Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward all people (Luke 2:14).
Christmas has arrived! The hope of the living Messiah has come. Today, of all days, may we not be discouraged by the realities of this earthly world. Problems, conflict, and war continue to exist throughout the Middle East, but the good news remains – war does not have the final word. Rather today, we hold onto the hope of all the things the birth of Christ represents.
He will bring us goodness and light.
As we read the Gospel stories about Jesus’ birth and childhood, we find King Herod learning from the Magi that the promised one, born king of the Jews, had been born (Matthew 2:1-6). The announcement of the long-awaited’s birth was not joyous news to this earthly king. On the contrary, the advent of this young child posed a significant threat to Herod’s power and position and led him to terrible pronouncements that altered a generation. Herod’s fear manifested in his order that all boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity, two years old and under, be killed (Matthew 2:16).
When faced with the fear of losing their power and comfort, leaders and the privileged often lose sight of the broader picture. This was true in ancient times, as it remains true today in current politics, business, kingdoms, nations, neighborhoods, and even our faith communities. The “us and them” mentality presents a false dichotomy. There is only “us” – all of God’s children – a grand reality that those with wealth and influence still belong to those who are vulnerable, underserved, without voice or platform.
Isn’t technology marvelous? Computers used to take up the space of entire rooms; now, many carry what are essentially tiny transistors that are faster, with more memory, and include high definition cameras in our pockets and purses! Our smartphones connect us to others by phone, through social media, and we’re only a search away from being able to find answers to countless questions. This connectedness provides us with much information, misinformation, knowledge, and opinions. The news seems to find us these days rather than needing to walk to the postbox for a paper copy.
The pervasiveness of information and interaction can lead us to believe that we’re more connected to one another now than ever before; however, we are also more susceptible to find ourselves in silos of like-thinkers, separating “us” from “them.” These dividing lines previously crossed by coffee shop conversations, attending family gatherings, or around the water cooler at work have taken hold. Society loves dichotomies, consider these categories: right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, scarcity vs. abundance, dark vs. light, evil vs. goodness, sinful vs. righteous. More often than not, we put ourselves in the “good” or “right” category, simultaneously placing those who aren’t sure they agree or who certainly do disagree in the “other” camp. The gap fills with distance, darkness, vilification, distrust, and fear as the separation wall’s cornerstone.
A song, a song high above the trees with a voice as big as the sea…
This year included the voices of many people exclaiming loudly the injustices they experienced and witnessed firsthand. Consider the story of Mohammed El Kurd, who raised his voice to talk about the realities his family suffered from settlers while living in the East Jerusalem of Sheik Jarrah. I wrote about his story in the article “From Child Displaced to International Activist” on the Do Justice blog of the Christian Reformed Church. The world first learned about El Kurd’s story from a Just Vision documentary called “My Neighborhood” featuring Mohammed when he was only eleven years old. At that time, in 2012, Mohammed’s family lost a portion of their home to settlers who moved into one side of his grandmother’s house. By 2021, Mohammed’s story hit international media, where he and his sister once again faced the threat of displacement as a part of the dozens of Palestinians from the neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah being forced out by opposing claims of Jewish settlers. The activism of Mohammed and his sister Muna had such an impact that Time Magazine named them both on the list of 100 Most Influential People of 2021.
May we have ears to hear their story.
A star, a star, dancing in the night… with a tail as big as a kite.
Stars are symbolic of many things. For some, they are a spiritual or sacred symbol. For example, an eight-pointed star is a Native American symbol of hope and guidance. For others, stars are a symbol of magic, humanity, divinity, direction (as the Northern Star), excellence, or even fame. Some may say “reach for the stars” as a means to motivate. The star of Bethlehem is one of guidance, the star of David representing hope in the coming Messiah.
In the Christmas story, we read in Matthew 2 that the Magi (wise men, magicians, astronomers) see a star rise to their west and travel great distances to worship the one who has been born, Jesus, the king of the Jews. This star is the beacon of their long-awaited hope, now realized. Imagine yourself in their shoes. For generations the Jews have been awaiting the coming of the Messiah, literally looking to the skies. Can you imagine the heart palpitations, the thoughts that raced through their minds “do you think it could be?” The compelling sense to see the star, to not miss the joyous occasion, the motivation to go and see – with the thought “we must see this miraculous occasion for ourselves.”
