Although they were excluded from the invitation list at the Annapolis Middle East Conference last year, everyone from the Royal Family and the Prime Minister down, and even the US President and people the world over, will soon be celebrating the visit of an Iranian delegation to Palestine. This Christmas, we will remember how a group of Iranians visited Palestine carrying funding for an opposition figure the authorities wanted dead. Then the Iranians evaded the authorities, ignoring the correct exit procedures and fled the country. Of course, the Queen, Prime Minister and President have not been celebrating contemporary Iranian involvement, but the historic visit of a past Iranian delegation – the Magi (the ‘Wise Men’ or ‘Kings’) who came to Bethlehem bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for Jesus. So without Iran and Iranian involvement, we would not have exchanged gifts on Christmas Day.
Bethlehem is a very special place, especially in the weeks leading to Christmas. Heading south about five miles out of Jerusalem just off the main road to Egypt lies Bethlehem. It’s quite a small town that has sprawled like the tentacles of an octopus along the rocky ridges of the Judean Hills. The Church of the Nativity, the oldest church in the world lies at the centre of the town square looking more like a fortress than a place of worship. Given the tensions that have plagued this over-promised land for centuries, it has indeed served as both. The Emperor Hadrian, in AD135, built a grove over the site dedicated to the pagan god Adonis, with the intention of stopping Christians from worshipping there. It had the opposite effect as it marked the site until in AD315 the Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena, on the conversion of her son, directed that the pagan shrine be demolished and a basilica be erected over the original cave.
In the eighth century when the Persians invaded Palestine, the Church of the Nativity was the only church to be left standing, simply because they found a painting hanging inside depicting the three wise men whom they took to be Persians. As any pilgrim will discover, Bethlehem is an ordinary place, smelly, dusty, dirty, noisy, and this says something about the identification of God with us in our ordinary situations. The scene of Jesus lying in a stone feeding trough with Mary and Joseph huddled at the back of a cave surrounded by animals sheltering from the cold is not hard to imagine when you visit the barren hills of Beit Sahour which literally means ‘the shepherds fields’, on the outskirts of Bethlehem.
Shepherds were considered the lowest of the low in those days, indeed they would virtually have been viewed as criminals. Many of the shepherds today are Bedouins, roaming the hills of Judea, living a nomadic life unchanged by thousands of years, alienated from modern civilised Israeli society, a law unto themselves. Yet it was to such as these that the birth of the Son of God is first announced. News of the “Saviour” and the possibility of “peace” is proclaimed to them, and it is they who carry this news to Mary and Joseph and to all who will listen.
Malcolm Muggeridge once speculated what the situation would be if Jesus were born today. He said rather provocatively, “He would have been born a Palestinian.” By this he meant that because there is no room for them even in their own country. They are forgotten, hounded from country to country – a curiously similar fate to the other children of Abraham, the Jews. For the Palestinians there is no room at the inn, even in their own society. The irony is that if Mary and Joseph were making the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem this year they would never make it. The town of Bethlehem is entirely surrounded by a wall eight meters high with watch towers every few hundred metres.
Despite the military occupation, the home demolitions and confiscation of much of the shepherds fields for illegal settlements, Bethlehem has a message of hope for all who are forgotten, where ever they may be – God does not forget, God knows, God sees and God will act with justice and mercy. He will not leave us alone. The message of the angels was “Emmanuel” – God with us.
Although many to whom he came rejected him, “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God- children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:12-13)
May you know the assurance of being born again this Christmas. The Son of God was born so that you might be born a child of God. In Jesus Christ, we find a life that overcomes death, a love that conquers hate, the truth that prevails over falsehood, and light, light that ever shines in the world’s darkness. May the light of Christ shine upon you and those you love, this Christmas and for evermore.
An article written for the December edition of Connection, the community magazine of Virginia Water, based on a sermon from last Christmas