Rev Kate McDonald is associate minister of St Andrew's Jerusalem and Tiberias, Israel, and chaplain of the nearby Scots Hotel. The church has a small local congregation, and most Sundays they are joined by visitors, tourists and pilgrims from all over the world. The congregation are invited to participate in worship in various ways, sometimes by playing the piano, or reading a passage from scripture in their own language.
As I write this, Advent is just around the corner. It’s always this time of year when I feel most homesick for Scotland. I imagine the bare branches of the trees against leaden grey skies, the cold wind that stings your eyes, the sounds of Christmas music in the shops, and the lights of Edinburgh’s winter festival filling the darkness with joyful anticipation.
Here in Tiberias, it’s still warm enough to go out without a jacket, and while the winter rains are just beginning to come, most days the sky is still a vibrant blue. There is no Christmas music in the shops, and the only holiday lights going up are the menorot in preparation for Chanukkah. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day will be working days, just as any other.
This will be my fourth Christmas in Israel in a town which is predominately Jewish. And in an Advent season stripped of the external trappings of Christmas celebrations, I reflect on the reality of Jesus’ birth in first century Palestine.
When Jesus was born, it was to a frightened young mother and a father who probably still wasn’t sure of his role.
When Jesus was born, it was in a land occupied by a foreign power.
When Jesus was born, it was into a world destroying itself with violence rooted in fear.
When Jesus was born, the first witnesses that we know about were completely inconsequential shepherds, and later, a group of foreigners who practised a totally different religion.
There were no fanfare. Only a star.
There were no carols. Only the sounds of a labouring mother in the middle of a busy town.
As UA Fanthorpe so beautifully puts it in her poem BC:AD:
This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.
This is how God chose to reveal Godself, in the total ordinariness of human life. And ordinary life hasn’t changed all that much in the 2000 years since. We still make our way through this world feeling joy and grief and loneliness and love and fear. We too long for the light of hope to shine through life’s seasons of darkness. We continue in our search for peace — peace in ourselves, peace in our communities, peace amongst our nations.
It was into the midst of this journeying and longing and searching that Love came down to earth. Love didn’t wait until we were ready, until presents were wrapped and a meal prepared, until the family had gathered or the candles were lit.
Looking around me in this beautiful complicated and conflicted land of the Holy One, when it can sometimes seem as though nothing happened, nothing changed that first Christmas, I remind myself that on an ordinary day, Love came unbidden and unrecognised, to infuse the ordinary world with a light that cannot be overcome by darkness. And the promise of Christmas is Emmanuel, God with us.
When a tired Palestinian worker makes his way through checkpoints … Emmanuel, God with us.
When an armed young Israeli soldier looks on … Emmanuel, God with us.
When a mother in Gaza struggles to find food to feed her children … Emmanuel, God with us.
When the call to prayer rises from the mosques on the Galilean hillsides … Emmanuel, God with us.
When Shabbat comes in and all goes silent … Emmanuel, God with us.
When the Manger Square Christmas tree is lit in Bethlehem, when church bells ring out across Nazareth, when a handful of Christian worshippers gather in Tiberias to break bread together to celebrate Christ’s birth … Emmanuel, God with us.