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It was not an especially pretty world, the world into which Jesus was born. The Palestine of Jesus’ day was a world of grinding poverty for the masses, hard labor for a daily pittance, wealthy tax collectors who made their fortunes by extorting money from the impoverished, and brutal military occupiers whose preferred method of crowd control was crucifixion for all those who dared to rise up and resist the occupation. Nor was the town of Jesus ’ birth an especially peaceful place, and hardly the idyllic Bethlehem of our beloved Christmas carol, lying “still” under the “silent stars” in “deep and dreamless sleep.” The Bethlehem into which Jesus was born was one which was soon to know the terrifying clank of military steel, the blood-curdling shrieks of terrified children ruthlessly slashed to death by Roman soldiers “just doing their job,” and the heart-rending cries of anguished mothers inconsolable over the brutal massacre of their innocent infants.
Two thousand years later the picture looks strangely similar. The Palestine of Christmas 2000 is a world of massive unemployment and growing poverty. And the Bethlehem of Christmas 2000, with its sister cities Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, knows only too well the terrifying sounds and scenes of war: the menacing drone of helicopter gunships, operated by soldiers “just doing their duty” and raining down death and destruction from the skies; the rapid-fire report of machine guns aiming live ammunition at live human beings in deadly confrontations on the ground; the heavy and horrifying boom of tanks which send shells smashing through the stone walls of ordinary houses, fill children’s beds with glass shards, and turn defenseless civilians into refugees without a home; the screaming of Palestinian children, too frightened to go to bed; and the voiced and unvoiced anguish of Palestinian parents, incapable of protecting their little ones from the ongoing terror and the ever-growing destruction all around them.
This is the world and this is the hometown of Jesus Emmanuel, “God with us.” When God comes to be with God’s people, it is not to an idyllic, fairy-tale world of beauty and peace and “dreamless sleep.” There would in fact be no need for “God with us” in that “never never” world. The world that Jesus Emmanuel comes to is rather the real world that all of us know somewhere, somehow, at some time: the world of poverty, extortion, callous cruelty, unrelenting terror, and inconsolable grief. It is this world, and none other, into which God comes to be with us in the person of Jesus, the defenseless child and the crucified Messiah. The God who comes to be “with us” in Jesus, born in Bethlehem, is a God who walks our streets, experiences our daily struggles, shares our pain, weeps our tears, suffers our humiliations, and dies the most agonizing of human deaths at the hands of his enemies. This is our God, the one who “comforts those who mourn,” claims “peacemakers” as “children of God,” and grants inheritance in the kingdom of heaven to those who “hunger and thirst for justice.” This is Jesus Emmanuel, God with us. And this is the “good news of the kingdom." Thanks be to God.