Christmas 2023, and we watch horrified or look away, unable to take in the enormity of the suffering, as thousands of people journey on roads that will take them from their ruined homes and communities to literally nowhere. Men, women, children and babies all on the move, fearful all the time that the next explosion will kill or maim the people that they love. Our gaze right now is on Israel, Palestine, the Holy Land, but war still rages in Ukraine through homeless villages, abandoned fields and shattered cities. Christmas 2023, conflict everywhere and those who just want to live in peace have become refugees, statistics in yet another horrific news report.
War in the Holy Land
Drowning out the noise of war is the overwhelming Christmas hype – the best gifts, the seasonal TV offerings, the festive songs on everlasting loops and anything that can distract us from the reality of the human condition. Because nothing has changed in 2000 years, since the Romans ruled the known world with a rod of iron, extracting heavy taxes, curtailing freedoms and issuing decrees about where the population should go to be counted.
Against all the progress apparently made in education, health and technology, against all the enlightened laws passed over the centuries and the progress to democracy with its vision of justice and equality, there remains the essential problem that too often we resort to violence to achieve our aims or indeed to be heard. And so it is to that land that three religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – count as holy that, at this season, our empathy and helpless pity is drawn as we attempt to make sense of the war in Gaza.
It was a miserable existence for the Jews under the Romans in the place they called the Promised Land, given by God to Abraham. It resulted in the Jewish rebellion, put down with great force by the governing power. History is now repeating itself – atrocities committed by one side met by a disproportionate response on the other. So much for peace and goodwill and all the fuzzy sentiments inspired by the season.
Nothing has changed
But on reflection, there wasn’t much peace and goodwill that first Christmas. The real story, unencumbered by all that Renaissance art has to offer, cozy retellings or adorable nativity plays, is about a man forced to travel with his heavily pregnant wife to a place where they know no-one, in order to comply with Roman bureaucracy. In Bethlehem there was nowhere to stay and we only gather there was some shelter because we are told that the baby was laid in a manger. The innkeeper appeared to have been helpful. True, we are also told about choirs of angels announcing the birth together with peace on earth, not to mention shepherds and the wise men following a star.
But read on and the family are forced to go on the run to Egypt for fear of Herod finding and killing them, which is what his soldiers did to the small boys who remained.
Channelling the innkeeper
So, no hype this Christmas, but what about hope? Many will find that in the triumph of the human spirit over despair, against all odds to give birth and to believe there is a future. There is comfort in the kindness of strangers. Channelling the innkeeper in all of us and doing what we can to welcome those who are far from home, vulnerable, frightened and lost. To keep believing that most people are decent and weep with you, as they are doing in the little town of Bethlehem this Christmas, still divided by a wall.
There will be an underlying joy in the church services as believers come together to celebrate the birth of Jesus – a light that shines in the darkness – but there will be no Christmas trees or crowds in Manger Square. Likewise in Jordan, where Arab Christians and Muslims live side by side, any celebrations will be muted and private, because it seems so much more appropriate to pray for embattled Gaza, to demonstrate rather than to party, to give to the relief agencies rather than to friends and family and, if we can, to invite the stranger to our Christmas celebrations ‘for thereby we might be entertaining angels unawares.’