From a dim Christmas in Bethlehem to a “new Jerusalem”

Many Christians outside the Middle-East are often surprised to find out that Bethlehem does not lie in Israel but in Occupied Palestine.

Dec 22, 2017

By Anil Netto
Many Christians outside the Middle-East are often surprised to find out that Bethlehem does not lie in Israel but in Occupied Palestine.

Yes, it is a dim bleak Christmas in Bethlehem this year.

Since September, some 120 Palestinians have perished in violence in the Occupied Territories. Although the famous Christmas tree lighting ceremony took place in Bethlehem as usual, instead of the usual fireworks, church bells rang.

Fr Jamal Khader, the rector of the Latin Patriarchate Seminary, was reported in the Middle East Monitor as saying that though religious ceremonies would proceed as usual, celebrations are being toned down. “It’s a message to show there is something wrong and we cannot tolerate this injustice. This is a message for ourselves and for the world – we are still suffering.”

Earlier on Nov 23, the Council of Churches in Ramallah and nearby villages, made up of the main local Christian denominations including the Catholic Church, decided to cancel the annual Christmas tree-lighting and confine Christmas celebrations to religious rituals.

The Greek Orthodox Archbishop Atallah Hanna was reported in as saying: “In light of the situation on the ground, we decided to limit holiday festivities, but not cancel them all. We will celebrate Christmas by sending a message of life, peace and love from the birthplace of Jesus Christ to make the voice of our people, facing daily actions by Israel, heard.”

In 1947, about 80 per cent of the population in Bethlehem was Christian but faced with difficult living conditions, many have left and the once majority community has now dwindled to a minority of 20 per cent.

The mayor of Bethlehem Vera Baboun said most people in Bethlehem were struggling to cope with Occupation especially the challenge posed by illegal settlements and the wall. “Can you imagine, on 82 per cent of the land we can do nothing without an Israeli permit?”

Bethlehem itself is home to nearby refugee camps – something that visitors to the Holy Land may not see up close and personal. This is ironic considering how Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus themselves had to flee to Egypt to escape persecution.

At that time of Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem in Judea was ruled by Herod the Great, the local “King of Judea” — in reality, a local client in the Roman Empire, a puppet ruler who supported the interest of the Roman Empire.

Herod was known as a tyrant, and here’s where another irony crops up: he expanded the second Temple in Jerusalem, about six miles northwest of Bethlehem. Perhaps he thought the local people would be impressed. More likely, he wanted to put Jerusalem on the map, so to speak, and impress his bosses in Rome.

Why is it that throughout history, many autocratic rulers who are dictators, despots, tyrants think they can win favour by embellishing their religious credentials through massive building projects and paying lip service to religion.

It is almost as if they believe their wrongs will be whitewashed through the building of grand religious monuments, which often burden the people, who have to foot the bill, one way or another.

Certainly, the adult Jesus himself, though he regarded the Temple as his “Father’s house” when he was a young lad, was hardly impressed with the way the Temple was being used to legitimise the system of domination at the time (the nexus between religious and political rule). It was the pivotal local power centre, where religious leaders cooperated with the politicians in oppressing the local people, who lived under the daily shadow of a military occupation.

Back then, Jesus said: “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). He was of course referring to himself, pointing out that his Father refused to be confined to a limited space.

In this tectonic shift, Jesus was pointing to a new spiritual temple, a “new Jerusalem” so to speak – one that would transcend the limits of geographical space and even time.

After his Resurrection, the followers of Jesus, apart from James and his group, did not stay long in Jerusalem. Jesus himself told them to wait in Galilee, over 70 miles North of Jerusalem.

The apostles later fanned out from the area across the world. Peter and Paul headed for Rome, the then ‘centre’ of the world, in a bid to get their message across the world. The church led by James in Jerusalem faded into insignificance in the larger scheme of things.

But US President Donald Trump’s recent move to recognise Jerusalem as capital of Israel has set many fundamentalist Christians’ hearts a-flutter, with talk of an imminent “Rapture”. For them, Zionist views of Jerusalem are intimately tied to signs of Christian end times. (In response, the Organisation of Islamic Countries declared East Jerusalem as capital of Occupied Palestine.)

Jesus broke through the thinking that God was mainly concerned with a single area or people in the whole world. He was constantly reaching out to the foreigner, the Samaritans included, the outcasts, and the marginalised of his time.

How would Jesus, who knew all about life in a military occupation, have reacted today to the presence of an occupied people and refugee camps not far from Jerusalem and Bethlehem?

Certainly, his Way would have been about seeking love and justice that transcended geography, religious allegiances, class, space and time. He would have worked for the long haul, with little time for the Zealots then or now, who were hoping for a Messiah to lead them along a violent path to military victory.

The Holy Land, Jerusalem and Bethlehem and the communities of that area – the children of Abraham – will always have a special place in Christian heritage and memory. Maybe one day, the Father will use modern Jerusalem as a showcase of how people of diverse backgrounds and religious affiliations can live side-by-side in unity and peace, worshipping “in spirit and in truth”.

But till then, we know that Jesus would have wanted us to look beyond geography and history to the “new Jerusalem”, where the least, the lost and the dispossessed, would have a special place in the kingdom he was born to proclaim.

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