Do you see what I see?
One of my favorite holiday memories as a little girl involves driving through local neighborhoods at night, looking at Christmas lights, and belting out carols with my Dad – mostly off-key! Do you hear what I hear? was one of his favorites and remains one of mine.
Since October 1962, the song Do you hear what I hear? has sold millions of copies and been recorded by dozens of artists. So as we head into Christmas and for those who celebrate Advent, we at Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) will be reflecting on the words of the song as we prepare to celebrate the coming of Christ Jesus at Christmas.
With the realities affecting the Middle East — from the coronavirus to the May 2021 hostilities between Israel and Gaza, the humanitarian needs in Yemen, the economic crisis in Lebanon, to the one year anniversary of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan — all of us are in great need of seeing and understanding what is happening in the Middle East more clearly.
As a Historic Peace Church, one would rightly expect the Church of the Brethren to highlight the coming of one hailed as the “Prince of Peace.” That the angels proclaim, “Peace on Earth” and not long after, violence would be used by those in power attempting to stifle this coming child. The political and social context then and now make a robust focus on peace a clear need.
We also assert that all theology is practical—what some would call ethics—and as such, that the coming child embodies the fullness of God’s shalom is of immediate relevance for how we live as Christians and the church in the world. In another context I have defined peace as:
Peace is the presence of wholeness in relationships that are characterized by justice, mutuality, and wellbeing. Peace is not a universal or homogenous experience but is experienced in the appreciation and celebration of diversity and between individuals, communities, nations, and with the environment (non-human world).
We’ve been waiting a long time for Jesus to return. I’m starting to feel like we’ve been stood up. What would it mean to give up on the notion that Jesus shall return to make it all okay?
Some time ago, I rejected the terrible vision of Jesus’ return as laid out in the book of Revelation. I recognize that the gospels occasionally present Jesus as endorsing violence against those who are opponents of the kingdom of God. I can even imagine that some kind of “crushing of the enemies of the kingdom” was a part of Jesus’ worldview. But I don’t think it is Jesus’ best material, and I see the cross and resurrection as a rejection of this way of thinking. At the moment where we might imagine God intervening to vanquish the enemies of God’s kingdom, God is absent. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus declares that he has been forsaken by God. At the meal that celebrates God’s violent intervention to save the Jewish people, Jesus asks his followers to remember the moment when God did not choose to intervene violently. Jesus’s death is not necessary; it is tragic. Jesus dies in solidarity with all victims of violence, especially the victims of state and religious violence. We should be horrified at Jesus’s death and should vow to stop the senseless scapegoating of other humans. In this way, the resurrection can be understood as God’s rejection of the cross as a means of keeping the peace.
The idiom “the other side of the tracks” usually refers to a line of demarcation and separation, often actually railroad tracks, between the more affluent part of a town from a more impoverished area. The separation is often both economic and racial/ethnic. Depending on which side you are on, you either have an acute awareness of the other side—its influence and control on your life—or you have some vague stereotypical ideas of a place you rarely go.
Palestinians know and understand the idiom well, simply by changing one word, “tracks” to “wall,” referring to the separation barrier/wall that Israel began to build in 2002. The separation is also psychological between Israelis and Palestinians. Between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the barrier is a 30-foot high concrete wall.
God enters time and history through the divine incarnation. The Almighty God invites Himself into our lives in a state of absolute weakness and vulnerability. The newborn lying in a manger holds in His hands the secret of the universe, the secret of the entire creation and absolute love. In the cold night of Bethlehem, the one who carries within her the treasure of the world, the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, the Mother of God, travels across the city in search of a place to give birth to the one who will change the course of the history of mankind. Today, we still count the years from this glorious moment when time and space were sanctified, merging in a divine kairos, an instant of the Kingdom in which still echoes the alleluia of the angels. As we contemplate this glorious miracle, we experience a sense of mingled wonder and awe that church expresses in the Orthodox hymns for the feast: “Heaven called the Magi by a star, and thus it brought the first-fruits of the Gentiles to You, the infant lying in the manger. And they were amazed, not by scepters and thrones, but by utter poverty. For what is more shabby than a cave? And what is more humble than swaddling clothes? But it was through these that the riches of your divinity shone forth. Lord, glory to You!” (Hypakoe of the Nativity)