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   Christmas Appeal 2003

   Christmas Message 2003,
Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan, The Lutheran Bishop in Jerusalem
Dec. 19, 03
"By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

(Luke 1:78-79)

Sisters and brothers in Christ,

Salaam and grace in this Christmas season from our troubled Jerusalem.

It was the priest Zechariah, filled with the Holy Spirit, who sang these words of prophecy, raise, thanksgiving and hope.   He sang this song after he and his wife Elizabeth had experienced God's power in their lives, after they had been released from what the Arabic language calls khaher.   There is not an English word that fully encompasses the meaning of khaher.  The person who is feeling khaher (pronounced KAH-her) is experiencing powerlessness, humiliation, embarrassment, anger, shame, defeat, pain and sorrow - all at the same time.  It is an overwhelming emotion which, each day, threatens to consume one's life.

Why would Zechariah and Elizabeth feel khaher?  The gospel account in Luke 1 tells their story.  The couple is described as being descendants of Israelite priests.  They were "righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord." (Luke 1:6)  But there was a huge problem and sorrow in Zechariah and Elizabeth's lives.  They had no children.  Elizabeth was barren.  To be childless in the Jewish first century society in Palestine was the worst thing that could happen to a couple.  And not only was Elizabeth barren, but the gospel story states that "both were getting on in years."  (Luke 1:7)  The expectation and hope of having a child was gone, as far as Zechariah and Elizabeth were concerned.

Although Zechariah and Elizabeth lived with a sense of khaher that pervaded their lives, they had a strong trust in God.  They did not succumb to their khaher but rather succumbed to God's love and tender mercy.  Their solid spirituality and relationship to God gave them the strength to survive their khaher.  They did not ever lose their faith, but, even in their despair, trusted God to care for them.  And as Zechariah sang in his song of release and joy, "the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."   Certainly the "darkness and shadow of death" is an excellent description of the khaher Elizabeth and Zechariah had felt until God's love gave them a child whom they named John.

As Palestinians living under a long occupation I can only say that in all the difficulties we face, there is a sense of khaher in our hearts, similar to what Zechariah and Elizabeth felt, a sense that oftentimes the world denies our humanity.  As one journalist asked me: "Do you have feelings as a Palestinian?"  The sense of being shamed and marginalized is a difficult experience.  When the journalist asked me this, I felt the khaher myself - I felt the grinding pain, humiliation and powerlessness deep in my inward parts.  I am always praying to the Lord that the Palestinians' sense of khaher will not lead us to hopelessness or frustration.

It seems that time is now with the powerful political and military forces, not with the powerless people.  As Palestinians we are forced to swallow injustice because the power games keep justice from having a voice.  The criteria of justice made by the powerful does not include the truth of the situation.  When we hear the words and stories of the mass media we don't hear the truth, even though we know the truth very well.  However, many of our partner churches accompany us in our struggle and are speaking out with the authentic voice of the voiceless

Palestinians today are experiencing khaher - this sense of powerlessness, humiliation, and defeat, this feeling of being weak and nothing in the eyes of the world.  We cry out for relief and release from our darkness.  Sometimes I think, "Why is our world unjust?  Why do we lack the biblical values of justice, peace and reconciliation?"  These questions come easily to mind because true spirituality has lost its grasp in our world.  In our present time we live under the shadows of war, militarization, spiral violence, self-interest, terrorism, consumerism and many other threats to the innate dignity of human beings, to human rights and even to human survival itself.   We cry to God, "Save us from this khaher!  Rid us of this pain and hopelessness!  Open the eyes of the powerful to see justice and truth!  Come and be born in us!  Incarnate yourself in us!"

It is while we are feeling such defeat and discouragement that the dawn from on high breaks upon us.  It was in the time of no hope for humanity, in difficulties, sorrow and impossibilities, which Zechariah described as "darkness and the shadow of death," that the birth of the Savior, of Emmanuel - God with us - took place in the little town of Bethlehem.  It was only then that Christ was born and that the angels told the shepherds: "Do not be afraid, for to you a Savior has been born." (Luke 2:10-11)  It is in this atmosphere of khaher that the light of the dawn was born and could shine so brightly.  As we live in our own difficult times, we begin to see that it truly is the Lord's time to become incarnate and to save the world from injustice and oppression, and from its darkness.

