Here’s a special column that I published in the Deseret News, at the editors’ invitation, back on 16 December 2010:
LDS Church history sites that dot the eastern half of the United States all prepare for Christmas with lights, Nativity displays and other decorations. This week Mormon Times highlights Christmas at LDS Church historic sites from Sharon, Vt., to Nauvoo, Ill. Also, BYU professor Dan Peterson helps give insight to what the holiday season is like in the Holy Land.
Christianity is dying in its birthplace.
Nazareth, a predominantly Christian Arab town within living memory, is now mostly Muslim, and — though few realize it because the writing is in Arabic — tourists visiting the massive Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation are confronted by banners denying the deity of Christ.
Bethlehem was 85 percent Arab Christian when the state of Israel was proclaimed in 1948. Now the city’s Christian population has fallen to perhaps 10 percent.
Middle Eastern Christians have always found it relatively easy to immigrate to Europe and the Americas because they feel religiously comfortable there. The political instability and violence of the past several decades in Palestine, coupled with the more recent rise of militant Islamic fundamentalism and — in Bethlehem — the decline of the Palestinian economy (strangled, in part, by Israel’s security fence), have impelled many to leave.
And yet, Christmas continues to be celebrated by the beleaguered Palestinian Christian community and a relative trickle of Christian tourists. Christmas services are still conducted in Bethlehem’s literally fortress-like Church of the Nativity and Manger Square before the church is ablaze with Christmas lights.
Visiting choirs sing, Palestinian Boy Scout bagpipers play and one or two young Palestinian boys will be dressed as Santa Claus.
“May Peace Prevail on Earth!” reads one bullet-riddled sign, in English. Within walking distance, at the Shepherds’ Fields of Beit Sahour, a large electric star shines overhead. A few years ago, the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury and the Catholic Cardinal of Westminster jointly visited Bethlehem to show their solidarity with local believers and to urge other Christians to come and support Palestinian hotels and shops.
In the contemporary Middle East, our need for a Savior seems particularly acute because the fact of the fall is especially obvious. Generations of human effort have failed to produce anything resembling peace. Yet, mercifully, the brilliant, warm light shed by the advent of the Prince of Peace shines forth from the region’s gloom with exceptional clarity.
Three decades ago, I sat on the Mount of Olives watching a column of Israeli tanks move slowly down the main road in the Kidron Valley. The yearning words of the agnostic Oxford classicist and poet A. E. Housman came forcefully to mind. Addressing Jesus, he prayed:
If in that Syrian Garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, Son of Man.
But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your fears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.
Not far from Bethlehem is Golgotha where, after the infant cradled in that manger had grown to manhood, he confronted evil and, in some incomprehensible manner, defeated it.
Steps away, he rose from the dead.
Though we sometimes despair, in the end “the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”
Posted from Leura, New South Wales, Australia