Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Day - Breaking Down Barriers

I knew it would be!

And it has turned out that way!

Christmas has been different this year.

It is not just that a group from Highbury joined friends from St Luke’s and other churches in Cheltenham and further afield and stayed for six days in Bethlehem.

It is much more that we met with people, made friends, and have stayed in touch.

When we received the Peace Light from Bethlehem at our Christingle service on Wednesday evening we received greetings from some of the people we met … and that evening when I looked at my emails I discovered that the father of one of the Scouts who had appeared in our video clips had sent us an email, a prayer for Christmas …

In this time of grace, pray for little Jesus to be born in your heart.

May He, who is peace itself, give peace to the entire world through you.

Therefore, pray without ceasing for this turbulent world without hope, so that you may become witnesses of peace for all.

May hope begin to flow through your hearts as a river of grace.

Peter’s family own the Star hotel where we stayed. Peter himself is manager. One picture has been precious to me this Christmas … and that is the view from the Restaurant window

– it is a magnificent view looking down from one of the highest spots in Bethlehem on to Manger Square to the left … and in the distance to the right of the church tower the site of one of Herod the Great’s palaces on the mountain top that he had sliced off.

It was Belmont’s carol service that prompted me to focus on that view. In telling their Nativity story they focused on the cruelty of King Herod. Felicity and I had just seen the new release for Christmas, Nativity! Wonderful entertainment for anyone who has ever had anything to do with Nativity Plays. Two schools go head to head in competition with each other. One focuses on the cruelty of Herod in a way that you simply have to see!

It was a cruel world that Jesus was born into, as the Wise Men visit Herod in his palace and then thwart his plans to kill the Christ child by returning home by another route. Herod built a number of palaces for himself.

There from the Restaurant at the top of the Star Hotel we looked out at one of them. Look more closely and you can see how Herod has sliced off the top of a mountain.

He has then sunk into the top of the mountain a fortress.

To explore it is to be overwhelmed by its scale and its statement of utter Power.

At the foot of the mountain he built the most palatial of palaces.

Herod the Great’s regime under the Roman Empire sought to build peace through the imposition of city life, the development of commerce and above all by military conquest.

That view over the rooftops of Bethlehem presents us with a stark choice – looking down to Manger Square we look to the child who has been born for us, the son who has been given to us: we look to the one who has been named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. He stands for a justice and a righteousness that has at its heart love for God, love for neighbour and love for enemy too.

And then there is the power of Herod the Great and the Roman Empire, the power of urbanisation, commercialisation, and military might.

It is a stark contrast.

To follow Christ is to choose the way of peace in the pursuit of justice.

Staying in Bethlehem, now a walled in city, only a couple of months after the Gaza bombardment, we couldn’t help but be aware that we were touching a conflict that is right at the heart of our troubled world today.

The contrast is as marked today as it was 2000 years ago, as Carole Davies’s wonderful sketches she made for us remind us.

Here are pictures of two walls. The wall that surrounds Bethlehem, Gaza and the Palestinian communities is symbolic of something that is somehow not right. From Israel’s point of view it is a security fence that protects against terrorism. From the Palestinians’ point of view it is an apartheid wall that encroaches on their land and keeps them a separated and isolated people. However you look at it, the wall is symbolic of something that is very destructive.

The other wall has a small door in it. Bow down and enter through that door and you enter into the Church of the Nativity and recall the coming of the Christ child the Prince of Peace.

The way of the Christ child is as important today as ever it has been.

The way of the Christ child is the way of the Prince of Peace who seeks to tear down barriers and in their place build bridges.

We met with Christians and heard of the work those Christian Palestinians are doing in order to work for peace and justice today.

And for Christmas we have had greetings from some of those we met.

Their greetings capture for us the way of Christ in this troubled world.

Tantur is a place that stands for the work of reconciliation in a divided world. Father Michael McGarry, Rector of Tantur and one of our speakers back in April has sent us a Christmas greeting.

I would just like to extend my wishes for a blessed Christmas to you and all your friends, and to invite your continued prayer for the peoples of the Land.

And please keep Tantur in your prayers.

He then goes on to speak of The Kairos Palestine Document, a remarkable statement signed by most if not all of the Palestinian Christian leaders.

It outlines a very Christian response to the troubled situation in the Middle East and is well worth reading.

As Palestinian Christians we hope that this document will provide the turning point to focus the efforts of all peace-loving peoples in the world, especially our Christian sisters and brothers.

We believe that liberation from occupation is in the interest of all peoples in the region because the problem is not just a political one, but one in which human beings are destroyed.

We pray God to inspire us all, particularly our leaders and policy-makers, to find the way of justice and equality, and to realize that it is the only way that leads to the genuine peace we are seeking.

One of the signatories to the Kairos Palestine Document was Alex Awad of the Bethlehem Bible College, another of our speakers and the one who welcomed us to his East Jerusalem Baptist Church on the Sunday of our stay.

He too has sent us a greeting for Christmas … and a prayer.

What he says comes out of the Middle East conflict. It is rooted in Bethlehem. But it speaks to each one of us and challenges us with the choice we each of us can make this Christmas – the world’s way, or Christ’s way.

It was Alex Awad who concluded last Sunday’s Songs of Praise from Bethlehem. Let me finish with his words to us for this Christmas:

From Bethlehem the birthplace of our Saviour, we send you greetings.

We hope that this Christmas season will bring you cheer that will continue throughout the New Year.

In Bethlehem this Christmas, the streets are beautifully decorated with Christmas lights and there is a spirit of joy, enthusiasm and expectation within the Christian community

We are thankful that the situation is much more peaceful than in recent years.

Despite the Wall which surrounds us and the many challenges we face in this land, we will focus on the Christ child and from him we will draw courage and inspiration.

We pray that Immanuel, the Almighty God, who came to dwell with us as a babe in Bethlehem, will cause his grace and peace to cover the face of this Land and bring forth peace and reconciliation among its inhabitants.

We pray that His peace will continue to flow all over the globe.

May you our friends in England rejoice in the presence of Immanuel!

God is with us!

Thank you so much for remembering us at this special time of year.

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