Salaam and grace to you from the land of Jesus’ birth!
Salaam and grace to you from the land of Jesus’ birth!
I have been wondering, what does it mean that the infinite, Almighty God chose to come into our lives as a tiny, helpless child? What does it mean that Jesus was born, not in the comfort and luxury of the city, but on the outskirts of a little town called Bethlehem? What does it mean that God came first to the poor shepherds, stable folk and animals and not to the privileged and powerful?
I can picture that Mary and Joseph imagined they would be welcomed and hosted by relatives or friends in Bethlehem. Yet, as early church fathers Justinius the Martyr and Origen proposed, Jesus’ birth was most likely in a cave outside the town in a stable used for animals. Jesus was most likely born in a remote place, outside the town and the culture. It shows us that there was no room for the Son of God when he came into the world; this foreshadowed his own words that he would find no place to lay his head later in life. But more than that, it tells us that Jesus’ birth in a stable is a living sign that God dwells where you would least expect: amidst the marginalized, the outcasts, the suffering, the oppressed, the occupied. There was no place for him in the midst of the powerful; his place was in a simple stable.
What was it about this event, tiny and insignificant in the world’s eyes, that was so threatening to Herod that the Holy Family was forced to flee?
Perhaps Herod knew that somehow this Holy Family bore the seed of a revolution. Perhaps he had heard Mary’s song and was afraid:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
Luke 1: 47…51-53
Perhaps Herod knew that someday this child would grow and announce a mission that would threaten his world:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Luke 4:18-19
Later, the Pharisees knew that if people lived the message of this tiny king born swaddled in humility and rejection, the world would have to change. This king – for whom there was no place at the inn – came to tell the world that all people possess a place in God’s world.
The question is the same for us today: is there room for this kind of king in our broken world? Is there room for justice in the inn? Is there room in our world for people to see and value each other as equal human beings deserving of basic human dignity? We Palestinians wonder, here behind our walls of concrete, standing in lines at checkpoints, watching our land being confiscated and our homes being demolished: will there ever be any room for justice for Palestinians?
If we look around us in the world today, we see so many who are living in fear, trying to isolate themselves and protect themselves through weapons, walls and war that only bring about more resentment, hate and violence. We are literally dying for peace, the real peace that can only be built on a foundation of justice. Our world is in turmoil because the peace the world seeks is grounded in political power, self-interest and expediency rather than justice. To Palestinian Christians justice seems like a cruel dream. Though many see our situation as political, really we are deep in a spiritual struggle and we wonder: Why doesn’t God hear our cries? Doesn’t the Holy Land deserve justice? Why do people stand silent and not speak out for justice? The words of Isaiah echo from the deep past as if they were spoken today, reminding us:
The way of peace they do not know,
And there is no justice in their paths.
Their roads they have made crooked,
No one who walks in them knows peace.
Therefore, justice is far from us,
and righteousness does not reach us;
We wait for justice, but there is none;
For salvation, but it is far from us; (Is 59:8-9, 11a)
The injustice that continues to haunt our Holy Land is driving Palestinians and Israelis into a massive downward spiral of unrelenting fear, violence, hatred and extremism. When justice is lacking, extremism fills the void. It is the absence of justice that is fueling the fires of extremism in the Middle East today.
Justice is the only solution for the Middle East. Justice, and only justice. It is only justice that can stop extremism from holding peace hostage in the Middle East.
The year 2007 marks the 40th year of occupation here. It is time, after 40 years, that Palestinians and Israelis experience the justice that heals and brings true peace? It is time for the occupation to end, for Jerusalem to be shared and for courageous leaders to stand up and make this dream of many generations come to pass.
It is time for a change of heart for all of us. Our prayer is that Israeli children have a future without fear. Our prayer is that Palestinian children have a future filled with hope. It is time to teach our children that a world that has room for justice leaves no room for any kind of walls that divide us. For Christ is our peace, and in his flesh He has made both groups into one and has broken the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Ephesians 2:14)
From Bethlehem on this sacred night, I urge my Palestinian sisters and brothers to stop fighting among themselves and unite in a non-violent struggle for justice. May the babe of the manger guide our feet into this path of peace. (Luke 1:79)
People tell me that I am dreaming and that facts on the ground show a very different reality. Justice is not easy to invite in. It is dangerous, and one does not know where it might take you. It involves hard choices. But, ultimately, it is better to experience the fruits of justice than to continue to suffer the consequences of war, occupation and violence.
More and more consciences are awakening to the need for justice in the Middle East, and especially in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as the core problem of the Middle East. More and more are realizing that war, militarization and power are not the answer. More and more are observing that the message of the manger can change the world from injustice to justice, from animosity to community, from distrust to trust.
It is the birth of Jesus that can motivate all of us, churches throughout the world, Palestinians and Israelis, Christians, Muslims and Jews, all who want a future for our children. The babe of the manger invites us all to unite in a new symphony that sings justice and that can bring peace and transform the Middle East into a world where all have an equal place, equal opportunity, all are welcome and all can walk freely in this Holy Land.
From Bethlehem, we call on all who work for peace and justice not to despair, not to be frustrated or tire even if they swim against the tide. The prophet Isaiah in his messianic message encourages all who work for just peace in the same way:
“Hands that are feeble grow strong! Knees that are weak take courage! Hearts that are faint grow strong! Fear not – see, our God is judgment and he will repay. He Himself will come and save us.” (Is 35:3-4)
Christmas reveals that with God’s incarnation, the impossible is possible. Justice comes, and this corrupt world will make room for justice, even if it begins in a stable. If we don’t make room for justice, we will never know real and lasting peace. This is the message of the Prince of Peace.
There is a story by American author Bruce Feiler’s book about Abraham in which he meets a man in Jerusalem who tells him this story:
Two brothers live on either side of a hill. One is wealthy but has no family; the other has a large family but limited wealth. The rich brother decides one night that he is blessed with goods and , taking a sack of grain from his silo, carries it to the silo of his brother. The other brother decides that he is blessed with many children, and since his brother should at least have wealth, he takes a sack of grain from his silo and carries it to that of his brother. Each night they go through this process, and every morning each brother is astounded that he has the same amount of grain as the day before. Finally one night they meet at the top of the hill and realize what’s been happening. They embrace and kiss each other.
And at that moment a heavenly voice declares, ‘this is the place where I can build my house on earth.’
It is only with this spirit of generosity that justice will spread and become incarnate in our world. Justice begins at home, with me, with you. Only when God’s grace takes root and grows in our lives will justice find room in the inn and grow to fill the whole world, especially Jerusalem.
This year we celebrate Christmas, the feast of Hanukkah for the Jews and the feast of Eid Al-Adha for the Muslims together around the same time. I believe God is calling all of us to repent of our past but also to promise to open our hearts so that God’s spirit of generosity will live in us anew and allow us to pray together:
Come, Light of the World, help us to believe in your light that no darkness, no oppression, no occupation, no hopelessness can overcome.
Glory be to God in the Highest,
and peace to God’s people all over the earth.