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Holy Land in a state of mourning  

22 December 2023

In dark times, the good news of Christmas is needed more than ever, says Richard Sewell

Richard Sewell

The rubble-strewn crib scene, with the Christ-child wrapped in a keffiyeh, in the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, in Bethlehem

The rubble-strewn crib scene, with the Christ-child wrapped in a keffiyeh, in the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, in Bethlehem

THE nativity scene is such a familiar part of the Christmas furniture that we may not really pay it much attention, wherever we see it or wander past. Occasionally, however, something very different and striking in a nativity scene arrests our attention. And just such a thing has shown up this year to address the most searching questions of the moment.

The Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem has created a powerful and remarkable image (News, 15 December), “God under the Rubble”. It sets the baby Jesus right in the middle of a scene, the like of which we have become very familiar with recently: a bombed-out building in Gaza. There, under the rubble, is the baby Jesus, wrapped not in “swaddling bands”, but in a Palestinian keffiyeh. All the usual nativity-scene characters are there; and yet nothing is as we have come to expect in our cosy Christmas picture.

It is an extraordinary image, and it brings the birth narrative right into scenes that have played out, night after night, on TV and phone and computer screens all over the world. We have all been subjected to the most distressing news reports and films these past ten weeks, of structural and human damage caused by one of the most sustained and intense bombing campaigns of civilians in living memory. We have watched horrific scenes of men, women, and children, even babies, wounded, dead or dying, and often trapped in a collapsed building.

It is unbearable to watch, and everyone has their limit of how much of this they can bear to endure — but switching off altogether also has a price attached: we are not absolved all responsibility for these distressing events because we choose not to know.

However upsetting the news footage is, we all know that it is as nothing compared with the reality that Gazans are experiencing as they endure day after long day of bombing. We cannot imagine evacuating our homes to look for refuge, only to find that those supposedly safe places are also targeted. More than two million people are affected in brutal ways; and this terrible reality is compounded by the lack of medical facilities, because they have been bombed, too. Add to this lack of food, water, and sanitation, and we are contemplating a situation beyond our darkest imaginings.

Living in Jerusalem, just 50 miles from Gaza, and being connected to Gaza by our Anglican Al-Ahli Hospital and the staff whom we know there, brings it closer to us. It would be impossible to escape the reality even if we did not also follow the news, almost compulsively.

Barely an hour of any day will go by without the suffering in Gaza coming up in conversation with staff, colleagues, and friends here. We cannot escape, even when, to try to do something normal, we go out for a drink to a hotel near by. I ask the waiter: “How is your family?” “So far, three of my nephews have died in Gaza,” he replies; and we are into another difficult conversation, with heavy hearts and a tear.

SOME news headlines have suggested that Christmas has been cancelled in the Holy Land. Of course, this is not true. The Heads of Churches here announced that our celebrations and festivities will be cancelled, but not Christmas itself.

We are certainly missing the Christmas lights around Jerusalem, which normally brighten up the cold, dark nights of this time of year. Yes, we do have winter in Palestine and Israel, even if it is not as long or as cold as in the UK. The Cathedral Close is normally festooned with lights and a beautiful Christmas tree. Not this year. We cannot enjoy the glitter and sparkle, and the joyful parties, while our people are dying and starving in Gaza, and, in different ways, in Nablus, Jenin, Bethlehem, and all over the West Bank.

The Israeli occupation is cracking down hard not only on militants, but on so many ordinary people with no association with Hamas or other extremist groups. We are in a state of mourning, and we must act accordingly.

I do not in any way ignore or minimise the pain and grief suffered by Jewish Israelis. The horrific acts of Hamas on 7 October have left an indelible scar on them. The continuing captivity of hostages held in Gaza is a deep wound, not only for the family and friends of the victims, but on the nation and on Jewish people worldwide.

Despite all of these horrors which affect all the people of these lands, in no way could we, or would we, cancel Christmas itself. I cannot, however, imagine how the Christians sheltering together in the Greek Orthodox Church of St Porphyrius, or the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Family, will manage to mark Christmas; but I am fairly sure that they will find a way.

The good news of the Saviour’s birth is needed more than ever. The promise of Immanuel, God with us, could not be more relevant than in these days of suffering and agony. In fact, all the beautiful Christmas carols will have even more poignancy, as we sing them quietly and defiantly.

IN THE “God in the Rubble” nativity scene, our eyes are drawn to Jesus lying in the cold and jagged rubble of the wreckage. We are accustomed to seeing a vulnerable baby lying in a manger, surrounded by animals, and we imagine the risk to his welfare.

In this new image, however, the baby is, truly, in a place of terrible jeopardy. The terrifying scale of bombing and killing in Gaza serves as a reminder that this captures the truth of the human condition. King Lear sees “poor, naked wretches” suffering on the heath, and he pities them. Lear declares: “Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare forked animal as thou art.” Lear sees the humanity in the beggars, which can be entirely missed when bombs fall on civilians and massacre them.

When we see the baby Jesus in the midst of a concrete mess, we are shockingly reminded that all the nameless ones in the rubble of Gaza are, indeed, human beings, all of whom bear the image of God. We recall that Jesus challenges his followers to see him in the starving ones and the prisoners, and now in everyone at risk in Gaza, too.

Our eyes should also be drawn to the other nativity-scene characters. Unlike the usual setting, they are not close to the baby adoring him, as Mary and Joseph normally are, nor are they worshipping him, like the shepherds and the Magi. In this brutal scene, they are all looking for Jesus. They do not know where he is, and, if they locate him, will they find him alive?

This inspired reframing of an all-too-familiar image shocks us, but it is so true. It is designed to shock, but also to convey the theological truth that answers the question: where is God in the midst of this horror from which we are tempted to turn away?

The great mystery of the incarnation is that God enters into the mess, pain, and complexity of our lives, as well as its joys and rewards. God does not simply reign from heaven in splendid isolation; God decisively engages with the material, and this forms the basis of all Christian hope: God is with us.

This Christmas, challenged by a new Bethlehem nativity, we are also reminded that God cannot be contained by churches (nor our traditional perceptions of the infant Jesus) in a cloak of detached holiness. God is to be found in a truly vulnerable Jesus among the flotsam and jetsam of a terrifying bombing campaign.

In the Holy Land this year, our hopes and fears have a very specific focus and relevance. So, we will sing our Christmas carols with added intensity. I sincerely hope that Christmas services around the world will feel this added poignancy, too, and that the congregations will pray for a real and lasting peace, so that all the people in these lands will find a way to live in peace with justice.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

The Very Revd Canon Richard Sewell is the Dean of St George’s College, Jerusalem.

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