The Bishop of Portsmouth Christopher Foster writes his Christmas message about life in Bethlehem
During December many of us sing carols and perhaps go to see, or even take part in, a nativity play. Perhaps like me you have sung carols like “O Little Town of Bethlehem” – carols which evoke a peaceful Bethlehem silently awaiting the birth of Jesus.
Of course Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth was anything but peaceful. This little town was suddenly inundated with more people than it could possibly cope with, crammed full of visitors who had come to register their names as part of the census demanded by the rulers.
The night Jesus was born Bethlehem was noisy, perhaps tense, and certainly busy. And today, for very different reasons, the Bethlehem is far from peaceful.
It is a little island of Palestinian territory surrounded by Israeli territory, and the government of Israel has built a huge and ugly wall around it with checkpoints that people have to pass through to get in and out.
The soldiers even check the bodies of people who are brought in to Bethlehem to be buried. I visited Bethlehem twice this year on pilgrimage. Being surrounded by walls and seeing the suffering of the people was a sobering and claustrophobic experience.
It might seem strange that in the land of Jesus’ birth, the place where Christians believe the God of love took human form, there is such tension and suffering.
For me, though, it has a certain painful logic. Love is the greatest gift any of us can give or receive but it is also the hardest gift to give and receive.
It is rare to find someone who loves deeply who does not also know what it means to hurt. So perhaps it is appropriate that in the place where love is most deeply evident, the land of Jesus’ birth, we also find such terrible woundedness.
During these next few days, as many of us gather with friends and relatives, there will be delight in each other’s company but there will also be burdens we will carry, as we face the joy and the struggle that love brings. In the celebrations and in the moments of hurt, I wish you a holy and blessed Christmas.