I am not a terribly orthodox Christian. I sometimes wonder if -- and why -- I am a Christian.
Nor I am a very orthodox secularist.
So, Christmas is hard for me. I can't buy into a literal virgin birth or actual winged hosts singing in the inky sky, all turned into blow-up dolls tethered to suburban rooftops. And I can't buy into the commercialism of ho-ho-ho-ing and credits cards a-going, all shockingly untethered from the manger around which it supposedly centers.
Yet a week from tonight, one-third of the world will, in some way, turn their eyes toward Bethlehem.
Which is why I am a Christian. Bethlehem.
In the summer I had the chance to go there. To cross behind the harsh and heavy concrete wall that barricades modern Bethlehem. To bend and enter the tiny door of the Church of the Nativity, a door made tiny to keep marauding soldiers out. To pass by the star-ringed hole in the ground that allows a glimpse down onto the stone where the young mother supposedly lay her baby. To see the soldiers in the streets, their guns different weapons than those of 2000 years ago, but their presence probably much the same: a reminder of turmoil and tumult. To shop in the stores with row upon row of carved olive wood, mangers and stars and stuff upon stuff.
After all of this, after all of this religious tourism/pilgrimage/sightseeing/wondering, our group stopped at the International Center of Bethlehem, a ministry outgrowth of the Christmas Lutheran Church.
We heard stories. Especially stories of people who feel trapped. ("We feel like animals in a zoo," one man said.) People who tell of the wall they were hired to build to hem themselves in, as others cried. The tension was touchable.
This is not to point fingers or to blame one side or the other, but to pass along the stories they told.
One of the stories was of the Second Intifada, an uprising and revolt of painfully human proportions, when guns and death found a home in the church built over the place of Jesus' birth, when our "little town of Bethlehem" was bombed for forty days, when and hurled rocks and snipers' bullets filled the air where once the angels sang.
We heard the stories. And we heard this:
After the bombing, after the people hid in their homes, after the tanks rolled away, after the children of the town learned to name the weapons by sight and learned to name the missiles by sound, after all of the this, a preacher stood up. Without a plan, but with a possibility, he sent the children of his school out into the streets with buckets.
"Pick up the broken glass," he told. "The shards and scraps of windows."
"Why," the people asked. "What will we do with buckets full of broken glass?"
He didn't know at first, I remember our storyteller telling us. Then an idea came: "We will make stained glass angels."
And from the broken glass, from the wounds of war, the children, the artists, the church- and mosque-people together made angels. Stained glass angels to hang on Christmas trees, of course, and in windows.
Then the storyteller finished her tale: "From shattered glass and shattered dreams, we created hope."
That is the story I heard. And this:
A nine-year old boy, captured in the streets by a camera, hurling a rock, his tiny face twisted in hate. His photo fronted the newspapers of both sides of the Intifada. He was a symbol of all that was wrong. But someone saw something else. Someone saw in the grace of the way his arm threw the rock the ability to do something else, be something more. And that seer said, "That boy can play the violin."
So, with some doing, it was said, a music teacher convinced the rock-throwing boy to put down his stones and pick up a violin. He entered the church-birthed school, and he played, he learned, he changed. That little boy is now a classical musician who travels the world speaking of unlearning war by learning music.
And that is why I am a Christian: justice, reconciliation, and love.
Moses and the Exodus, the people finding a new way out. Isaiah and the peaceable kingdom, lamb lying down with the lion. Jesus, and love your neighbor.
And this is what a Christian does: Plays the violin, makes music, crafts art, creates beauty while others throw rocks.
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