For Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem, Christmas themes are not the same as in the West

A more faithful rendition of the Christmas narrative aligns with today’s reality in Gaza

An art work "Nativity under the Rubble" by Palestinian artist Tariq Salsa is seen in Manger Square near the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank. Getty Images
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With tragedy continuously unfolding in Gaza, Christians in the Holy Land are having a difficult time feeling joy this Christmas season. Bethlehem cancelled its traditional celebrations. There will be no tree-lighting or festivities. Instead of setting up the traditional Nativity scene of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus in a stable surrounded by shepherds and their sheep, Rev Munther Ishaq, a Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem, has erected the birth scene with the baby Jesus laying in rubble. Rev Ishaq said that this was an appropriate representation because “if Jesus were born today, he’d be in solidarity with the suffering humanity of Gaza”.

To be sure, there will be Christians in the West who will scoff at these Palestinian actions accusing them of miscasting or politicising Christmas to suit their needs. In reality, however, the grossly distorted version of Christmas is its popular manifestation in the West where the trees, lights, Santa Claus and gift-giving have eclipsed the birth of Jesus as the dominant themes of the Christmas season. These innocent-enough traditions have been exploited by commercial interests, making the month before Christmas Day a non-stop blitz of enticements to buy and buy more.

When Christmas in the West does involve religious themes, the birth narrative is presented as a sort of sanitised fairytale. The town of Bethlehem is silent and peaceful. “All is calm, all is bright,” and then the birth just happens, followed by rejoicing.

Other aspects of the story we can glean from scripture and tradition, however, suggest a more complicated and more profoundly human subtext to the story. These have been glossed over in our contemporary retelling of the story but would have been both understood and unsettling to those who heard the story two millennia ago.

Mary was a young girl, nine months pregnant, forced to ride a rough journey for days from Nazareth to Bethlehem, her husband Joseph’s family seat. On arrival, they found no place to stay and so were forced to spend their time in one of Bethlehem’s many caves. A tradition captured in the Quran tells of Mary as she was about to deliver, going off on her own and crying out in labour pains saying, at one point, “I wish that I had not been born.”

We are also told in scripture that the new parents were warned that the Roman ruler of the region, feeling threatened that a child had been born who might challenge his authority, sent his troops to slaughter newborns. This threat forces Mary and Joseph and their newborn infant to flee to Egypt to save their child’s life.

When Christmas in the West does involve religious themes, the birth narrative is presented as a sort of sanitised fairytale

When all the parts are put together, a different picture emerges than the one that has been popularised in culture. In addition to the rejoicing at new life and the celebration of the child whom they understand will offer salvation, a more complete picture must include the starkness of the setting, the pain accompanying birth, and the normal fears of the new parents accentuated by their concern for his and their safety in the face of oppressive rule.

And never forget Mary’s words on being told she would give birth to Jesus. She praises God, saying in part: “He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty-handed.”

As Rev Ishaq notes, Jesus is to be seen in solidarity with and giving hope to suffering humanity. The baby in the rubble offers “hope of a new beginning coming out of destruction”.

This more faithful rendition of the Christmas narrative aligns with today’s reality faced by Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem and Gaza.

In Bethlehem, they are strangled and cut off from the rest of the West Bank by a 28 inch-high concrete wall and massive Jewish-only settlements built on their communal lands. They’ve lost access to their fields and vineyards and their ability to travel is severely constricted. In Gaza, Palestinians have been forced to flee their homes, which have been reduced to rubble, and then bombed or killed by sniper fire when they seek refuge in their churches.

As I write this, I am reminded of the fact that more than 30,000 Palestinian women in Gaza are pregnant. Like Mary, they have no comfortable place to go to deliver their babies. Their homes are destroyed. From day to day, they are on the move to escape the relentless bombing. They, like Mary, live in fear.

And so, Rev Ishaq’s action is, in fact, the most appropriate way to commemorate Christmas, because the story of the birth of Jesus is an act of identification with suffering humanity and an expression of hope that comes with each new life. With this in mind, please have a merry but meaningful Christmas.

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Published: December 25, 2023, 6:30 AM