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Jesus in the Rubble: Christmas Canceled in Bethlehem

ColumnDecember 28, 2023
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By Amy Goodman & Denis Moynihan

Christmas was canceled in Bethlehem, the occupied West Bank city where historians and Christians alike believe Jesus was born. Mayor Hanna Hanania proclaimed, “For the first time, the Christmas tree will not be placed in Bethlehem, the streets of Bethlehem will not be lit.” Religious leaders agreed, limiting their Christmas observances. The Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem said in a statement,

“We must remember that during the first Christmas, the situation was not far removed from that of today…There was the killing of children. There was military occupation. And there was the Holy Family becoming displaced as refugees.”

They were referencing the biblical account of Jesus’ birth, when a ruthless King Herod, fearful of the birth of a prophesied king, ordered all newborn boys in Bethlehem killed, and how Mary and Joseph fled with their newborn son to Egypt.

In the nave of Bethlehem’s landmark Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, a Nativity scene was constructed, with the baby Jesus wrapped in a traditional Palestinian keffiyeh scarf, resting on a pile of rubble. The church called its Christmas service, “Jesus in the Rubble: A Liturgy of Lament.” Rev. Munther Issac, the church’s pastor, opened his sermon,

“We are angry. We are broken. This should have been a time of joy; instead, we are mourning. We are fearful.

More than 20,000 killed. Thousands are still under the rubble. Close to 9,000 children killed in the most brutal ways, day after day, 1.9 million displaced. Hundreds of thousands of homes destroyed. Gaza as we know it no longer exists. This is an annihilation. This is a genocide.”

Rev. Issac explained the dramatic crèche speaking on the Democracy Now! news hour on the day after Christmas,:

“We created this nativity scene earlier this month, in the beginning of the Advent season, from rubble, bricks that resemble…a house that was bombed. On top of it, surrounded by bricks, we had baby Jesus. The characters usually in the manger, the shepherds and the Magis, are all outside, surrounding the rubble, watching in as if they’re looking for any sign of life, looking for Jesus. We’re sending a message that Jesus is under the rubble.

This is what Christmas looks like in Palestine today,” Munther Isaac said. “Jesus as a baby who survived a massacre, Jesus as a baby who became a refugee with his family to Egypt, identifies with us in our suffering. He was born with the marginalized.”

Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has transformed into rubble one of the most densely populated urban centers on earth, home to 2.3 million Palestinians. Buried beneath that rubble are an unknown number of civilians, including children, many killed by US-made and paid for bombs, many delivered by US-made and paid for jets.

In his remarkable Christmas sermon, Rev. Issac said, critiquing the United States, “They send us bombs, while celebrating Christmas in their lands. They sing about the prince of peace in their land, while playing the drum of war in our land.”

Israel’s ground troops also kill with impunity. Reports of summary executions of Palestinians rounded up in Gaza have surfaced. On December 16th, an Israeli sniper killed an elderly woman at the Holy Family Parish, a Catholic church in Gaza, then killed her adult daughter as she tried to rescue her mother. Pope Francis called the killing “terrorism.”

The death toll in Gaza has surpassed 21,000 people, with over 55,000 injured. Virtually no emergency medical care is available, as Israel attacks hospitals, in blatant violation of international law and the laws of war. As the assault progresses through its third month, unreserved support for Israel’s actions is waning. The United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for a ceasefire, but the US, with its permanent veto power, has blocked a similar call from the Security Council. Citizen action is also increasing, with massive protests across the world.

In Israel, the anti-occupation, anti-war movement, long embattled, is growing. This week, an 18-year-old Israeli, Tal Mitnick, was sentenced to 30 days in prison for refusing military service. “I am refusing to enlist,” Mitnick said. “I believe that slaughter cannot solve slaughter. The criminal attack on Gaza won’t solve the atrocious slaughter that Hamas executed. Violence won’t solve violence. And that is why I refuse.”

From Israeli refuseniks and Jewish protesters to courageous Christian pastors and congregations, to interfaith coalitions in the US and beyond, all joining in solidarity with Muslims around the world, the chorus demanding a ceasefire is growing. As the Christmas season transitions into the New Year–an election year in the US – the question is, will the leaders follow?

Related Story

StoryFeb 12, 2024Bishop William Barber on the “Moral Case for a Ceasefire” in Gaza
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