Monday, January 9, 2012

Christmas in the Land where it all began

I realize that this is a little after the fact but I wanted to have the whole experience before I set my thoughts down in writing.  Christmas in the Land of the Holy One was very interesting.  And as always, there are stories -

There is no Christmas fever here. No stores or malls blaring Christmas music. But every so often, from somewhere, I hear very quietly, Hark the Herald Angels Sing or O Silent Night or ( I love it in Arabic) Jingle Bells.  And every service of Lessons and Carols is exuberant.
For Christmas Eve, this year, I have been asked to sing. Not in a choir, as there are not enough of us, but in a quartet.  And I said yes, mainly because I was needed and also because when I was a little girl I sang in a choir. And even if I didn’t sing very well, whatever the sound that came out of my mouth, it came out with joy. And so this Christmas once again, I will be making a joyful noise to the Lord.

The days before Christmas are full of institution parties and I have been so blessed as to be invited to go with the Bishop to a number of them.  We went to St. Luke’s Hospital, Nablus for their annual Christmas Lunch. You have to imagine this – a relativity small type parish hall, packed with tables and plastic chairs. And the tables are set (I kid you not) with multi-coloured paper cups that say ‘Over the Hill’. (I think there may have been a miscommunication here or a sale on party ware.)
Everyone is there – the Governor of Nablus, the Mayor, the Police Chief, a lawyer with the P.L.O. and everyone must thank everyone else and it is beginning to get quite warm. And then the food comes out – first the salads then the chicken and rice. And then the desert! The Knafeh! It is hard to explain but it is rich and cheesy and sweet with honey. Nablus is famous for its Knafeh.

We finish up about 4ish and our next stop is Nazareth.  We get stopped at a check point and we must all get out of the car and go through the scanner (like the airport) even though the Bishop is dressed in his full purple robes but such is life here.

Once through, we go to a lovely large hall where Christ Church School is having their Christmas do. Oh my, goodness, they started bringing out the food, and I thought they would never stop – 16 salads – I started to write them down - hummus, tahini, eggplant, corn, carrots, Turkish Salad, Fatah salad, fried cheese, sausages, mushrooms, deep fried chicken pieces, tabouli, kabob, meatballs, more cheese, cucumbers/lemon/carrots/cheese (again) and pita bread – I may have missed something as they were literally piling plates on top of plates because there was no room on the table. And THEN they brought out the main meal – chicken and potatoes and grilled vegetables. At that point I was done in and said no to the main course. We didn’t stay long enough for desert – thank goodness – even my stretchy pants have a limit.

They also had a standup comic for the evening’s entertainment. I have absolutely no idea what she said but whatever it was, it was hysterical. Everyone was laughing so hard that it was just infectious and I laughed as if I actually knew what was going on. It was a wonderful day and evening.

The Friday before Christmas Eve, I was asked to take photos at St. George’s School across the street – I have become the resident photographer (my new camera gives the impression I actually know what I am doing). So off I go to St. George’s, which is a Christian school with more Muslims than Christians in it, and I see all these children in Santa hats singing Christmas carols. I totally had a moment. And when Santa arrived in his SUV, they all went wild. It was awesome.
The schedule for Christmas Eve begins in the afternoon with a service of Lessons and Carols in the Shepherd’s Fields in Beit Sahour.  We gathered just outside a cave and had music and singing and lessons. Then when it was over, we were invited in to the cave for a meal of lamb that had been cooked in the ovens of the cave while we were worshipping. We were told that this had been a tradition from long ago and, for whatever reason, had stopped 55 years ago but it was being reinstated this night. The lamb was fabulous; it just melted in my mouth. So here I am in a shepherd’s cave, with Bethlehem in view, on a slightly cloudy night. But I did see a star and it was beautiful.

Driving home all the decorations were out in Bethlehem and it was beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

When we arrived back at the Cathedral, we went over the final details for our return to Bethlehem for the Lessons and Carols service in the Church of the Nativity. There are three buses going (about 150 people) and I have been asked to be ‘Captain’ of one of them. People are already beginning to arrive and it is also just beginning to drizzle.

