“And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are certainly not the last among the chief towns of Judah, for from you a leader will come forth, who will be the shepherd of my people Israel” (Mt 2:6). These words, which we will hear in our churches, will no doubt cause a twinge of sadness this year. For as I write these lines, workers are at work removing the decorations from the Nativity Square in Bethlehem. Nor will there be the big Christmas tree that we see in the world's great squares.
Bethlehem is the birthplace of the Saviour, of course. But it's also a town on the West Bank in Palestine. Even though the war is taking place in the Gaza Strip, less than 75 km from Bethlehem, the whole of Palestine is affected. Behind the wall of shame, there is no cause for celebration... In the Gaza Strip, Palestinian brothers and sisters are threatened daily by the bombardments. Families are in mourning. The suffering is compounded by forced displacement. Uncertainty grips all the inhabitants of Gaza as winter sets in. After the horrendous terrorist attack of October 7, the Israeli reprisals against Hamas - and against the Palestinian people, dare we say it! - has caused the death of more than 15,000 Palestinians. This is the massacre of innocents before the birth of the Saviour!
It is against this backdrop that the bishops of the Christian Churches of Jerusalem have issued a joint statement: “These are not normal times. Since the beginning of the war on Gaza, thousands of innocent people have lost their lives and many others have been injured, while people live in anguish for those whose fate remains unknown. This is why we, the bishops and church leaders of Jerusalem, call on our parishes to set aside unnecessary celebrations this year.”
For almost two months now, this horrific war has fed the news channels and reddened the newspapers with the blood of victims. In the last few days there have been some signs of hope, with the release of around a hundred hostages and a few days of truce. But alas, the violence is back with a vengeance.
Show Us Your Face!
But when the distance between Bethlehem and Montreal exceeds 8,800 km, we quickly forget the human distress of our brothers and sisters. Montreal is decked out in its finest finery to light up the festive season. While power cuts threaten the lives of Palestinians, we'll be spending how many kilowatts to brighten our streets, bringing out the cries of joy and wonder from children young and old. While our brothers and sisters are suffering from cold and hunger, we'll be going mad with over-consumption, at the risk of living on credit over the next few months, so that nothing is missing from our celebrations.
Perhaps we could heed the call of the pastors of Jerusalem and avoid “unnecessary celebrations this year”... Perhaps we could follow the lead of the Bethlehem municipal authorities and limit our decorations... Perhaps we could even replace the plaster or wax figure of the Christ Child in our manger scenes with the photo of a Palestinian child!
For it was with the features of this child that Jesus became incarnate. He came among us, in the reality of his time and culture. He looked like all the children of Palestine. He looked even more like the children of Gaza, for it is they who are suffering most these days.
During the Advent season, our parishes invited us to explore the theme “Come, Lord! Show us your face!” Our sanitized visuals will not show the horrors of war. They won't want to be sensational, so as not to offend our sensitivities. And yet, the face of the Child in the manger 2,000 years ago is so similar to that of a child in Palestine today. In the time of the emperor Augustus and the governor Quirinius, there was no place for the Child... And today?
This year, the face of the Saviour takes the form of an 8-year-old Palestinian child who has lost everything. He lost his father and his mother when a rocket blew up their house. He lost his brothers and sisters. He even lost his teddy bear. And it's a doctor, a stranger, who holds him trembling in his arms, trying to bring him some comfort and soothe his fears.
This year, the face of the Saviour is that of a newborn baby, exiled to Egypt to try and save his life, because the incubator in Gaza is no longer working due to a lack of electricity. He bears a striking resemblance to the equally vulnerable, swaddled infant that a young mother places in a manger because there was no room for them in the common room.
This year, the face of the Saviour is the face of all the world's miseries. This face has the features of the migrant trying to find a land of welcome. This face reflects the eyes of the young man living on the street who dreams of a second chance. This face radiates the hope of impoverished families who aspire that tomorrow will be better. This face is also the one of a young mother living out her final days, consumed by cancer; it is also the face of the neighbour who smiles at you every morning; it is the face of the work colleague who strives with you to build up a new world; it is the face of your father, your mother, your brother and your sister who simply wants to find happiness! And it's also that of the child of Palestine...
Having seen that face, having met that gaze, what will be our response? Because Christmas will depend on what we do with that gaze. Come, Lord! Our world so desperately needs a Saviour! Our world is in such need of renewal and restoration! Show us your face! As we recognize your features, give us the courage to commit ourselves daily to bringing about your reign. Then, perhaps, Christmas 2023 will not be cancelled... It depends on you, on me, on us!
May the Child of Palestine be more than ever the Prince of Peace!
Happy and holy New Year 2024!