Zechariah and Elizabeth did not let themselves drown in khaher, easy as that would have been in their circumstance.  Rather, they clung to God and trusted God's promises of a Savior and of new life.  They experienced a deep spirituality with their God.  Indeed, our spirituality becomes our only armor against hopelessness and nothingness.  Our trust in the Lord, our Savior, becomes our only hope in this world.  Once we grow in this kind of spirituality, then our world will be saved - not by our merits but by God's love on the cross and by experiencing God's justice and righteousness in the world.  I pray that this Christmas will be a time not only of joy but also a time of repentance so that the Babe of Bethlehem may be born anew among us, even in the darkest corners of the shadow of death.

As we approach Christmas this year, I now see the khaher in the eyes of the Palestinian people.  We are all obliged to watch the continuous construction of the Separation Wall and feel helpless and powerless.  We know it will create more injustice and hatred, and less security.  And I am asked by my people, "How can we celebrate Christmas when such a wall is going up - a wall that separates people, even our congregations, and brings more suffering?"  I tell my people, "Let us concentrate on the story of the Incarnation.  God could easily have built a wall of separation because of human sin and iniquities.  But God has been so gracious and has chosen to be Emmanuel - God with us.  God sent his only Son to be one of us, to uproot every wall of separation and to tell us that only the incarnation of love and peace can have a real bearing in our lives." The Apostle Paul writes, "For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us." (Eph. 2:14)  God does not want walls, and God calls us to insist that no walls exist between human beings, neither material or psychological walls.  Christmas is a time to be getting rid of all such walls, either in the Holy Land or in the whole world.  There is to be no Islamophobia, no anti-Semitism, no Christianophobia, no Americanophobia, no Arabophobia, no Palestinianophobia, no xenophobia  or racism of any kind.  We are calling from Jerusalem to the politicians, the powerful, the decision-makers and to all people of good will from all religions in the world to build bridges through dialogue among cultures and civilizations - to pull down every wall - to stop every kind of dehumanization, demonization and stigmatization of other nations because we need bridges, not walls.  Christmas is calling for recognition of the fact that the richness of our world is not in separation and walls, nor is it in hiding in boxes.  Richness is found in the acceptance of the humanity of every culture, every nation and every religion.  The Incarnation has taught that we have equal humanity in our various cultures.  The story of the Babe in the manger helps us to see the equal humanity of the Palestinian shepherds who came to the manger as well as the three international Magi who represented different cultures and civilizations.

For this reason, the Christ Child calls for the acceptance of the humanity of the other, of anyone who is different from us.  It is the acceptance of the otherness of the other.  It is our spirituality rooted in the Incarnation, the birth of Christ, which calls us to act with humanity toward all of God's children and be bridgebuilders.

Christmas also calls to Palestinians and Israelis to see God in the other and accept the humanity of the other, to mutually recognize each other's human, civil, political and religious rights, and to be rid of walls of separation and division.  Israelis are to see that their security is not in walls of separation but in a reconciled Palestinian neighbor.  Palestinians are to see that their justice and freedom are in a reconciled Israeli neighbor.  It is only then that just peace and reconciliation can become incarnate - only then will the dawn from on high break upon us, and justice will prevail.

Martin Luther, in his Christmas hymn, writes of the deep spirituality that the birth of Christ brings to us:
             "O dearest Jesus, holy child,
              Prepare a bed, soft, undefiled,
              A holy shrine, within my heart,
              That you and I need never part."
                                 (From Heaven Above, v 12, Lutheran Book of Worship)

May we commit ourselves this Christmas - those who have experienced the dawn from on high - to joyously receive the tender mercy of God that will guide our feet in the way of peace in the land of the Incarnation and in the whole world.  We ask that you continue in your prayers for us and we will continue to pray for you.



We wish you
A Merry Christmas
A Blessed New Year 2004,
filled with justice, peace and reconciliation for all people.