Marla Schrader, one of our missionaries in the Middle East who lives in Bethlehem, awoke one late October morning to discover that she and her family were literally looking down the barrels of Israeli tanks.
Bethlehem and tanks? Whatever happened to the "little town of Bethlehem" we evoke so nostalgically at this time of the year?
Actually, the carol says it. Bethlehem, the place where Jesus enters the world, and our lives, is also the place where "the hopes and fears of all the years" meet: where the helpless infant who is to be the vulnerable vessel of our hope comes face to face with the cold, hard reality of our Advent world. It is a world in which countless poor families, refugees, wander in search of the humblest of shelters and a minimum of safety. It's a world in the thrall of militarism, nationalism, racism, materialism, a world of profound injustice, gross inequality and unimaginable poverty. "This world of sin," as the carol says.
Perhaps it is the haze of nostalgia and sentimentality, not to mention a heavy dose of contemporary materialism fueled by American prosperity, that often prevents our seeing Christmas as the time when hopes and fears do, indeed, intersect, when angels bring seemingly impossible good news to poor shepherds, and to a family that is soon to seek refuge in Egypt, a place notorious in Jewish tradition as the very symbol of captivity.
Bethlehem and Christmas, indeed, are places of seemingly imponderable contradictions, of haughty rulers and humble shepherds, of angels and tanks.
What are we waiting for during this Advent season? If we are waiting for that last acquisition that will miraculously deliver the happiness we crave and never quite grasp, we wait in vain. If we're expecting that the forced cheerfulness of canned Christmas carols and cute Santas will miraculously cast a spell over a troubled world, and our incomplete lives, our expectations will be in vain. But if we wait for the improbable, "the wondrous gift" that Christ brings, even expect it, we will find ourselves among the shepherds, celebrating God's promises and the new life that lies ahead.
On behalf of my colleagues who are the collegium of officers of the United Church of Christ, I wish you a joyful and meaningful Christmas.
Dale L. Bishop is Executive Minister of Wider Church Ministries.