Saturday, April 23, 2016

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
This was my third time to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The first time was in March 1984 with my friend, Rich Truta. We were both on spring break from junior year abroad programs in Great Britain.

What struck me then was that it was not at all what I expected. Mostly I think it was the rich ecumenism of the place - especially from the east (Armenians and Greek Orthodox.) I was a Protestant kid from a small-town church in Pennsylvania. Nothing prepared me for the breadth and depth of the Christian tradition as I experienced it that day. But I sat in the cave and read Luke's birth narrative, and was deeply moved.

Six years ago, I reflected on my experience in this post. While our itinerary is a bit different this time around (e.g we will head to En Kerem tomorrow) most of what I wrote then about the wall, the Church of the Nativity, and the Shepherd's Fields still holds true.

The Church at Shepherd's Field
Here was one difference: we began our day at 5 a.m. today and were at the Church of the Nativity for a 6 am mass offered by a Franciscan priest, in Italian. In the same place where I read Luke's birth narrative 32 years ago and kissed the star six years ago, today I received the Eucharist in a simple liturgy that, in spite of the language barrier, felt quite familiar. And the normal ecclesiastical barrier was lifted, as all were welcomed to receive the body and blood of Christ. It was pretty cool.

As I reflect on the day, however, and really the cumulative experiences I've had in these places, I want to offer a bit of a theological reflection. My experience as priest and pastor is that many of us want to experience a simple "spiritual" Christmas. Sometimes we seek the "innocence" of our childhoods, if we were blessed with that. We want to be still so that we can hear the angels sing. We want peace on earth, of course. Dona nobis pachem. Who doesn't want that?

The Separation Wall from inside Bethlehem
But sometimes we miss the fact that both of the birth narratives offered to us in gospels are laden with political challenges. In Luke's Gospel,we begin with that decree that went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. We are put on notice that first-century Palestine was occupied territory. It's easier to see at Easter, when Jesus is executed by the Romans on a cross. But it's there from the very beginning. In Matthew's Gospel it's far less subtle. Herod is fearful about losing his power. The wisemen are shrewd enough to "go home by another way" and the holy family escapes as refugees to Egypt. But the holy innocents around Bethlehem are not so fortunate.

The Christmas story as told in the gospels, in other words, is not about nostalgia or returning to some age of innocence. The angels say "fear not" precisely because it's such a scary world, both in the first century and in the twenty-first century. The Prince of Peace is born because the world is such a mess. The angels offer a word of hope, but that is precisely when the work of Christmas begins, as Howard Thurman once reminded us.

"Tear down this wall," says the prophet
We in the twenty-first century need to recover this sense that all this is in the Gospels; we just don't ever tell the whole story on Christmas Eve. We need to find a way to tell that whole rich, complex story because the Incarnation is not about "spirituality" that does not ever touch our real lives: it is about the Word-made-flesh that dwelt among us in the person of Jesus. The political and social context matters greatly.

In our pilgrimage today, we spent a good bit of the day today not only inside of churches, but on the streets of Bethlehem, which still feels very much like an occupied city. That wall simply dominates.

Now surely Israel has a right to security. But just as surely, Palestinian Muslims and Christians have a right to be free. The problem at this moment in human history is that the politicians don't seem to have the political will or imagination to embrace both futures together. They remain locked in past mistrust and fear. Throughout human history, this is when the cry to build walls is made - even as it is being made even now in the United States. And the angels who cry "fear not" sound weak and naive, if they are even heard at all above all the shouting.

But it seems to me that the work of Christmas, however, tenuous it sometimes may be, is about breaking down walls and building bridges. That may sound cliche, but my point is just the opposite: it is excruciatingly dangerous and difficult work to do that. But I guess what I'm trying to say is that the wall isn't separate from the prayers at the Church of the Nativity. It shows us what is at stake and why we are called to be peacemakers. Why it matters for the world that we claim this vocation.

Maybe we begin by letting go of our "innocent' and "spiritual" approach to Christmas. Perhaps the calling to be the Church in this time and place is to dare to enter into the mess - the whole mess. To listen carefully for the song of the angels who still say: fear not! And then to journey, like the shepherds and magi, to behold the One who has come into the world to be God-with-us; Emmanuel. This doesn't fix things or undo the past, but it does allow us to do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

Pray not only for the peace of Jerusalem, but for the peace of Bethlehem. For peace on earth, and good will toward all. For fewer walls, and more bridges.

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