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A merry but meaningful Christmas

Jan 03,2024 - Last updated at Jan 03,2024

With genocide unfolding in Gaza, Christians in the Holy Land are having difficulty feeling joy this Christmas season. Bethlehem has cancelled its traditional celebrations, no tree-lighting or festivities. Instead of the traditional Nativity scene of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus in a stable surrounded by shepherds and sheep, Rev. Munther Ishaq, a Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem, has erected the birth scene with the baby Jesus laying in rubble. Rev. Ishaq explained the appropriateness of the representation because “if Jesus were born today, he’d be in solidarity with the suffering humanity of Gaza”.

Some Christians in the West will surely scoff at this, accusing Palestinians 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, and Santa Claus have eclipsed Jesus’ birth as the dominant themes of the Christmas season. These innocent-enough traditions have been exploited by commercial interests, making the month before Christmas a crass 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 sanitised fairytale. In the town of Bethlehem, “all is calm, all is bright”, then the birth just happens, followed by rejoicing.

Other aspects of the story from scripture and tradition, however, suggest a more complicated and more profoundly human subtext. Glossed over in our contemporary retelling, these elements 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 travel for days from Nazareth to Bethlehem, her husband Joseph’s family seat. Finding no place to stay, they were forced to shelter in one of Bethlehem’s many caves. A detail captured in the Qur’an tells of Mary, about to deliver, going off on her own and crying out in labor pains: “I wish that I had not been born.”

Scripture notes that the new parents were warned of the Roman ruler of the region, feeling threatened by the birth of a child who might challenge his authority, who sent troops to slaughter newborns. This threat forces Mary and Joseph and their newborn infant to flee to Egypt.

Thus, a different picture emerges than the one popularised in our culture. In addition to rejoicing at new life and celebrating the child who will offer salvation, a more complete picture must include the stark setting, the pain accompanying birth, and the normal fears of the new parents accentuated by concern for safety in the face of oppressive rule.

And never forget Mary’s words upon learning 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 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 Palestinians in Bethlehem and Gaza. In Bethlehem, they are cut off from the rest of the West Bank by a 28’ high concrete wall and massive Jewish-only settlements built on their communal lands. They have 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, now in rubble, and then bombed or killed by sniper fire when they seek refuge.

Today, more than 30,000 Palestinian women in Gaza are pregnant, with homes destroyed and no comfortable place to deliver their babies. From day to day, like Mary, they live in fear, on the move to escape the relentless bombing.

Rev. Ishaq’s action is, in fact, the most appropriate way to commemorate Christmas, because the story of Jesus’ birth 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”.


The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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