A Different Christmas this Year

Yesterday’s evening prayer from the Breviary contained Psalm 123 which I have recited thousands of times, but in the present situation it takes on a new and more somber resonance:

‘If the Lord had not been on our side

When men rose against us, 

Then they would have swallowed us alive

When their anger was kindled.

But the Lord did not give us a prey to their teeth.

Our life has escaped from the snare of the fowler.

The snare has been broken and we have escaped.

Our help is in the name of the Lord.’

No doubt where the Lord stands. He is with the Israelites, and against their enemies. Some of what Netanyahu has been saying, and from where he seems to get his certainty about his actions, has the same ring of religious conviction.

In the context of what is happening now in the Middle East I find it hard to have much stomach for celebrating Christmas this year, and I am glad I don’t have to stand on an altar talking about the birth of a baby in a manger, when thousands of babies and children are being slaughtered daily in the rubble of Gaza. I thought the manger erected by the Lutheran pastor of Bethlehem, the Rev. Isaac, summed it up well. He has the baby Jesus lying in the midst of rubble, while all the other characters of the nativity story are standing outside, searching in the rubble to find the child.

I know the Nativity narrative in the Gospels is not historical, but rather mythological. It didn’t happen like that. I have no problem with that, since story and myth can often touch on deeper truths than factual narrative ever could. And this is the value of the story as told in the Gospels.

In all probability there was no ‘slaughter of the innocents’ by Herod after the birth of Jesus, but there is a daily slaughter of the innocents happening in the same regions now. Mary and Joseph did not flee to Egypt on a donkey to escape death, but today the people of Gaza cannot flee to Egypt because the border is closed, and they await the next bomb from the skies that will bring their end.

Is there hope in the Nativity story in the context of all this? I’m sure there is, and that many people will find it over the next week, but it is hard to see or believe it. 

Closer to home, in my native county, Galway, people are refusing shelter to migrants and burning down a hotel that was to provide them with a bed. They even use biblical language – “the inn is full” – to justify their actions. What a desecration of the nativity story. I am disappointed that up to now I am not aware that any of our Church leaders has spoken out about this. I would have expected the local bishop, Bishop Deignan of Galway, to have at least pointed out the utter incongruity of this type of action in the week leading up to Christmas; or some type of action by the local believing community to show their abhorrence of what has happened. The problem with lack of response, and especially when local councillors or supporting the protest, is that the protestors can claim they are acting in the name of all.

So this Christmas is different. Maybe not the commercial aspect, which seems to be going ahead in full steam. But for those of us for whom the religious meaning of the feast is the important part, there will inevitably be a degree of sadness. And maybe even a niggling question, has it all been in vain.