Six years ago this week, on Saturday, December 2, 2017, I stood with a group of friends on the edge of a square in Bethlehem, Palestine. People from all over the world had journeyed to Bethlehem to visit the place of Christ’s birth and to witness the lighting of Palestine’s Manger Square Christmas Tree. Manger Square is located in front of the Church of the Nativity where, tradition holds, Christ was born.
The tree had been set up in the square, which also held a small set of bleachers and a performance stage. There were performances by singers and speeches by various dignitaries, including the President of the State of Palestine. Several drones circled above the crowd, and we heard that the event was being televised around the world.
We met people from many parts of the world and enjoyed watching Palestinian parents who had taken their little ones to see this special event. The performers sang Christmas carols in Arabic and in English, and the crowd joined in singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” in Arabic. Listening to hundreds of people sing that carol a few feet from the place where Christ was born gave me goosebumps.
Even though the area was crowded, people were extremely polite and friendly. The evening air in that hilly desert location was chilly, but the atmosphere was warm. Despite the presence of security guards and armed Palestinian soldiers, the air was filled with love. There also was a palpable sense of hope—especially hope for reduced tensions in the Holy Land. Above all, there was a sense of joyful expectation.
People in the square were looking forward joyfully, not only to the festivities of the tree lighting—which included fireworks and a light show as the tree lit up—but to the celebration of Christ’s birth at Christmas. Everyone was anticipating the arrival of the child whom Isaiah prophesied would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). The Manger Square Tree, for the Palestinians, stood as a symbol of peace, hope, joy, and love in a country that has known violence and hatred throughout its history.
As we waited through performances and speeches for the spectacular tree lighting ceremony, I turned around and stood in awe at the vision before me. Directly above the Church of the Nativity was an amazingly bright full moon. To me, that magnificent moon, shedding its light over Jesus’ birthplace, was an even more poignant symbol of peace, hope, joy, and love than all the artificial light that was about to illuminate Manger Square. That moon radiated Christ’s love.
Last week, a few days before the Israeli-Hamas cease fire was declared, I attended a webinar discussion with the Archbishop of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East. Archbishop Hosam Naoum reminded us that Jesus came into the world long ago at a moment of suffering. God became incarnate to bring peace and joy to that broken and suffering world. Jesus came to us to overwhelm the world with God’s love.
This year, there will be no tree lighting in Manger Square; in fact, there will be no public Christmas festivities in the Holy Land and in Jordan, where thousands of Palestinian Christians have sought refuge. This year, especially, people in the Holy land—and people everywhere—continue to wait and to hope for peace. They wait for their sorrow, their suffering, their despair to turn to joy. And they continue to wait and to hope—with all of us—for love to overwhelm the world.
Hope, peace, joy, and love are the themes of the four Sundays in Advent. Archbishop Hosam said Episcopal churches in the Holy Land will be focusing on these four themes this Advent, especially as they light the candles in their Advent wreaths. And we at St. Barnabas’ Church also will focus on these Advent themes each Sunday as we light our Advent wreath candles.
The theme for the First Sunday of Advent is HOPE. As we light the first candle in our Advent wreath, we pray that hunger, fear, poverty, and injustice will be eliminated. The candle we light is a symbol that God’s hope is coming and that God’s kingdom will reign on earth, as in heaven.
On the Second Sunday of Advent, the theme is PEACE. As we light the second candle in our wreath, we pray for war, hostilities, unrest, distrust, and hatred to end and for the Light of Christ to overwhelm the world.
JOY is the theme for the Third Sunday of Advent. On this Sunday, we light the third Advent wreath candle (along with the first two) and we pray that those who suffer from grief, sadness, loneliness, or despair will know that Christ’s joy is coming into the world and that the light of Christ will overwhelm all sadness.
On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we light all four candles of the Advent wreath and pray that Christ’s LOVE will illuminate all those who live in darkness or in the shadow of death. We pray that Christ’s love will overwhelm the world.
Finally, on Christmas Eve, we light the Christ candle, in the center of the Advent Wreath. And we pray that God will give us the courage to hope and the strength to seek peace. We pray, too, that our spirits will be filled with joy and that our hearts will be filled with love.
I pray that this Advent Season will be a season of hope, peace, joy, and love for all of God’s children everywhere, especially in the Holy Land. May the love of God that came down at Christmas fill us to overflowing so that we may share that love with our hurting and broken world. And, like that beautiful full moon over Bethlehem, may the light of Christ shine brightly in our hearts this Advent Season and always. Amen.