Christmas Message 2001

Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan
                  The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and Palestine

21 December, 2001.

”And His name shall be Immanuel, God with us.” (Matthew 1:23)

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

As I this year, once again, review the story of the nativity of our Lord I am surprised to note that the world then, was not much different from ours. We see how ordinary people are made to feel the might of those in power:

Joseph and Mary were ordered to go from Nazareth to register in Bethlehem. Today the order is to stay were you are. Our people are confined to remain in the areas where they live. Very few are allowed to move in or out of Bethlehem these days.

The Holy family did not find a place to overnight. In today’s Bethlehem we find people, who have no place to spend the nights. Some have had their own homes destroyed by shells and cannot live there any longer. The many hotels and restaurants in Bethlehem have been closed several months ago, leaving people jobless without employment, and bread on their tables.

Herod, the king, was eager to protect his power. For security reasons he therefore gave the order to kill civilian children. He thought that violence is the only way to security. Our world has many Herod’s, who think that they can protect their nations and interests by violence, or change the world by the use of arms, or remain in power by killing others, and achieve security by the use of the Cobra, the Apache or the F16.

These days we also better understand why the Magi from the East had to find an alternative route when leaving Bethlehem. For their own safety they had to bypass the checkpoints in order not to be harassed or detained by soldiers.

The Holy family was forced to flee to Egypt. Today many Palestinian Christians seek refuge in other countries due to the unstable political situation.

The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem is certainly not a sweet, romantic story, far removed from the harsh realities of life.

One of the Palestinian youth asked: “Where is God hiding? Didn’t we learn in Sunday school that God is powerful? Didn’t we learn that He can always change things and hear the cries of the oppressed? Where is He?”

I am grateful to my God that His work in history is not like the way of the mighty of this world!  Thank God, that He is involved in a different way. When looking at this world and all the insanity that is going on, He assures us: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.” (Zech 4:6).  The way God choose was to become human like us and to be born in Bethlehem in the midst of turmoil, violence and hopelessness. I am grateful to my God that He incarnated in a manger peacefully, and that amidst all the noise of the world, the angels carried a new message:” Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those whom He favours.” (Luke 2:14).

The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem has certainly changed our world, and I am still confident that it will change it still today:

It has returned humanity to people, who have lost their humanity. They are to learn that humanity is the gift of God to all of us. Those who are seeking power must know that they are called to care for humanity and not for power. They are to see the God given humanity in their neighbours and enemies. They should allow every human being to enjoy life, with its full rights as God intended them to be, and not as political leaders want them to be. Our humanity was restored by  the child in the manger. Christmas reminds us to be human.

The incarnation of Christ has made all ethnic differences irrelevant. The simple Palestinian shepherds and the well-educated Magi from the East, maybe Iran, could meet around the Babe of Bethlehem. The gap between people, whether from the East, or the West, from the North or the South was bridged on the first Christmas.  For this reason, Paul writes: “In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, For all of you are one in Jesus Christ.” (Gal 3:29)

Are we ready in this terrible situation to transcend all boundaries that are separating us human beings because we are perceived as being different and dangerous? Are we ready to do what all we can to bridge the existing gap? Is it not time we take the incarnated Saviour seriously? Or is Christmas just celebrated to make Christians feel good?  As believers in the incarnation we are called to challenge our world to transcend divisions, to respect all nations – small or big – and to see God in the followers of the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

This Christmas is the time for us to meditate in front of the Child in the manger and ask ourselves:  What will fill the hearts of the future generations who are to inherit our land from us? Will it be hatred, or will it be mutual respect and co-existence?  I am afraid that the culture of rage, which is permeating our societies, has developed bitterness, fear, hatred and anger. Children in Bethlehem and Gaza, as well as in Tel Aviv and Petah Tikva, are all playing games of shooting between Palestinians and Israelis. It is now time for us all to stop for a while and ask ourselves: Is this what we want for our children? Is this what Israeli and Palestinian mothers and fathers want?

This is the reason that we call for a time of self-criticism and repentance. Now is the time for all of us to repent, to change our ways and attitudes. We are all called to make a U-turn, away from the hatred and violence that separates us, back to the mutual respect and coexistence that brings us together.

By doing this we can begin to move towards forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness is not merely an emotional thing. It means to be willing and free to change one’s mind and act for just peace and reconciliation. Forgiveness means to see God in the enemy, and to accept the otherness of the other and thus mutually recognize each other’s human, civil, religious, and political rights. In the end there will no other way out of the conflict. We all need to realize that the two sides in this conflict are mutually dependant of each other. The security of Israel depends on the liberation of the Palestinians. In the same way the independence of the Palestinians depends on the security of Israel.

I ask my Lord in the manger, while kneeling before Him, in full repentance: Lord, make the good life of justice, security, and reconciliation possible for all of us here in the land were you became human. Lord of peace and good will, put an end to bloodshed, violence, and war.  Allow all our children, Israeli and Palestinian, to experience just peace, a secure future, and the power of forgiveness and love.

We are indeed very grateful to be surrounded by your prayers. Please, continue to pray for us – and increase your Vigil Prayers - that the dream of forgiveness, reconciliation and just peace may be realized next year in the land of the Incarnation.

I wish you all a Peaceful Christmas and a Blessed New Year.

Your brother in Christ

+ Munib A. Younan, the Lutheran Bishop in Jerusalem