At about 7:30pm we leave for the Church of the Nativity. We drive in convoy, through the Wall checkpoint, with the Bishop at the lead with police escort. By the time we get to Nativity Square  (we had to walk a bit since the buses couldn’t get right up there and the security was thick), the rain  is pouring  down, and it is windy and really cold.  And all the umbrellas are turning inside out and not being of any help what so ever!

So here we are, all soaking wet and trying to 'enjoy' the adventure (we all agreed we would not want to be pregnant and on a donkey) and really making the best of it when we finally, after almost an hour of waiting in the rain, with hundreds of people trying to push their way into our group, get into the church. One at a time, we go through the little entrance door (built back in the day so horses with riders couldn’t gallop into the sanctuary), and then as Security is important, we each get scanned, our bags searched and cameras checked.  We then passed through the nave to a side staircase, which goes up to an open courtyard, to wait once again, in the rain, to get into the Greek Orthodox chapel where we are having our service. However, I was bringing up the last group when they shut the doors (no room at the inn) because President Abbas was inside with his entourage.

At that point an elderly  fellow comes over to me and just lets me have it. He was so angry at me. He went on to say that “This was the worst thing ever, and if I organized it, I did a piss poor job”, etc, etc. I was so shocked. First, because I am not good with people yelling in my face; second, because it wasn’t like this had only happened to him; and third, it was Christmas Eve, for heaven’s sake!  I swear I almost laughed, seriously, like I can control the weather? And then I was told the entourage was leaving the chapel and I needed to move everyone to the side. And this guy won't move. He says, ‘Why should I move? Who’s coming out, the bloody queen of England?’ So I said, ‘No, the president.’ And he says, ‘The president of what?’ And I'm like - The President of Palestine! That sort of stopped him in his tracks. 

Anyway, we finally did get in to the chapel and I have been praying for that dear old soul ever since. But the service was lovely - all of us so thankful to be in out of the weather and singing carols and listening to the Christmas readings, right there where it all began.

And because God is Good, and to remind me what it is really truly all about, and to make the evening truly blessed, as we passed through the horrid wall on our way home, the young Israeli guard wished me Merry Christmas. As you can imagine, I welled up and thought: This is where I see the hope. And oddly enough, the only other person to say Merry Christmas to me (other than in the church) was a Muslim shop keeper in Nablus. Aaah, Peace and Goodwill to all. I like it!

And Christmas Eve Midnight Mass was lovely. All of us wet but happy. And our singing – well,  our practicing paid off and we sang the Hodie Christus Natus Est, a gregorian chant, and Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus, and in the end our singing was beautiful.

In keeping with tradition, after church we had hot chocolate which was very welcome. Then I took the 1:45am sharoot to the airport, caught the 5:30am flight to Montreal (via Zurich) and landed home at 3:15pm Christmas Day. A few hours later Catherine came in from Los Angeles and the surprise was wonderful.  How blessed am I to have my son and daughter with me.  And then my brother turned up from Dubai and my mother and father were just overjoyed. We all agreed it was the best Christmas ever.


To end on a reflective note:

It was pointed out to me the other day, that in the time when Jesus was born, the world was in a most distressing way. Babies were being killed in Egypt; families were being removed from their homes and moved about for a census taking. The people were living in an occupied land. It was rather hopeless and the people lived in darkness.  I am not sure things have changed very much.
Going to Bethlehem for the Lessons & Carols Services, we have to drive through the Separation Wall, and every time I see it I feel sick inside.  Once passed, we drive through Beit Jala on the way there and Beit Sahour on the way back. Two predominately Christian villages all dressed up in Christmas lights and beautiful decorations. Yet they are on the list to have large areas of their villages taken away so as to expand the nearby settlements.
And I look at these settlements and I think how sad it must be to live in little box houses, huddled in fear and paranoia. There is no personality, not one flash of blue or yellow to mark an individual. And so they have become as faceless to us on this side of the wall as we are to them on that.

It does seem hopeless at times, yet just like long ago, hope is here. Hope was born here.  I am thankful to all who are reading this – for your prayers, support, friendship and love.  My hope is that we can all have a joyous and peace-filled New Year.

Best wishes and blessings from Jerusalem.