Christmas can be a very confusing time. We have mixed together a veritable plethora of traditions, myths, consumer ideals and cultural detritus along with vestiges of gospel stories and religious music and artwork to create this weird celebration of this annual holiday. The end result is not very satisfying for anyone.
During the month of November, I was privileged to be in Jerusalem staying at the Tantur Center for Ecumenical Studies on the southern edge of Jerusalem, looking out over the towns of Bethlehem, Bayt Jala, Bayt Sahur, Beit Safafa and the settlements of Gilo and Har Homa. The problem is that the dry and rocky landscape as you look out across it is dominated by only one thing – the so-called Separation Barrier, or the Apartheid Wall that began to be built by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) during the second Intifada. It was meant to follow the 1949 Armistice Line, commonly called the Green Line, but it often strays many kilometres into the territory of the occupied State of Palestine. So for example, while I was staying there, our group visited the Wi’am Peace Center which has no access to half of its lands, because they are on the wrong side of the wall. A large section of wall juts into Bethlehem to provide access for Israeli citizens to Rachel’s Tomb, which is located next to a Palestinian Cemetery and is therefore a source of constant tension – as I discovered firsthand when I strayed in between members of the IDF and Palestinian youth on my first visit to Bethlehem. Nevertheless there are signs of hope in this very depressing situation, and there are many Jews who do pray the Torah and Ketuvim (Prophets) and know that they have moved far away from the situation of being a remnant people, to the occupying oppressors. Street artists such as Banksy also provide continued hope for change.
Unfortunately, we are not able to look on this situation and speak of how foreign such oppression is to us. The Australian story of abominable treatment of refugees, both onshore and in our offshore processing centres on Manus Island (even if now closed) and Naura remain as a significant stain upon our social conscience.
On Friday an article was published in the New York Times entitled “Where Jesus Would Spend Christmas”, written by Stephanie Saldana. During my time at Tantur I was very privileged to meet and become friends with Stephanie, who is married to the program director at Tantur, Frederic Masson. Stephanie is American, from San Antonia in Texas; her father is the Diocesan director of Caritas and has been working successfully for decades to find homes for refugees from all over the world, but especially from the middle east, among the Catholic community there. Frederic is French, but since they have been married they have decided to live in the middle east, in Iraq, Syria and most recently in Jerusalem. Frederic is now a Syrian Catholic and is studying to be a priest. They have three wonderful children, JoJo is the oldest, then Seb and the youngest cutie is Carmel. The whole family is fluent in French, English and Arabic. Through a grant, Stephanie has been able to devote the last two years trying to document and save as much of the cultural and social heritage that she can, by visiting and documenting the stories of refugees in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Greece, as well as visiting other refugees who have managed to now settle in Europe. I want to quote from three sections of her article – which is linked below, as also is the website where Stephanie shares some of the stories of heritage restoration – Mosaic Stories.
I have visited many refugee camps in the Middle East, but never have I seen anything like Moria, a place Pope Francis has likened to a concentration camp. I have also never understood the true meaning of Christmas — a story in which Jesus was born into a family that became refugees — until I visited the people who are now forced to call it home.
If we want to imagine the Nativity, we needn’t go farther than the tent of Alaa Adin from Syria, who left his home just days after he married. Now his wife is pregnant, and when I met them they were living in a tent outside of Moria, because there was no room for them inside. If we want to see today’s flight to Egypt, we needn’t look far: Nearly every refugee I’ve ever met has a story about escaping in the middle of the night.
If we want a miracle, I’d suggest looking at Anwar, who despite crying while recounting the destruction of Mosul, still paused in the middle and offered me a clementine. [A fruit like a mandarin] As we live through the largest migration in modern history, Christmas invites us to recognize our story in the millions who have been displaced by tyrants, war and poverty and to see their stories in ours.
Christmas continues to challenge us to be faithful to these much deeper stories. Once we have looked into the eyes of our brothers and sisters, we can no longer treat them only as statistics, or problems that are over there. We continue to be challenged to see Christmas as a story of a God who loved the world too much to allow it to remain locked in despair and hopelessness. Christmas reminds us that God wants to be involved in our messy world.