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ICYMI: Christmas Celebration Has Been Cancelled

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ICYMI: Christmas Celebration Has Been Cancelled

This year Christmas has been cancelled in Bethlehem.

Explaining the decision, Bishop William Shomali, the General Vicar and Patriarchal Vicar for Jerusalem and Palestine of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem asked, “How can we celebrate Christmas when thousands of Palestinians got killed and injured and thousands of houses were destroyed in Gaza?”

At this time Christians believed that the miraculous birth of Jesus took place in Bethlehem, the town was in Roman-occupied Palestine.

The Magi, or three wise men, who are said to have visited the infant Jesus soon after his birth are thought, in some traditions, to have been kings from Ethiopia, Persia, and India. The flight of the Holy Family into Egypt made them Palestinian refugees.

The annual celebration of the birth of Jesus on 25 December began in 350 CE when the Catholic church tried to Christianise Yule, the pagan midwinter festival in Europe. Much of the holiday’s contemporary symbolism its colours, the tree come from Yule, from which the South African term “jol” is said to originate.

But Father Christmas is thought to have roots in Turkey, drawing from the story of Saint Nicholas. The hymns sung in Christian churches have their deep roots in Ancient Egypt but came into European Christianity from Byzantine chanting music.

 

ICYMI: Christmas Celebration Has Been Cancelled

 

The mince pies and Christmas pudding at the centre of European Christmas feasts come from the fruit preservation practices of the Arab world. The camels and the three wise men in the nativity scenes displayed in the Euro-American world show some awareness that Christianity did not emerge as a European religion.

Palestine has, since ancient times, been a place of great diversity. Along with its Greek and Roman temples it also has long Jewish, Christian, and Muslim histories.

Ordinarily, Christmas is celebrated with great joy across Palestine with festive lights, glittering Christmas trees, religious processions, singing, traditional Palestinian food, and prayers in the churches of various denominations.

Bethlehem has a special role in all this. Situated 10km to the south of Jerusalem in the West Bank and set in fertile limestone hill country the Palestinian town occupies a huge place in the global imagination.

Since at least the 2nd century CE, there has been a belief that the site of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is the place where Jesus was born. Tradition holds that the birthplace itself is a cave, on which the initial church was constructed.

Parts of the original basilica church built in 339 CE still endure beneath the surface. The existing Church of the Nativity, constructed primarily in the mid-6th century CE overlays the original church. Despite subsequent modifications, it stands as the oldest Christian church still in regular use.

Pilgrims have been drawn to Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity for more than 1 700 years. Pilgrims follow the path connecting the historic entrance of Bethlehem near King David’s Wells to the Church of the Nativity. The route, which commemorates the journey of Joseph and Mary, moves along Star Street through the Damascus Gate, also known as Qos Al-Zarara, the town’s historical gate, leading towards Manger Square.

The next step in the biblical narrative, the flight into Egypt, is not commemorated in the same way. In that narrative Joseph and Mary take their infant and flee into Egypt to escape the Massacre of the Innocents, the state murder of all male children under the age of two. Historians do not accept that this event occurred. It is a myth. While some myths do not have their roots in actual historical events, those that endure do so because they speak to reality in some way. This is what ensures their ongoing power.

At the time of writing this article the death toll in Gaza as a result of attacks by the Israeli military stands at close to 20 000 with more than 50 000 injured. More than two million people, about 85% of the population, have become refugees.

Many of these people will not have homes to return to if they survive the war. Already more than half of the homes in Gaza have been severely damaged or destroyed. More than 8,000 children have been killed, with many more injured and maimed. This number will increase by the time Christmas comes.

Herod’s slaughter of the innocents is a myth. But the slaughter of the innocents by the Israeli military is a cruel, cruel reality. The function of the myth of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents is clear: to warn Christians against identification with oppressive states and to encourage identification with their victims; poor people turned into refugees.

Bishop Shomali understands this lesson well, as does the wider tradition of liberation theology. But in the Euro-American world, a world that celebrates its Christian roots, most states side with the Israeli state, which in this case represents the Herod of myth. The West is the new Rome, backing a new Herod in its all too real bloodlust.

The ANC has, commendably, refused to go along with this bloodlust, but many powerful figures in our public life speak and write as if the lives of Palestinians do not count as human lives. The ludicrous idea that opposing the ongoing massacre of the innocents is anti-Semitic and therefore immoral is repeated over and over as if saying it again and again makes it any less ludicrous.

The festival of Christmas was invented in Europe to celebrate the birth of a child in Palestine, a child who fled to Egypt to escape organised state murder and then returned to home to preach the gospel of the poor only to be executed by the state.

This story, originally a Jewish story, became the basis for a new religion when Paul the Apostle, writing in Greek in modern-day Turkey, asserted it as a universal story: “There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The message of the Christian gospel, a message that comes to us from Palestine through modern-day Turkey, is of radical universalism, of the oneness of humanity. The story of Jesus, the central figure in that gospel, is a story that begins with a child escaping from state murder and ends with an adult being murdered by a state.

It speaks to us all, whatever our religious beliefs, and including those of us without religion, with moral clarity. Do not identify with repression even if it’s carried out by the client king of the world’s most powerful empire. Identify with the poor family in flight from that king, and the state he wields and the empire that backs him. Always be on the side of the oppressed.

This year, those of us who celebrate Christmas, whether as believers in the literal truth of the gospel or in more secular ways, need to return the essential message of the story of Jesus to Palestine where the slaughter of the innocents is no myth.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Temp Mail

    December 26, 2023 at 1:53 am

    I appreciate you sharing this blog post. Thanks Again. Cool.

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