December 21: Turning our Eyes to Bethlehem
Dear Friends of Saint George Taybeh,
I wish all of you a blessed Holy Christmas celebration with your loved ones. As I am celebrating Christmas in Boston with my family it is with a heavy heart to know about the tragedy in Connecticut. Prayer is more important than ever. May our New Born Lord and Savior Jesus Christ have mercy upon us and save us from all evil around us. Forgive the repeat in this recent blog, but it is meant to keep our hope in the Good News. With sincere good wishes during these most holy days,
Turning our Eyes to Bethlehem
By Maria C. Khoury, Ed. D.
"Let all the earth worship you, and sing to you Shout with joy to God, all the earth!"
Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
It is that special time of year where all eyes might turn to Bethlehem to receive the Prince of Peace in a place where peace simply does not exist right now. Although during this year’s International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people on 29 November, the United Nations General Assembly made a symbolic historic vote to grant Palestinians non-member state status which nine countries refused but 138 confirmed the existence of Palestine.
It is the same day, by the way, in 1947 Palestine was partitioned to create the State of Israel and the ethnic cleansing began for a pure Jewish state which continues to cause the day to day suffering of all people in the Holy Land shrieking down the Christian presence to less than 2% . So the complicated story continues with one nation’s great glory to another nation’s great catastrophe when more than 500 Palestinian towns were erased from the map and more than 750,000 people were forced to leave their homes at gunpoint to save their lives.
However, Palestinian Christians have remained a faithful witness to the True Light of Christ under many hardships and attempting to maintain their centuries old traditions rooted with the first apostles and followers of Christ. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11) Christ as our focus continues to give a new hope desperately needed. But as all eyes turn to Bethlehem to remember Christ was born to save humanity from sin and offer eternal life they will find that the local people will be celebrating Christmas under Israeli military occupation for the 45th year and are totally locked in behind a huge concrete wall creating an open air prison with more than 82 illegal Israeli settlements surrounding Bethlehem itself by controlling all of the roads, natural resources and borders.
Bethlehem was originally called Ephratah (Ruth 4:11). The word Bethlehem literally means “house of bread” because of the many wheat fields that were in the area. And how appropriate for God to select this small spot on earth to be born in since He is the bread of life. “Then Jesus declared, I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). Every place in the land of Christ’s birth was made holy by Christ Himself thus we continue to called it as St. Constantine first called it, “The Holy Land,” although many unholy things happen daily. We keep the hope for peace.
As all eyes turn to Bethlehem they will realize that the Holy Nativity Church is one of the few churches left unharmed during many wars and invasions especially during the Persian invasions when many other churches in the Holy Land were destroyed. Our oral history says that the icons of the wise men wearing Persian clothes gave the invaders second thoughts about damaging this church building.
St. Helen, my favorite saint along with her son the great Emperor St. Constantine receives credit for building the Holy Nativity Church in the 4th century. However, Emperor Justinian made the church larger and built a monastery for the monks. On the back side chapels, we can still venerate the relics of the Holy Innocents, skulls of thousands of young male children executed by Herod to avoid the loss of his throne and thus history documents the first Christian martyrs.
I can still hear in my head the words of my children the first time they saw the beautiful silver star in the grotto in the very bottom of the cave where the midnight Christmas liturgy is celebrated on the Old Julian Calendar with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and usually over 50 bishops and priests. “What does that say, Mom? And the message written in Latin is actually for the whole world: “Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary.” (Luke 2:1-7). Bumping into someone you know in this amazing spiritually uplifting holy place is what I hope the feeling will be like when we see our friends in God’s Heavenly kingdom. It is a radiant unexplainable joy that overcomes you. It is God’s love for humanity that sustains your soul.
During these most holy days, let us remember to pray for peace for the whole world and especially as our eyes are turned to Bethlehem, the birthplace of our Lord and Savior, we remember what the Angel Gabriel said to the Holy Mother of God “nothing will be impossible with God.” Thus we keep our hope in our new born King that one day a just peace will come and our church leaders will not be shy to stand with the oppressed and mobilize churches to have a louder voice for basic human rights for all in Israel/Palestine. It is right to stand for truth. "This is the day that the Lord has made let us rejoice and be glad in it."
Turning our eyes to Bethlehem is a reminder that Jesus is “the reason for the season.”But it is the “forgotten faithful” the indigenous Palestinian Christians who have represented “forgiveness,” and not just love for neighbor but love for enemies in a land that has known only conflict and they have been a steadfast witness for the love and peace of Christ for over two thousand years. They continue to pay with their life for Christ the True Light of the world. “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness but have the light of life.” (John 8:12).
May this holy Christmas celebration be most blessed, healthy and joyous for all of you. Christ is Born!