The context where the first Christmas occurred is deeply inviting, thoroughly inspiring, and ultimately transforming. This is also the context where I was born and raised. In the Middle East, Christmas is celebrated three times annually: 25 December according to the Gregorian calendar, 7 January according to the Julian calendar, and 18 January for Armenian Orthodox in the Holy Land. If you are acquainted with the Western idea of “The Twelve days of Christmas,” we beat that in the Middle East and savor a whole month of Christmas celebrations, reflecting the various expressions of Christianity. In this blog, allow me to take you on a journey and share with you some of the theological reflections I have been pondering this season concerning the different geographic locations of the Nativity.
In Nazareth, a town of Galilee, a young Middle Eastern girl said “yes” when the angel Gabriel announced to her that she would become the mother of our Lord. Indeed, “something good came out of Nazareth”! Words of faith, without a shadow of doubt, from the one and only woman ever who conceived her Son through the power of Holy Spirit, not by the will of man. Mary’s obedience speaks to me about responding to God’s calling in unexpected circumstances. Her narrative helps me understand how God calls both women and men to fulfil His purposes. Over the years, Mary’s “Magnificat” has continued to resonate, with its themes of responding to the Lord’s call and of God strengthening the poor and the weak.
Naturally – or supernaturally, should I say? – nine months following this Annunciation scene, we find ourselves in the shepherds’ field where the message of the birth of Christ was first announced to humble but vigilant shepherds. Stunned by a great light and watching over their sheep in the nearby vicinity, ordinary humans were endowed with the message of the Good News. This geographical area, known as Beit Sahour or House of Watching, located 3 km south of Bethlehem, has taken its name from the vigilance of its shepherds two millennia ago.
The shepherds received a sign from heaven and were awed by a baby. All babies bring a sense of awe, but this baby was different: He was God Incarnate. I admit I still can’t quite comprehend it. We have to see the Christmas story through the eyes of faith. This baby born in Bethlehem was going to be the Good Shepherd who knows His sheep and calls them by name (John 10:3,14).
In the “fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4), God Almighty, the Lord, became human and was born in Bethlehem, which means “House of Bread.” Most certainly, He is the Living Bread who came down from Heaven (John 6:51). It is Him we should hunger and thirst for. He became human and identifies with us in our sufferings, which take on many shapes. In our world today, the poor are becoming poorer and the rich, richer; the weak are becoming weaker and the powerful more powerful. Consider, for example, Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, and how devastating it is at so many levels including its ripple effects in our own region. But Jesus offers a different paradigm. He became poor to enrich us, and he “lifts the weak,” to borrow from the Magnificat. He offers hope, particularly as we consider the agony and darkness in the world.
If we travel further towards the East, we can begin to imagine the wise men coming to Bethlehem, following the Star. Some speculate they may have come from Persia, modern day Iran. I wouldn’t be surprised. The three gifts they brought are a representation of who Christ is, his very identity and a forecast of who he will be. Frankincense for his royal priesthood, myrrh for his sacrificial suffering, and gold for his eternal kingdom.
And so, we arrive again at Bethlehem. As we are awestruck by the breathtaking historicity of the place, Matta El Meskeen, a modern Desert Father, writes: “If the Garden of Eden was the birthplace in ancient times of Adam, our first forefather, then Bethlehem is worthy to be the new Garden of Eden.” However, Bethlehem today is not idyllic. I must not hide the fact that I get discouraged as I consider the multitude of injustices and disheartening realities on the ground, the limited freedom we live with as those who struggle. But I do have hope that Christ’s birth reminds us we can shine in a dark place because the darkness cannot comprehend the power of Christ’s light. I have hope because Christ lived among us, and because Christ lives in me. As my dear friend, scholar Moyra Dale, put it as she was battling stage IV lung cancer, “Hope is living teleologically, knowing that the end of the story, God’s story throughout time, is good, and that flows back into our living and confidence now.”
Beyond the Nativity itself, Christ, over his lifetime, also went on to leave his footprints in different locations beyond ancient Israel: “Out of Egypt” he was called, and he was known on the shores of Sidon and Tyre as a miracle maker…perhaps a small taste and foreshadowing of his name being carried to the whole earth in generations to come. How marvelous indeed!
I hope that this Christmas compass I have painted above, covering Nazareth, Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, Persia, Egypt, and Lebanon, encourages the reader to “come and see.” The geography of the “Holy Land” and even the broader Middle East reveal fresh insights for us. They challenge us to think deeper, more richly of the developments taking place in the wider region. If Christ has walked in our land, and lived in our midst, then where is the power of Christ in us? How is it manifested this Christmas? The life of Christ opens our eyes to realities that we must never overlook. It propels us to be serious about our mission and calling.
Allow me to offer another concluding wise insight by Father Matta El Meskeen. He says, “If a man stops feeling the warmth of God’s glory that Christ granted him, he may be sure that he has left the sphere of His presence.”
I must stop here and ask myself whether there is anything that hinders me from feeling the warmth of God’s glory. Anything…Let it sink in for a moment. This in fact will be my New Year’s resolution, to never drift from “the warmth of God’s glory.” It is not theoretical or abstract, it is living a life that is honoring to the Lord in every way. In this light, I would encourage you to think of your own New Year’s resolution, wherever your geographical location may be. Perhaps it will also be something along the lines that you will know the Lord is near, Emmanuel, God with us, and never “leave the sphere of His presence.”
Happy and blessed new year to you and your family.
Grace Al-Zoughbi is from Bethlehem. She loves theology and never stops to be awed by the baby of Bethlehem, the Savior of the world.