O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” Luke 2:13-14 (TNIV)
The angels sang to the glory of God above the fields of Bethlehem—a city under Roman control and occupation. Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, Son of God and son of man, was no longer under the rule of David or his family. It was under the thumb of a foreign invader. How does one sing of peace on earth in that circumstance?
Much has changed in the 2,000 years since that first Christmas. Once a sleepy little town nestled in the hills a short journey from Jerusalem, Bethlehem is now a busy city of narrow streets, traffic jams, bustling shops, and 30,000 residents. It bears little resemblance to the town you see on Christmas cards.
Each year tens of thousands of pilgrims from around the world come to see and touch the place of the Messiah’s birth. As they wind their way through the Church of the Nativity, it matters little to them if the church is the actual site of the nativity. They come not out of a need for historical accuracy, but seeking to better understand the setting of Scripture and the life of Jesus.
Not so very long ago, I was one such pilgrim, seeking to walk where Jesus walked. I, too, was captivated by the City of David. What I discovered, though, was not the town I expected but a place of contradictions.
The place where angels proclaimed good news of great joy to all people is today a site of hopeless despair for many. Palestinians who call this city home live in a world of political fear. Refugee camps are packed with people whose lands and livelihoods have been torn apart. Soldiers with automatic weapons walk the streets.
The city is a living mosaic of fear, despair, anger, and hopelessness. Yet even in this place of pain, there are glimmers of God’s hope. Even among the hurting and desperate there are those who turn their hopelessness into powerful works of transformation.
They are people like Mitri Raheb, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran “Christmas Tree” Church in the heart of Bethlehem. In addition to being a pastor, he leads the Diyar Consortium, an amazing outreach of education, training, and economic empowerment efforts that has become the third-largest private employer in Bethlehem.
It’s hard for North Americans to imagine the lives of Palestinian Christians such as the family who opened their home to my wife, Linda, and me as we journeyed though the West Bank. These folks have lived under occupation their entire lives. They live in fear that at any time war will again erupt and their property and home will be taken from them. Yet they continue to work and worship, praying for the day that they, too, will experience peace and freedom.
These are our brothers and sisters in Christ. In a few weeks they will join with us and with Christians around the world in celebrating the incarnation of Immanuel. They ask for our prayers and our solidarity.
This Christmas, as you celebrate the Christ child, as you exchange gifts and words of good will, I ask that you will join me in a prayer for peace—peace in Bethlehem, peace in Jerusalem, peace around the world.
Peace on earth, good will to all.