Christmas in Bethlehem. It’s probably a dream of many. When I speak of my Christmas plans, the very fact that it will be spent in Bethlehem is met with expressed envy.
Yet, so many aspects of Christmas in Bethlehem are bemusing in that they are so far removed from images of a Bethlehem Christmas. This year was my second Christmas in Bethlehem and with the giant inflatable Santas and snowmen everywhere, it still made me chuckle and shake my head. The people dressed as skinny Santas with terrifying aggressively Caucasian Santa masks on still unnerved me.
My congregational Christmas Party at Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem included a fancy meal and dancing to Arab pop music, and a few favorites from around the world, including Gangnam Style. On Christmas Eve, Manger Square, outside of the Church of the Nativity, is filled with people dressed up as cartoon characters, vendors selling Santa masks and Dora the Explorer balloons. Everyone is waiting for the parade of scout troops all playing the bag pipes.
And Christmas certainly does not stop on the 26th. In Bethlehem, the celebration continues for weeks. Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on January 6 and 7th and we celebrate again on January 17 and 18 for Armenian Christmas. Every night there are performances and celebrations on Manger Square. On Orthodox Christmas Eve, I went to the Nativity to witness hundreds of East African Christians celebrating the Holy Night with dancing and drumming.
So many things have changed since that first Christmas in Bethlehem, but the Christmas story also highlights some of the ways that, in fact, nothing has changed in this land. Bethlehem and its inhabitants are still ruled by a foreign force dictating their lives and face daily injustices and oppression.
Life under occupation has, in many ways, illuminated the Christmas story for me. Every element of the Christmas narrative must be understood in the context of empire. Mary and Joseph were forced to travel to Bethlehem under decree from the emperor to participate in a census and taxes. The average individual lived in poverty in the rural areas while Rome and the elite who collaborated with the Roman occupation lived in wealth and comfort. Yet, Christ was not born in the halls of a palace nor in any symbol of power. Rather, he was born to completely insignificant parents from the middle of nowhere in a dirty manger. He was not visited first by high state officials or religious leaders, but rather lowly, rowdy shepherds.
Darkness, injustice, and oppression are not unique to this land. Systems of power and privilege oppress and marginalize people all over the world. Christ’s coming under such circumstances means that his life and ministry shows a different way to live and how to resist and survive the oppression of this world. Indeed the Christmas narrative completely revolutionizes our understandings of power. This tiny new-born, the very image of weakness and vulnerability, came to save the world not only from our own sin and darkness but to bring justice and liberation to all peoples of this earth. Even before Christ’s birth, Mary embodies the subversion of the Christmas narrative against the empire. We often speak of Mary’s obedience, but she had another, perhaps even more important, characteristic that equipped and enabled her to be obedient in the plan. She had imagination. She could envision a world that was promised but not yet tangible – a world where the hungry were fed and captives liberated.
The Christmas season is ending but the cries for justice and liberation continue to echo across this land and the whole world. God calls us to be involved in the recreation of the world, just as those in the Christmas narrative were called. May we respond throughout the year with humility, obedience, and most of all, imagination.
Wi’am Conflict Resolution Center, Bethelehem
Mission Intern, Class 2013