Christmas Day has sadly passed, and the news programs are now discussing the past year: celebrity deaths, wars, politics, gun violence, climate change, and sports. Most of the topics are negative with occasional glimmers of optimism. We mourned those who have died and celebrated new life, marriages, and triumphs over adversities while we await the dawn of a new year. For many Christians around the world, this is the start of the twelve days of Christmas that ends on Epiphany (January 6th). Christians are now on the journey to the cross and the Easter resurrection of Jesus Christ.
As I reflect upon 2023, my year started with a United flight to Tel Aviv for a two-week Holy Land tour with seminary students, alumni, family members, and Jews from an Austin synagogue. My wife and I departed Austin on a separate flight as we wanted to arrive early and rest prior to the start of the tour. Our tour companions arrived late to our Jerusalem hotel due to their delayed flight, so our decision to travel separately turned out to be in our favor.
The tour was a combination of Christian and Jewish sites. The tour leaders were a seminary theology professor and an Austin rabbi who taught at the seminary. We visited the West Bank and spoke to Jews and Palestinians who lived in this contentious land. We later toured Jordan with a Palestinian guide who gave us his perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This tour gave us a broader lens towards understanding this divided region.
During our stay in Israel and Jordan, we never felt unsafe, although we witnessed the Israeli military presence. We did not visit Gaza but did drive near it. One thing is certain: nobody predicted the Hamas terrorist attack on Israeli citizens. We talked about solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but never about the possibility of Israeli civilians being massacred. Our tour was quiet and uneventful. We were just another group of American tourists walking through Biblical history and desiring spiritual connections.
One morning, we drove to Bethlehem which is in Palestinian-controlled territory. Our bus had to pass through a security fence and pick up a Palestinian Christian guide before parking at Shepherds’ Field. This is where it is believed that the shepherds resided who were visited by an angel of the Lord and told of the savior’s birth. (Luke 2:8–20) We drove into Bethlehem and parked, then walked to Manger Square and into the Church of the Nativity. It was still the twelve days of Christmas, so the festive decorations were on full display.
Inside this ancient church building were throngs of international travelers in line to visit the location of Jesus’ birth. We were told that our tour group was fortunate as the crowds were down and our wait to go into the crypt was under 30 minutes. Even with these words of comfort, I still felt claustrophobic inside the church. This was my third visit to Bethlehem, and it reminded me more of a tourist trap than a sacred place. It was at Shepherds’ Field and Manger Square where I felt spiritually connected to the newborn child we worship today.
As I reflected upon our time in Bethlehem, I read the current news about Bethlehem — a year after my visit. There are no Christmas decorations and no large Christmas tree in Manger Square. There are no international visitors waiting in long lines to see the birthplace of Jesus. The fenced crossing from Israel into Bethlehem is closed. The only Christians in Bethlehem are a small number of Palestinian Christians who live in Bethlehem. The large Bethlehem restaurant where we enjoyed a hearty lunch is now closed. The Christian-owned store that sold olivewood carvings is closed. Bethlehem is losing $1.5M per day in tourist-related sales. Flights in-and-out of Israel are canceled. Tour bus drivers and guides are unemployed. Hotels are largely vacant, except those occupied by war-displaced Israelis. The Christians who live in Jesus’ birthplace are not celebrating Christmas this year because nobody feels joy, only sorrow and bitterness. The Church of the Nativity contains only local priests who recite spiritual rituals alone. A year after my visit, much has changed in Bethlehem.
As I viewed the empty Manger Square and read stories of despair, I was struck by the irony of the current situation. Jesus was born into Roman-occupied land that regularly had conflicts between the dominant pagan culture and the monotheistic Hebrews. Jesus’ mother was forced to travel by foot many days while in late-stage pregnancy. Jesus was born surrounded by smelly animals in unhygienic conditions. His family fled authoritarian persecution and was forced to reside in a foreign country for several years before it was safe to return to their hometown.
Yet Luke reported lowly shepherds being at first fearful, then joyful and amazed. Matthew reported that wise men sought the child and upon locating the child, left expensive gifts (2:1–12). Matthew does not report any negative feelings about Jesus’ flight to Egypt and return (2:13–23). Jesus’ family just followed what the angel of the Lord commanded.
I believe that the Bethlehem Christians got this Christmas wrong. Instead of letting the current Israel-Hamas war overwhelm them, they should have countered it with Christmas decorations for a child born long ago who was named the Prince of Peace. Jesus was born into a broken world, yet there were those who saw his light and were amazed. As John so aptly wrote: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (1:5) The Advent Season is about hope, peace, love, and joy. Even in darkness, a light shines. Follow that light this New Year, even if the world around you is dark.