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On Christmas Day: so much from those who have so little

December 25, 2017

Last night I celebrated Christmas Eve with a post about faith – how difficult I find it to go the extra mile it takes to believe in a deity, yet how important it is to have some form of faith.

As I was posting my piece, my sister, who is an Anglican priest in Bristol, was preparing to deliver a sermon at midnight on what Christmas means for her. In it, she talked about a personal experience in Palestine that brought her faith into focus.

With her permission I’m quoting from it:

Just over two years ago I visited Bethlehem.  I went there from Jerusalem- only about 8km but it was a hairy journey where we had to cross a check point with Israeli guards who were not helpful or welcoming. And it took most of the morning. Bethlehem is a town full of conflict but that’s nothing new.  When Jesus was born, it lay in territory ruled over by Herod: not a safe place to grow up in.

When I visited, the town, as it does now, had a huge Israeli military presence especially around the church of the nativity reputed to be where Jesus was born.  Some of our group were told by the organisation that sponsored them that it was too dangerous to be out after dark and that they would have to return to the safety of their hotel in Jerusalem. A few of us decided to stay to look round further and we ended up having a meal at the “Shepherd’s Field” restaurant at Beit Sahour overlooking the place thought to be the place where the shepherds might have lived. We could only get back to Jerusalem that night by taxi because the check points were shut to public transport. And that taxi journey- brief though it was touched the heart of what the gospel is all about. This is what happened.

We were whisked into three taxis by smiling Palestinians but after a mile or so the taxis turned off the main street. All three taxis stopped and the drivers got out. I began to feel uneasy- worrying about hijackings and mugging but after a few minutes the drivers were back in the car and took us off to the check point. When we got out of the taxis they laid before us boxes of cake and encouraged us to share the cakes with them. They smiled and laughed and did not want any money apart from the taxi fare. They thanked us for coming to visit Bethlehem and asked us to tell the world what life was like living under the shadow of the separation wall and the Israeli occupation. They had an exuberance and love of life that was so infectious despite having very little- it made me realise that sometimes those who have nothing can be free because they have nothing to lose.

The journey I made to Bethlehem that day was totally unexpected. I was made welcome and shared hospitality with those who had very little and didn’t need to offer us anything. It was a real reminder of the real hospitality and welcome that is at the heart of the gospel- the welcome of the arms of God outstretched in the life of Jesus- longing to welcome us to share and break bread with each other.

I am not sure if anyone saw the BBC drama “The Nativity” a few years ago.  One of the most powerful images occurred at the end where both the wise men and the shepherds are seen kneeling before the crib.  Balthazar wipes tears from his eyes, and tells the other wise men that this vision before him was what he had longed for all his life, and that this tiny child was truly the saviour of the world.  And the shepherds, often at the bottom of the economic pile simply looked in wonder and said “He has come for such as us”. The powerful and the powerless found their healing and hope in a tiny baby.

Whether or not you believe in the story and meaning of the Nativity, it’s a powerful message.

I too have experienced kindness in the Middle East from people who have little to give, and yet are prepared to give so much. I have found no hearts warmer than those of many Arabs I have encountered.

On this particular day I have no desire to get into the politics of immigration and refugees, but for me the most hopeful story I have read today is that of the 24 Syrian refugees who settled in a remote part of Scotland, and whose presence appears to be changing the Isle of Bute for the better:

Now almost every other shop space along the front is an empty one. But as well as the Orient Salon, a Syrian bakery and patisserie will soon open. The Syrian people fleeing terror have possibly brought with them the miracle of life for Bute.

A small regeneration is taking place on the island. Four new babies have been born to the Syrian families and another is on the way. In their own way they are bringing optimism to a west of Scotland community that had almost forgotten what it meant.

The whole article in The Guardian is here. I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions. But I do know that if you open your doors, and equally importantly, your hearts, to people in dire need of a helping hand, good things often happen when you least expect them.

And at the risk of sounding excessively pious (for which I apologise in advance), as good a message as you could possibly send to those who advocate keeping the door shut on principle, regardless of need, is this: perhaps it’s time to re-examine your principles.

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