Talk at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Carol Service, 14th December 2010
I love the words of our reading from Isaiah chapter 9: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.“
Then the words go on to talk about joy being increased because “the yoke of their burden… and the rod of the oppressor you have broken. All the boots of the tramping warriors, all the garments rolled in blood should be burned as fuel for the fire.”
A setting that seems to be a rejection of the ways of the warriors, the ways of violence and blood, and then comes the greatest and best known words of this passage, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us, authority rests upon his shoulders and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually and there shall be endless peace.”
And these are words that, through the centuries, Christians have read at this time of year in carol services. They relate the words to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, to the birth of the Prince of Peace. And if on Christmas Eve you sit and listen to the lessons and carols at King’s College Cambridge or watch it on the television, you hear the bidding prayer:
“Beloved in Christ, be at this Christmastide our care and delight to hear again the message of the angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and the babe lying in a manger.”
Somehow we feel Christmas is starting and we should go even unto Bethlehem. Then the words of the bidding prayer go on, “But first let us pray for the needs of the whole world, for peace on earth and goodwill among all his people. Because this of all things would rejoice his heart, let us remember in his name the poor and helpless, the cold, the hungry and the oppressed, the sick and them that mourn, the lonely, and the unloved, the aged and the little children.”
And so it goes on in such moving tones and for me there is no more powerful message then the message of Bethlehem. Here God touches the earth in human form not as a powerful person but in humility, in poverty, in simplicity – and thus endorses those who find themselves in the same circumstances. It is a rejection of oppression, a rejection of violence, and an affirmation of a new way of life, the way of the Prince of Peace.
But when I hear it now, I also remember the circumstances of the little town of Bethlehem. I go every year, I have many friends in Bethlehem and especially in Beit Sahour, the Shepherds’ field area nearby, and they are suffering, and every time I go I think – it can’t get worse, and yet every time, it is worse. And it think, how can the message of the Prince of Peace be heard in this little town that is struggling to survive today?
My good friend Zoughbi Zoughbi is the director of Wi’am Conflict Resolution Centre, based right by the wall in Bethlehem. They are a Christian organisation that works to promote non-violent solutions and interfaith understanding and provide practical support including trauma counselling particularly children – and he sent me this message the other day –
“Yes I believe in the miraculous birth of Christ all those years ago, yet suppose the baby was born today what would happen? The Magi would not be able to visit because of the separation wall which is five times as long and twice the height of the Berlin wall; Mary and Joseph would not be able to come to Bethlehem because of at least 500 checkpoints along the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem that would prevent them from moving freely. There would be no more shepherds in the fields, since 80% of the land is either under Israeli control or confiscated for building settlements, bypass roads or the illegal separation wall. I doubt that the angels would have much success finding good news to tell the world these days. Others here have lost their children to the brutal police and military; there are not enough comforters for the afflicted families here in Bethlehem.
“Yet despite the occupation and our circumstances here in Bethlehem our spirits are uplifted by the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ all those years ago. Hope is born with Christmas and reborn with the resurrection. So despite all the bloodshed, all the anger and all the injustice, the resurrected Christ is alive among us. As the Apostle Paul said, ‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword? I am convinced that nothing in all creation would be able to separate us from the love of God.’
“The essential message of Christmas is new life not death, so here in Bethlehem we ought to celebrate life with others of the Middle East and everywhere who are determined to live life before death. Pray for us.”
It is this hope that still raises its head amongst the suffering of Bethlehem that gives me hope.
There is a garden by the wall in Bethlehem, it is right beside the separation wall. It is extraordinary! Here there are beautiful trees and beautiful plants, an old Palestinian house that is used as a centre for reconciliation, a place to counsel people, a place for people to pause and draw strength as they walk beneath the trees and the plants right next to the huge, overshadowing grey wall. It is surprising where you can make a place of beauty, where witness can happen that somehow makes the domination and imprisonment look ridiculous. There are trees and plants and people here who reflect eternal truths and eternal justice; they will outlast the wall, maybe their very roots will go down and undermine the wall. This is the work of Wiam the conflict resolution centre. They bring hope to young and old.
They show the outworking of the Bethlehem theology of love which reaches out to all: even when 87% of the land is taken there are still those who refuse to give up on the message that there is still the possibility of good news, there is the possibility of peace on earth.
The witness of the garden by the wall is a parable for us all. You can imprison people, you can take away their land, you can take away their homes, but you can’t take away their spirit, you can’t take away their hope in a gospel of liberation.
This is a spirituality that rises higher than walls and beyond checkpoints, beyond fear and a belief that violence can solve problems.
Hope is still born anew in Bethlehem today and the lives of people who witness and light candles and plant trees against all the odds. This is the Bethlehem theology in action, which brings hope for all.
Our passage includes the reminder that the ways of the warrior and violence will be burned up as fuel for the fire because there is a new way now as a child is born.
It is interesting that another message came to me from Bethlehem, from Sami Awad, Director of the Holy Land Trust, who along with Wi’am give non-violence training, and he said this: “I send you this message from a town that has now become a symbol of the siege faced by all Palestinian people living in the occupied territories. No matter where you stand in Bethlehem you will witness the cold grip of this brutal and humiliating occupation, but I write this letter to you with more hope in my heart that in any time in the past.
“This hope is two fold – the first, you are seeing in Bethlehem and many areas in Palestine a growing reconnection to the values and principles of non-violence. We are taking full control of our destiny and future and the tools of non-violence also allow us to see the humanity even in those who are the most violent and abusive towards us.
“The second point is seeing so many people around the world realise this occupation needs to end; and they are not just saying it they are acting upon this as well, calling for our liberty and coming to visit us.
“I invite you this Christmas season to continue on your part seeking peace for both communities that live in what we all call the Holy Land. This year encourage others to join you for a visit to Bethlehem, come and see the possibility of peace that exists in the midst of what many have called a hopeless situation.”
Bishop Abu El Assal wrote to me last Christmas, and signed off talking of a “conspiracy of love” that comes from Bethlehem.
On Christmas Day last year I started writing this song, called “Bethlehem is Calling” – Bethlehem is calling quietly through the season’s noise, whispering of a conspiracy of love and of a way of peace and calls us to listen and live out the values of the Prince of Peace to make justice, compassion and hope a reality; then the people who walk in darkness will really see a great light.
Bethlehem is Calling
Bethlehem is calling quietly through the season’s noise
Whisp’ring of a conspiracy of love
Here it comes the news of love
The birth of God’s new way of love
Breaking through the darkness bringing light
Here it comes from Bethlehem
So bow down low and start again
As a humble generous God
Stops to show us the way of love – from Bethlehem
Bethlehem is calling quietly – brings a gift of peace
Whispering of a conspiracy of love
And to a world of wars and violence
This loving call’s the one to heal us
So beat the swords to ploughshares – start again
Bethlehem is calling quietly – if you’re still you’ll hear
Whispering of a conspiracy of love
Breaking through to make you whole
A touch of love to heal the soul
The humble way of God bringing the light
Words & music by Garth Hewitt
(c) Chain of Love Music/administered by Daybreak Music Ltd,
Silverdale Road, Eastbourne, BN20 7AB
© Garth Hewitt
for permission to copy
please contact GHF