Happy New Year!
It’s hard to believe that the holidays have passed, a new year has begun and work is about to start again in earnest. Though to be honest, work in Tiberias only slowed; it never really stopped. In a place where neither Christmas nor New Year are official holidays, getting much of a break is difficult (for instance, when a non-urgent pastoral call comes through at 8am on New Year’s day, shattering my hopes for a long lazy sleep).
Though this was my fourth Christmas here, I still wasn’t sure what to expect. I printed off 45 service sheets for our candlelit Lessons and Carols service on Christmas Eve, thinking to myself I was being overly optimistic, and I asked the Scots Hotel to prepare enough hot apple cider and mulled wine to serve about 25 people after the service. Thankfully they ignored my pessimism and provided enough to serve the ~40 people who came.
When there are much bigger celebrations in more significant towns like Nazareth and Bethlehem, I’m always amazed at who chooses to come to St Andrew’s Tiberias on Christmas Eve. But in the end, we had a wonderfully diverse gathering of people from Peru, Austria, Siberia, the United States, the Netherlands, Romania, Norway, and of course Scotland.
Before the service began, I asked for volunteers willing to do the readings, and a couple of sisters from an Austrian family agreed. Their younger sister and brother helped light the candles on the Advent wreath. As I spoke with them over a glass of mulled wine after the service, their parents were delighted and deeply moved. They explained that 20 years ago, they had worshipped at St Andrew’s on Christmas Eve, and never would have imagined then that 20 years later their children would be invited to play such a part in the celebrations.
Our Christmas Day Communion Service was much smaller, with only six of us worshipping, including some who drive from kibbutzim much further afield to attend occasionally. One of the women said to me as she arrived, ‘It doesn’t matter how many of us there are, even if it’s just two or three, being here at St Andrew’s makes it Christmas for me. I’m so glad this church is here.’
Later that evening, a friend and I had our own Christmas celebrations. We loaded the car with wood and Christmas decorations and tea lights, we filled our travel mugs with hot chocolate, and we set off for the beach. We had resolved to start a new tradition, rather than trying to replicate Western-style Christmas celebrations that felt like too much effort and would only make us homesick for family and friends. And so we created a Christmas tree in the sand, built a huge bonfire, and then sat roasting marshmallows and listening to the waves, Over the Rhine’s Christmas music playing softly as the moon rose.
As the fire warmed us, I reflected on the day and felt all the tension and anxiety of the preparations flow away. My heart was filled with gratitude. It was one of those perfect moments when I wished time could just stop and the world would stand still while I savoured it.
It was a simple Christmas, stripped of so many of the excesses associated with the season elsewhere. But in its simplicity was a wonderful abundance: seeing the joy of others … watching the flames of the candles dance in the church windows … hearing carols echo through the sanctuary … listening to the Lord’s Prayer prayed in a multitude of languages … witnessing a faith that started in this land celebrated still today by people from across the world … and afterwards, giving thanks in quiet companionship for all that we have.
Love came down at Christmas. And may that Love continue to envelope the world in this year ahead.