Observing Christmas in Solidarity with Christians in the Holy Land

| 12/16/2023

By: Our Sunday Visitor

“We must pray for peace. May Almighty God see fit to swiftly end this conflict”

A Christian pilgrim lights a candle on December 17, 2016, in the grotto of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank.
A Christian pilgrim lights a candle on December 17, 2016, in the grotto of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank. (OSV News photo/Debbie Hill)

As in all too many Christmases past, sobriety blankets the city of Bethlehem, where Christ’s birth is jubilantly celebrated each year, the joyous preparations that typically mark the approach of the feast of the Nativity have taken on a different hue. The Israel-Hamas war has cast a shadow of sadness and pain on the small city, halting the usual festivities and inflicting further suffering on innocent lives.

While as of this writing, Bethlehem hasn’t yet seen fighting, the Christian community there has been severely affected by the war. Residents depend on tourists and pilgrims to sustain the local economy. Because of the war, Bethlehem’s typically bustling streets — in recent years hosting more than 150,000 visitors during the Advent and Christmas seasons — are quiet.

— A sober observance

The Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem issued a powerful statement on Nov. 10, calling for Christians to observe this year’s Christmas feast soberly. “We, the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem, call upon our congregations to stand strong with those facing such afflictions by this year foregoing any unnecessarily festive activities,” they wrote.

In times like these, when the weight of loss, displacement, and economic hardship bears down heavily, the call to stand in support of those afflicted reverberates deeply. It’s a call not just to observe but to engage in advocating, praying, and generously contributing to alleviate the suffering of the victims of war.

Their plea for solidarity and a return to the essence of Christmas urges us, too, amid the grim realities of conflict, to forgo extravagant celebrations and instead focus on the spiritual significance of this holy season. It captures something of that first Christmas in Bethlehem. After a long journey, Mary and Joseph witnessed the birth of Jesus Christ among the animals, without even a room in an inn. Jesus, in his Incarnation, took on our humanity in its trials and tribulations, offering solace and hope. Similarly, this call by the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches encourages us to stand shoulder to shoulder with our suffering brethren, mirroring Christ’s compassion and solidarity.

— Prayer, support and sacrifice

First, we must pray for peace. May Almighty God see fit to swiftly end this conflict. We must pray for our fellow Christians, for the protection of innocent life, and for an end to fighting.

We must not only pray, however. We must channel the spirit of giving by extending our support. We must support those families who choose to remain the stewards of these sacred places. We should support them by purchasing rosaries and crucifixes and Nativities from their woodshops (often offered in many parishes here in the United States during Advent). We should donate to the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land and the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem to contribute to the upkeep of the irreplaceable shrines in their care and to support their humanitarian work.

Finally, we should offer small fasts or make other choices to go without this year to express our solidarity with those who lack basic needs. Christians suffer not only in Bethlehem but in Gaza, where urgent humanitarian needs abound. The Council of the Heads of Churches in Jordan has canceled all Christmas festivities this year out of respect for those who have died in the recent fighting. Celebrations will be restricted to liturgies and quiet gatherings.

The significance of standing in solidarity is illuminated by the hope it offers. It embodies the vision of a New Jerusalem, not only as a physical place but as a state of being — a realm where suffering is alleviated and peace reigns supreme.

As we prepare our own Christmas celebrations, let us heed this call for a profound shift in focus. Let us turn our gaze toward empathy, prayer, and tangible support for our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land.

May this Christmas be a testament to our collective commitment to walk alongside those in need, just as Christ walked among us. Let our actions reflect the true message of Christmas — a message of love, compassion, and unwavering solidarity with the afflicted. This Christmas, may healing flourish in the land where the Prince of Peace was born.

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Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board: Father Patrick Briscoe, O.P., Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott P. Richert, York Young

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