Embracing the ‘Spirit’ in Bethlehem

I was never the most spirited person when it came to Christmas. Come New Years, Passover, Mother’s Day, Halloween, literally any other holiday, I’ll be making plans, creating surprises, planning parties and decorations. But during the Christmas season, I am the family’s Grinch. I never understood why the acclaimed “Christmas Spirit” – the niceness, kindness, care for others – should be only expressed during this particular time of the year.

Back when I lived with my parents, I enjoyed the Christmas dinner because we had such good food – my great aunts would get together and cook every favourite dessert for their 16 great nephews and nieces. It is impossible to not love that dinner.

In August I started an MCC assignment based in Bethlehem, Palestine. You can imagine how ironic it felt when I finally rented an apartment in the place that arguably most represents Christmas. When I was moving in, I realized that at the beginning of my street there were some Christmas decorations and I rolled my eyes at it. I truly believed that God enjoyed a good old chuckle at my expense in that moment.

However, in the months that followed, I couldn’t focus so much on the relationship between Bethlehem and Christmas. This past year brought a lot of changes to my life. Moving to Palestine meant dealing with an international move, trying to understand cultural differences, learning new languages, figuring out a new job and context, making new friends and discovering new tastes and colours. Oh and all this while developing a self-care plan. I didn’t have time to stop and think about what Bethlehem represents.

Another reason why I was not thinking about the holidays, was the realization that this region – Palestine and Israel – as beautiful as it is, is so restless, always on the verge of war. There is so much suffering, so many walls and barriers between the people, that honestly, I sometimes forget that it is the “Holy Land.” The first months here felt like anything but that. I felt powerless and asked God many difficult questions. I was struck with the reality and complexity of the conflict in such a way that it seemed unreal to me to think that this is where Jesus was born, where he walked, preached, and gave His life so we could have salvation. I believe this land needs salvation – in many different ways. Amidst all of that, I barely had time to breathe properly or to notice that the months were passing me by.

On a chilly Friday afternoon in November, I was returning from Aida Camp, desperately looking for an open coffee shop, when I suddenly saw some workers decorating Manger Square in the heart of Bethlehem for Christmas. I thought to myself “Not this again.” It was the last Friday of November, and later that day a very excited friend informed me that the lightning of the Christmas tree would be the next day. In that moment I decided to not go anywhere near the Church of the Nativity or the Christmas tree until this was all over.

I realized soon that I was naïve to think that I could avoid Christmas in Bethlehem – it is all around. All of my friends wanted to go see the lights, see the church, visit the Christmas market, and despite my best efforts to avoid all of that, my curiosity got the best of me. When I left my house, with my best Grinch face on, I was sure that there isn’t such a thing as a Christmas Spirit, not even where Jesus was born.

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As I walked to the Church of the Nativity, trying not get run over by cars on my way, I noticed the stars on ‘Star Street’. My little grinchy heart started to soften. Bethlehem is a beautiful city, and truth be told, it looks even more fantastic with the lights all around. The lights made me happy. I kept walking, mulling over my new-found love for Christmas lights, until I finally reached the church and saw the gigantic golden Christmas tree in the square in front of me.

In that moment, my heart calmed down. I did not feel an increased urge to help others, I did not feel overwhelmed by joy, or the necessity to sing any Christmas songs. However, in that moment, while I stood with so many people from many diverse backgrounds, where He was born, after 2000 years, I felt in peace. I felt as if He was right there taking care of my anxious heart. My heart, which missed home and family, felt powerless and restless, and on most days does not know where it belongs. The beating of it slowed down, and I was struck by a ferocious sense of gratitude.

1030db4e-9751-43ac-bbec-944a54891755And there, in front of that enormous tree, around the red and green lights, surrounded by mostly tourists, God took a little bit of my stubbornness away and I remembered once again what we celebrate in this time of the year. Yes, we can celebrate and live it more often, but I finally stopped and thought about the world-changing impact that the birth of that baby had in this world and in my life. Still broken, fallen and failed, but now, because of that birth that happened in this small little town, we received salvation. Then I felt the Spirit, not the Christmas one, but the Holy one.

The author’s name is omitted at their request.

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