As we read each year, Joseph and Mary made their long journey, compelled by a census. It became a journey of joy as Mary gave birth to a baby whom we call the Prince of Peace. As we sing Christmas carols we are invited to think of Bethlehem on the night when Jesus was born. But this year let’s think also of what Bethlehem has become today.
To make the journey from Nazareth in Israel to Bethlehem in the occupied Palestinian territories today, Mary and Joseph would have to cross through approximately 70 Israeli barriers – checkpoints, fences and walls which would involve multiple interrogations and delays – and they would be lucky to be allowed through at all.
These same barriers prevent shepherds watching their flocks, either by day or by night. Most people in Bethlehem have been cut off from their grazing lands, having significant economic effects.
To get work in nearby Jerusalem means being able to get a special permit. These are difficult to obtain and few in number.
The Magi would probably not get anywhere near Bethlehem, and the Holy Family certainly couldn’t have fled to Egypt when the threats to life began.
As I write, news filters through of Israeli settlers throwing rocks at Palestinian cars entering Bethlehem, and destroying Palestinian olive trees. A new film made by Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers about Bethlehem is dubbed a ‘dark thriller’.
So is there a bright shining star over Bethlehem today that guides us to the Christ?
Indeed there is. Ask any who have taken the road to Bethlehem – and they will speak of the life of Christ lived out among the people.
Firstly in this place there is such assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. That while the reality of life stands so bleakly – people know without a doubt that God continues to dwell amongst the people, and that the love of God will prevail.
You can hear the convictions of Christ from church leaders, who speak with the words of the prophets calling for justice and mercy.
And of the many Christian organisations in Bethlehem there are so many people who follow the way of Christ – to both resist evil and love our enemies.
I invite you to behold the Bethlehem of today and enter the story of the journey of Christ.
The parallels of the suffering of the people today with the story of Jesus’ entry to this world allow us to enter the story of Christ’s entry to our world in a profound way. Because the journey of Christ, though it comes through suffering, is always a journey of joy.
Rev Gregor Henderson
President of the Uniting Church 2006-2009