Friday, January 6, 2012

Seeing the Baby Jesus
by Fred & Gloria Strickert

We first saw Jesus a baby in a crib.
This same Lord Jesus today has come
to live in our world;
he is present in our neighbors we see,
our Jesus is with us, and ever sets us free.
      "All Earth is Hopeful" verse 4, ELW 266

Christmas is best understood through the eyes of children.  So for our Christmas Day worship at Redeemer the children themselves read the Christmas Gospel from the Spark Story Bible.

With our own four grand- daughters -- ages two and a half to ten -- here sharing Christmas week (and in this photo posing at the eighth-century Islamic Hisham Palace in Jericho) we had the benefit of their observations, their insights, their interpetations, and their honesty and candor to help us see things a bit differently than we normally see them.

Along with our granddaughters, we of course enjoyed the company of our son, two daughters, and two sons-in-law, experiencing Christmas in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. 
It was time for fun and celebration, for sharing and catching up on things, for a little site-seeing, and for just being together-- a real blessing for us all.  During our drives, we found time to reflect upon the words spoken by the young.

"I want to see the baby Jesus," two-and-a-half year-old Lilly reminded us upon her arrival late Sunday afternoon.  Their travel schedule had placed them on an airplane through Christmas Eve and most of Christmas Day.  So they had missed our Saturday visit to Bethlehem for Christmas Eve worship, for browsing among the crowds in Manger Square, and for watching the afternoon parade of the Latin Patriarch, dignitaries, and local Scouts drum and bugel corps including the Syrian Orthodox bagpipe group.  So what were Lilly's priorities?  "I want to see the Baby Jesus?"  "We'll have to wait til later in the week when we'll take you to Bethlehem," Fred responded.  "And what if that doesn't satisfy her?"  Gloria asked.  "We'll just have to see."

We had several stops in our itinerary at the beginning of the week before we would travel to Bethlehem, including a day in the desert east of Jerusalem, with a long hike and visit to St. George's Monastery in Wadi Qelt.

"I hiked all this way, and all I saw was four dead guys and a treasure chest."

This was five-year old Izzy's out-of-breath appraisal when arriving once again up the hill where we had parked the cars across the gorge from the monastery.

One has to grow in to an appreciation of the orthodox style of art with dark painted icons and ornate decorations.  It is not too difficult for a child to turn one's focus to the skeletons of former monks and perhaps to remind us of Luke's Easter angel, "Why do you seek the living among the dead?"

Perhaps Lilly's quest for the baby Jesus would better take place elsewhere.
We first saw Jesus a baby in a crib.
This same Lord Jesus today has come to live in our world;
he is present in our neighbors we see.

"I rode a camel!"
exclaimed Lilly.

Then a little later she reminded us, "I want to see the baby Jesus!"

So, yes, we'll be visiting Bethlehem tomorrow!
But would Bethlehem fill Lilly's expectations?

We learned at the monastery that one of their four monks was lying in a hospital bed with a gash over his eye from the fight the previous day at Nativity Church.  We probably don't have to explain.

 Thanks to Youtube, video of priests fighting with mops and brooms had circled the globe--an embarrassment to the local church.  "That's what you can expect from Palestinians," I overheard an Israeli guide telling his group back in Jerusalem.  Of course, what is not usually said is that the priests involved are not Palestinians but expatriates, both the hierarchy of the Greek Orthodox church and Armenian students who have come from abroad to study in the local seminaries-- and so a great divide separating them from the local Palestinian Christian membership, not a theology of accompaniment.  (See Munther Isaac's article on Sojourner's website.)  So every year when the Greek Orthodox and Armenians have their annual cleaning day before Orthodox Christmas, it seems that arguments and fights break out, not the kind of thing the baby Jesus would approve of in the place of his birth.

So what were we to expect in Bethlehem?
Would Lilly find the baby Jesus?

"I think they're playing tag," announced seven-year old Emma in the backseat as we were driving through the streets of East Jerusalem the next day on our way to Bethehem.  We had come across a group of Palestinian youths running down the side walk as fast as their legs would carry them, being chased by green-uniformed Israeli soldiers with their rifles drawn.  Still in the age of innocense Emma had sized things up from her realm of experience, "I think they're playing tag."   It is such a daily occurrance for us to see soldiers with guns, often stopping youths asking for IDs, and sometimes chasing them and arresting them.  We have become so used to these sights that the abnormal seems normal. 

We thought about these kids, not knowing their fate, this week after Emma and her cousins left, when we saw the photo of six-year old Muhammad ali Dhirbas.  Little Muhammad was apprehended by Israeli forces while going on an errand to the local grocery store and taken to the police station for four hours of interrogation on Tuesday afternoon.  Muhammad is from the refugee camp Issawiya, just a short ways north of our home.  Hardly a day goes by that Israeli soldiers don't raid the camp, keeping the residents unsettled and on edge, and letting them know who's boss.  Last Tuesday morning on one of their raids, the fully armed soldiers experienced rock throwing from young kids.  Unable to catch any of them, the soldiers did the next best thing apprehending a child, any child, walking innocently to the store, and teaching him a lesson. 

We first saw Jesus a baby in a crib.
This same Lord Jesus today has come
to live in our world;
he is present in our neighbors we see.
both in children playing tag, & in children terrorized by intimidating soldiers.

