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New year's eve blogpost from Stewart Gillan - Christmas by Night

Like the noir sound produced from the trumpet of Miles Davis on ‘Blue in Green’ (Kind of Blue, 1959), Christmas has been muted in Bethlehem this year. Observed in grief, with over 20,000 dead in Gaza, all festivities were cancelled for Advent and Christmastide. I’m sure you heard.

Images of the Christ child in the rubble of Gaza, Jesus in an incubator in Bethlehem Square, and a Christmas tree with a crown of thorns at its apex in place of a star or an angel, have predominated. On some trees, like ours in Scotland over the years, it is the archangel Gabriel atop the tree, his trumpet seen to be announcing to Mary news of a most surprising pregnancy and child to come. This year the sound of even his horn has come from under a shroud, and the bagpipes of the Scouts of Bethlehem have not been played.

In the words of a student at Tabeetha School, spoken during the Christmas assembly of the junior school on Friday 22 December, ‘How can you put up a tree when it is so terrible for people?’

His empathy can be seen to have begun with his classmates – Arab, Israeli and International together. Warning sirens had sounded several times in Jaffa the previous day, shaking the student body, its teachers told me, with many of the younger children crying as they were led to the school’s bomb shelter. The trauma of the war was/is being felt in every family.

And yet this is Christmas, has been Christmas, and will continue to be Christmas. Many of the Orthodox Churches will hold their observance on 6–7 January, and that of the Armenian Patriarchate will be on 18–19 January. Inshallah. God willing.

Palestinian Christians are angry, battered, and fiercely faithful to the Lord who comes to them and lives among them amid the ruins and wreckage of war. Speaking for many, the Rev Dr Munther Isaac, pastor of Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, stated in a sermon that was heard around the world, ‘Christmas is a ray of light and hope from the heart of pain and of suffering. Christmas is the radiance of life from the heart of destruction and death.’ He went on to say:

‘In Gaza, God is under the rubble. He is in the operating room. If Christ were to be born today he would be under the rubble. I invite you to see the image of Jesus in every child killed and pulled from under the rubble. In every child struggling for life in destroyed hospitals. In every child in incubators. Christmas celebrations are cancelled this year. But Christmas itself is not and will not be cancelled. For our hope cannot be cancelled.’

The nativity he built with his parishioners, showing baby Jesus in a keffiyeh on top of a pile of rubble, has been widely shared on social media, a new icon of God with us. Created in lament and hope.

Taking it one step further, it is possible to see the image of Jesus in every child that has been killed in 2023, a number that includes those killed on the West Bank and on 7 October. It is a statement that challenges us to recognise the sanctity of life of all children, the image of God in all children, equally. Their lives not to be taken, their bodies not to be marred, their futures not to be erased.  

Reviewing what I’ve written, I am put in mind of what Simeon told Mary in the Temple:

‘This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many in Israel will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too’ (Luke 2.35).

Mary found a way to carry on, heartsore and soul pierced as she was. So too did her son, when he came to it. So too did his followers, God being their helper. A what of us? I ask myself.

We continue to pray the war will be over early in the new year, the bombs and killing stopped. This in the face of official announcements that it will go on for months yet. As we enter this new year, it is worth remembering that it is Gabriel’s trumpet that sounds the Day of Judgment, his annunciation to Mary accomplished.

Alexander places Gabriel atop our tree in Glasgow last year.

It is in darkness that the light of Christ shines, that Christmas by night have a light to guide our steps.


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