Silent Night: A Palestinian Christmas

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Jesus’ birth in Palestine a few thousand years ago was not so silent. As much as I love the Christmas carol, “Silent Night,” I have a hard time imagining Mary didn’t cry in giving birth to Jesus and that newborn baby Jesus didn’t cry that night. The crying over his birth didn’t end with them. After the visit of the Magi, Herod got ready to make mothers in the whole region weep. Scripture tells us that Herod was going to make sure that no king would rise up to take his place, and so he slaughtered all baby boys two years of age or less in Bethlehem and its vicinity. Matthew 2:18 quotes from Jeremiah the prophet in recounting the event:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

While Jesus came to bring peace, his birth led to further violence in a world drenched in violence. We are all too aware of how violent our world can be at Christmas, whether we are in Portland, Oregon, Newtown, Connecticut, or in Bethlehem in Palestine.

We are days away from celebrating Jesus’ birth. While there are fears that the recent spate of violence in Gaza will keep pilgrims and tourists away from visiting Jesus’ birthplace this Christmas, still the Arab Christians living in Bethlehem will celebrate his birth.

So many of these Arab Christians have fled Bethlehem and the surrounding region over the past several years because of the increasing pressures they face on all sides. They are as a National Geographic article indicated a few years ago “The Forgotten Faithful” (June 2009 issue). Those Palestinian Christians still living there no doubt hope for a silent night in terms of relief from violence, but not in terms of a celebration of Jesus’ birth by people who come from near and far to welcome Jesus the king.

I have been struck by how many Christians in my circles are surprised that there are Palestinian Christians. Indeed, there are. They worship Jesus, who was Jewish, but who lived among the Gentiles, many of whom came to follow him. Just as Jesus’ followers in that region millennia ago placed their hopes in him, so also, these Palestinian Christians do as well. What are their hopes? What are our own? Are they any different from us? I am sure they long for violence to cease and for justice to prevail. But there appears to be no end to the violence and justice is so hard to find for everyone on all sides who have suffered in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I am sure my Arab Christian brothers and sisters in Palestine know Jesus did not come to destroy Rome or for that matter give Jerusalem back to the Zionists—then and now. While Jesus’ birth then and now is surrounded by violence, he comes again and again to bring his peace. Jesus’ own people lived under foreign rule and oppression for so long. In fact, the reason for Jesus’ parents coming to Bethlehem was a direct consequence of Roman rule, as Caesar Augustus had issued a census to be taken of the whole Roman Empire (Luke 2:1-3). Jesus’ parents could not protest this ruling; Jesus himself grew up under the oppressive force of Roman rule. Jesus also faced the rejection of members of his own people’s ruling class for not siding with them. Jesus knows what it’s like for powerful forces on all sides of a conflict to try and silence him and/or those closest to him.

Christians from the West often visit the holy land but fail to listen to the voices of their Palestinian brothers and sisters in Christ. These Western Christians may visit the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem, but fail to realize that some of Jesus’ cherished brothers and sisters who were born there are being forced to leave. This Christmas, may we listen to our brothers and sisters in Bethlehem share their hopes and fears and longing for Jesus to return and silence the violence and grant them his peace.

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