The Christmas season comes at the same time as end of the year reports by human rights organizations who have just reminded us that
  • The number of Palestinian minors held in custody of Israeli security forces throughout the year 2011 ranged from 120 to 186 a month while the most common prison term for minors was six months.  (
  • 21 Palestinian children died during 2011 as the result of Israeli army and air forces attacks, many in bombing raids on crowded Gaza. (
  • 36 % of Palestinians in the West Bank are 14 years and under while 44 % of Palestinians in Gaza are 14 years and under.
The most Orwellian story of the week, however, comes from the Israeli Border Patrol who have announced that they are training armed Israeli youth as young as 16 years to catch illegal Palestinian day laborers in building projects in Modiin and neighboring settlements.  It shouldn't be too different from playing tag, just using guns.

"Is this a prison? I thought we were going to Bethlehem."  So ten-year-old Maria reacted while going through the Bethlehem check point.   As Pastor Mitri Raheb said in his welcoming remarks on Christmas Eve, "Welcome to the once little town of Bethlehem, now a significant city, yet reduced to an area of four square miles surrounded by a 25-ft high wall with military watch towers." 
So Maria, your namesake Mary of Nazareth would have certainly said the same thing-- as countless of others through history wanting to seeing the baby Jesus.


In manger square next to the traditional Christmas tree, Palestinian artist Rana Bishara erected a tree that resembled the wall, grey in color, and covered with barbed-wire tinsel and tear-gas-canister decorations.  The latter had all been used by Israeli forces against non-violent protesters against the wall, sometimes causing harm and even death.  My colleague Ryan noticed the initials CTS on the canisters, designating its manufacturer as Combined Tactical Systems of Jamestown, Pennsylvania.  So much for wise men from afar and their Christmas gifts!

"A prison," observed Maria.  Children have a way of seeing what adults fail to see.  "So why do Jews have to live behind that wall?"  That's how an eight-year-old Palestinian girl reacted while driving along with her mother from Ramallah to Jerusalem where her mother works just up the hill from us at Mercy Corps, a Portland-based aid organization. For her, the wall represents a deeply troubled society that lives in fear.

A world dominated by fear-- not the kind of world for a baby to be born, especially when that baby is the Savior of the world.  We can easily imagine that a child would think about this for a few minutes and respond, "What was God thinking?" 

"Perfect love casts out all fear." ( 1 John 4:18).  That's what God was thinking.  That's a concept that even children can understand.
And so the irony that those who are supposed to be enclosed by this wall of separation live as if they are free, while it is the warden who is imprisoned.  Thus the Bethlehem municipality designated for Christmas 2011 the theme Palestine Celebrating Hope.

The thousands of Palestinian visitors to Nativity Church and Manger Square all week from all over the West Bank--Christians and Muslims alike--were a clear sign of that spirit of hope. 

That is Jesus present in our neighbors we see--especially the young.

"I want to see the Baby Jesus," Lilly had repeated throughout the week and now stood patiently in line amidst the crowds waiting to enter the Grotto below the Church of the Nativity.

In the Grotto, Lilly paused to view a doll-like representation of the baby Jesus in a marble and glass enclosure representing the manger.  This is the baby Jesus image carried to a resting place beneath the altar of the Latin Catholic St. Catherine's Church for the December 25 midnight service.

Outside St. Catherine's Church Lilly then paused to view a lifesize Creche given to the people of Bethlehem by the Italian city of Trent.

"I saw the baby Jesus," Lilly later announced to us as we were walking through Manger Square.  Was it the representation in the Grotto?  or the Creche?  or the people she encountered?  What was it that brought the bibical story alive for her?  Perhaps she'll have to figure that out for herself as she grows older, just as we have all done.  Children have a way of understanding that teaches us all.

We first saw Jesus a baby in a crib.

This same Lord Jesus today has come
to live in our world;
he is present in our neighbors we see,
our Jesus is with us, and ever sets us free.

Our four granddaughters have now returned home with their parents.  It would be interesting to hear their descriptions of their visit as they share with their friends.

Lilly's report was pretty much what we expected, with a small addition.

"I saw the baby Jesus and the gas station where Mary rested."

That's how she responded when her other grandparents in North Carolina asked her what she saw.

So what's this about a gas station?

On the evening that Maria and Emma arrived, we hosted in our home an Advent 4 midweek soup supper.  In Fred's presentation about descriptions of Mary in literature and tradition outside the Bible, we looked at this photo of the fifth-century octagonal Kathisma Church discovered in the 1990s on the Hebron/ Bethlehem road near Mar Elias monastery.
Kathisma = Greek for "sitting down" or where Mary rested.

Because few are aware of these ruins, even those who drive by every day, the landmark mentioned was "the green gas station just before the stop light"  (toward the upper left corner in photo.)

So when we were driving to Bethlehem, Maria and Emma both blurted out, "Look! The gas station and the church where Mary rested."  Not bad memories for these two young girls.

Two-and-a-half year old Lilly sat quietly "pondering all this in her heart."  Only later when returning to her own home did she announce, "I saw the baby Jesus and the gas station where Mary rested."

by Fred & Gloria Strickert