmy Jericho. Probably, relatives tucked them into a lower cavern, where the animals were kept, and Mary had a normal, wretched delivery. Giving birth sucks. I am not saying that shepherds did not make an uncanny visit nor that magi did not follow a brilliant supernova, predicting Christ’s ascension to ministry. All of that happened but so did the ugly details missing from popular imagination...

I adored the Christmas of my childhood, overflowing with the warmth of family and the promise of good things, with plenty of merry winter fun. That Christmas feeling slowly drained away as my parents divorced, my grandparents died, and I left places behind. Jesus was harder to find in the plastic faces of swaddled baby-dolls. I wanted mystical Bethlehem to revive my earliest memories of anticipation and awe. Bethlehem’s aura is different and the yuletide center of gravity is shifted Northward. Without any occupation, this place might be ‘Scandinavian wonderland meets Southern California climate’ but Palestine was unlucky, falling to the Ottoman and British Empires and now to Israel— so deftly named to commandeer Old Testament prophesies for a Manifest Destiny agenda. The Christmas I knew is shot and hung to dry...

I have kept searching, though. Isaiah is a thicket of predictions, prophesy, and blatant wishes where we can find both visions of the Messiah: the counter-conqueror versus the counter-cultural. Reading Isaiah out-loud, I came to a passage in chapter 11 that juxtaposes images of unprecedented peace with a vision of regional dominance. “Aw [expletive],” I grumbled, “this sounds SO stinking zionist.” I stopped to pray for a moment. “Could it be,” I mused, “that Isaiah had a broader vision than the translators or, further still, could it be that God had a greater vision than Isaiah could comprehend as he penned?” What if the returning exiles were refugees in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon—from enclaves around the world— exercising their right to return with equal rights? There could be space, in this text—on the land, for everyone to overcome the rash of reactive ethnocentrism that rooted itself here over seventy years ago. I can reclaim Christmas from the neo-colonialists— Independence Day, too...

Christmas in Bethlehem feels like the 4th of July. Each Christmas procession (there are parades for each rite) conjures a wave of pomp that surges along The Star Street. Camel riders, people dressed as cartoon characters, long lines of silent monks, and band after band of bagpipe-toting scout troupes pour in from across the West Bank. I love marching bagpipes. A gargantuan, fake pine with flashing lights is erected in the middle of the square, next to the massive stage. Living a block from the square, I am treated to two weeks of rah-rah and concerts but nothing compares to the tree-lighting. A mass of Christians, streaked with curious Muslims, congeals around the tree to listen to speeches by big-wigs: the mayor, the prime minister, special guests. I cannot resist the electricity. At last, a bloom of fireworks forces the recon drones to higher altitudes. The band bursts into song and everyone croons: “Ballaaaadi! Ballaaaadi!” My country! My country! Tears trickle from my chin: my patriotism has returned from exile. In Bethlehem, at Christmas, I have a nation again as a Christian!

In successive years, Advent comes wrapped in a Palestinian statehood bid. The land groans for liberation. Imagine how early Christians must have felt when Jesus was hung to dry, rolled in spices and buried. The Star the magi followed must have seemed like a lie, all anticipation wasted. Then the good news emerged that he was risen, that they could hoist the cross at last. They remained among a sea of doubters and hostiles. Similarly, the United Nations voted overwhelmingly, 139 to 9, to grant Palestine nonmember State status. Yet those 9 have the power to close an iron noose. Herod (I mean the Knesset) is restless: there could be military crackdowns, new restrictions. False prophets across the West speculate with outdated information and armchair heuristics. Regardless, most of the world awoke as protests for Gaza dotted the globe last month: the smell of Justice, like the Magi, wafts across the desert!

The newborn Jesus was our statehood bid, Christians, but not the state that was envisioned. I believe that having a Messiah was a terrible, human idea that God purloined for the good of all humanity. God pirated the Messianic prophesies using the census, angels, and even the stars to put the boy from Nazareth in the right place at the right time. What a huge save! Jesus did come to balmy Jericho and, on the Mount of Temptation, Satan painted him a picture of supremacy. Jesus had an immaculate conception: to forego domination for Salvation. The budding anticipation flowered that day and the Advent of Salvation, his ministry and passage into the Earth as The seed of Love, and everything that followed was clinched. Hallelujah!

Like the first Christmas, little has changed ‘on the ground’. I keep returning to the magi, those people who came from afar because they knew (inexplicably?) that Victory was imminent. The solidarity workers are all magi and the local NGO-workers are our shepherds. We seem like crazy optimists. The rest of the world thinks we celebrate prematurely. Bethlehem shows us the first, shining face of Christmas. It is a brazen demonstration of Faith in things to come: an end to oppression, the beginning of a people. When our lives are torn apart and we feel rootless, Christmas is a time to conceive what God will do to restore Unity with Dignity. As for the warm Christmas I knew as a child, I understand now that this is the glow of Victory remembered. Someday, I will see it again.

رجاء, مبادرة, و سلام إليكم. [Hope, Initiative, and Peace to you all]  


John Daniel Gore is a young adult missionary through the United Methodist Church serving at the Wi'am Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center. He was born and educated in Michigan before departing for Bethlehem, Palestine, to begin what he hopes is a career in peace and conflict. He describes himself as a writer, a hack musician, and a lover of insects, lakes, and star-lit nights. He blogs at Reverse Exiled.

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