Christmas Message from Bethlehem 2018
by H.B. Patriarch Michel Sabbah
Latin Patriarch Emeritus of Jerusalem
The angel said to the shepherds: “I bring you good tidings that will spread great joy to all people. Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)
Christ was born in Bethlehem. For two thousand years, prayers and carols have been offered in Bethlehem, and every year joy is renewed in people’s hearts. Today in 2018, Bethlehem celebrates the event, glorifies God, prays, and rejoices. Yet its rejoicing is incomplete. There is no joy in the hearts of its people, in the city or in the surrounding refugee camps because the city is still denied its dignity and freedom, and is cut off by the separation wall from the city of Jerusalem, its city of faith and worship, its spiritual and political capital.
Today, Christmas in Bethlehem consists of prayers to God to “Look down from heaven and see” (Isaiah 63:15) and have mercy.
Christmas in Bethlehem is a call to look at Bethlehem and behold the occupants for whose sake the savior was born, those who still live under occupation and the oppression of others, those who are still denied their freedom, dignity, and independence. This is a call to all who espouse justice and peace to allow the people of Bethlehem to rejoice at Christmas by working for the restoration of dignity, freedom, and independence.
Brothers and sisters, we address this Advent/Christmas message to you this year under the title, “New hope for Palestine, the Middle East and the World.” There are four meditations in our message: Refugees in the Middle East, Building Bridges not Walls, New Hope for Palestine, and Light in the Darkness. Following each meditation, you are invited to Reflect, Pray and Act.
“New hope,” despite the cruelty of human against human, regardless of wars and ongoing death and hatred in the land of God. Indeed, because death is commanding hearts and injustice is escalating, we need new light and hope to come from the hearts of all believers in the Christmas message. Then the joy of Christmas will be fully realized in Bethlehem, where God’s mystery still touches the Earth alongside human oppression and the pain of the oppressed.
New hope is inherent in people of goodwill to whom angels referred in their hymn in the skies above Bethlehem: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of goodwill.” (Luke 2:14) People of goodwill are those who seek peace for all without exception, those who believe that the land of God is no place for murderers but is a land whose people make peace. When people are denied peace, they seek to restore and protect it as a witness to all peoples of the earth at Christmas.
Every Christmas reminds us of the real nature of our country, its mission and message. It is the land of God where there is no place for people of war, irrespective of their earthly vision, policies, weapons or power to kill. Peace on earth and new hope are for peacemakers who deserve to be called the children of God: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.” (Mathew 5:9)
In Christmas we see the word of Eternal God: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:14) He lived with us and taught us the new commandment, “That ye love one another as I have loved you.” He loved and cured the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized. He carried new hope to all willing to listen to him.
Today in Bethlehem and in all of Palestine and Israel, Jesus Christ looks at the poor and oppressed and brings them hope. Today, he stands before the separation wall and offers a commandment of love and power that, alone, can remove walls, grant security and safety, and guide the hearts of the aggressors to stop their attacks and end the occupation they impose.
You who believe in Christmas, stand today with Jesus in the face of the occupation and the wall. Think of what you can do to remove the wall and end the occupation, which is the oppression of one people over another, so that the joy of Christmas may return fully to Bethlehem and to all the earth.
Those who celebrate Christmas know that God is love, not a god of armies and wars, nor a god who orders one people to oppress another, or a god that strips one people of their land and gives it to another people.
Christmas is also a day for refugees. Jesus was born outside of the city, not in a home but nearby in a cave. He took refuge in Egypt as a child when he escaped the oppression of the powerful of that time. Jesus walks today among the crowds of refugees; he walks with them and for them, teaching, healing, granting life, and directing the attention of the strong to stop killing and displacing people. Jesus tells the leaders of this world, Relinquish your arms and stop dipping your bread in the blood of the people of the Middle East. Sheathe your swords and turn them into tools for life, as the prophet said. “They will beat their swords into
plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)
New hope in Palestine and the Middle East cannot be realized by the gods of the earth but rather by the poor, those who resist evil while hungry for righteousness, justice, and freedom.
New joy and hope for Palestine will be joy and hope for all the holy land, for Palestine and Israel, when all will be able to see the glory of God who, on Christmas Eve, appeared to the common people and went unseen by those in authority (Luke 2:9). By seeing the glory of God, we are able to love and build a holy land in the image of God where there is no oppressor or oppressed, no walls, no occupation, no darkness, but rather a great light and love that fills the hearts of all. From Bethlehem, I wish you an Advent and Christmas full of holiness, of justice and love.