The last time I spent Christmas alone was 17 years ago. I was living in Japan, another country where, like Israel, the Christian population is less than 2%. Another country where, like Israel, Christmas celebrations could be found only in pockets of the community. There, like here (in this part of Israel anyway), there were no Christmas carols playing in shops. No Christmas trees. No insane last minute panic shopping.
Then, like now, I had just gone through a significant breakup.
And it was hard.
As a young 20-something, I felt lost and alone, deeply, deeply weary and very, very sad.
Some things don’t change when you get older. The feelings of raw grief being one of them. Unfortunately.
There are Christmas markets and Christmas tree lighting ceremonies in some of the Arab villages around the Galilee. One of the young staff members at the Scots Hotel showed me a video of his village’s celebrations, and the fireworks went on and on and on, fireworks to rival Edinburgh’s at Hogmanay. But here in Tiberias, there is very little Christmas.
In some ways that’s refreshing. I don’t turn on the tv and see sentimental advertisements showing me what a perfect Christmas should look like. I’m not bombarded with demands that I buy, buy, buy. I’m not constantly being told to BE HAPPY BECAUSE IT’S CHRISTMAS!
And in some ways, it feels more real.
When Jesus was born, it was to a frightened young mother and a father who probably still wasn’t sure of his role.
When Jesus was born, it was in a land occupied by a foreign power.
When Jesus was born, it was in a world destroying itself with violence rooted in fear.
When Jesus was born, the first witnesses that we know about were completely inconsequential shepherds, and later, a group of foreigners who practised a totally different religion.
There were no fireworks. Only a star.
There were no carols. Only the sounds of a labouring mother in the middle of a busy town.
That was how heaven came to earth.
I’ve always loved how UA Fanthrope’s poem BC:AD captures that first Christmas:
This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.
This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.
This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.
And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.
This is how God comes into our midst.
Not when we are ready. Not when the presents are all bought and perfectly wrapped. Not when the meal is prepared. Not when a large family gathers. Not when the excitement reaches its peak. Not even in the candlelight of a darkened church.
We heard from Matthew’s gospel at the start of Advent that God comes like a thief in the night. And it may seem odd that the season then culminates in the birth of a baby. But the more I’ve reflected on it, the more I understand the truth of it.
There are times when God manages to break in to our world and our lives despite all the security measures we’ve installed, all the walls we’ve built, all the barbed wire we wrap around our hearts. God intrudes and turns our world upside down, with every intention of taking from us all the things we have held dear, all the things we think we need to survive, to be real, to cope with the pain in our world and ourselves: our anxiety, our anger, our need to be needed, our need to be right, our perfectionism, our low self-esteem, our forced smiles, our narcissism, our piety.
God has the audacity to trespass into the world we have created for ourselves and then bolt with all we have used to distract ourselves, to define ourselves, to hide ourselves.
And we find ourselves left empty and weary and shattered and shaken.
Then in the darkness, a new star appears, a baby’s cry echoes.
The thief in the night has gone. But has left behind the one thing we need to survive.
There are no angels in Tiberias singing alleluia to herald the birth of Christ. But on the building site behind my house, amongst the noises of drills and saws and shouts, I can hear one of the workers whistling Christmas carols.
Today that is herald enough of the love that has come.
Blessings on you my friends as you journey haphazard by starlight towards the birth of our Saviour.