Christmas in the Holy Land: an essay
An Israeli Christmas Fable but all True
I write this because I want to share with you how really unique we have been in our blessings in Israel, at Christmas time, and how that uniquenesss has something to say to us here and which I believe many of you already experience in your own personal and community lives. I don't ever want to forget it. To set this jewel off in its setting, I will point out that Christ's entry point into this world was also unique as it had to be in order to come amongst us at all - He had to become some one at some time to become the human he became, but it was such a deep descent, that it reached all the way to the center, and thus to all men for all time - from the Son of God, to a Jew, to Adam again, and back home again to the Father!
It is Christmas but we call it Feast of the Nativity, and feast it always was. Shouldn't every festival have a feast within it? For me, the feast began with in our red Volkswagen Van through the neighborhoods of West Jerusalem, with stops along the Old City wall picking up our filipinas with the food they had prepared, some just let out by their employers - their "Old Ladies" or the sick who employed them in their homes or institutions, and so the ride home to our house, was incredibly filled by laughing, giggling women and smells of delicious, that's the only way to describe it, mingled delicious. Once in such trip, with Exie driving by Jaffa Gate and me beside her in the passenger seat, a police car stopped beside my window looked up and into the back stuffed with bodies, and called out to us incredulously, with appropriately opened upturned palm hand gesture, "Mah zeh?" What's this?.. Exie yelled back, "a Kibbutz". He pulled away, shaking his head, but smiling.
We would arrive at my home about 7:00PM usually seeing other people coming to our gate about to ascend our steps. We lived in Pisgat Ze'ev, which means "High place of the Wolves" We were in Wolf country, that is, in the biblical tribe of Benjamin, just north of Jerusalem, south of the tribe of Ephraim. Benjamin is likened in Genesis to a "ravenous wolf". My "circumcision name" is Benyumin", that is, Benjamin (son of Jacob). and just over the hill to our house, overlooking the desert going down to the Dead Sea, is the remains of King Saul's palace, the capital of Old Israel, before David captured Jebus from the Jebusites, and made it Jerusalem, the Eternal. Next to the palace of King Saul, is the unfinished shell of King Hussain of Jordan's summer palace, unfinished because of the result of the 6 Day War in 1967 (Jordanians out, Israel in), but the King flew over it to have a look-see, him personally at the controls, when peace came finally between Israel and Jordan.
Next, we went up the stairs, and there in the living room, extended from the dining room was our dining table with both center leaves put in, which happened at only two times of the year, Christmas and Passover, and having been prepared by Tess, and her Husband Mike (Maher), and now being taken out of the oven by my wife Exie a huge turkey to be joined by what the filipinas had brought in from the van, was a table food of delicious in profund variety - the Turkey, as I said, ham, sometimes gefilte fish, "maklube" by Tess (meaning in Arabic over turned and upside down spiced rice with chicken and potatoes), humus (humus), taboule, beitinjoon (egg plant salad), tehina (sesame seed paste), Lamb shish kebab, Lamb shishlik (both the latter grilled by Mike on the spot so that once tasted you can only say "btaakul ideik", so Mike, which means "You will eat your hand, so good!", lamb chops (usually grilled by Jonathan), lumpia - regular and sariwa, egg roll, Koobe, pansit, salads of all sorts, sodas, apple pie and others of all sorts plus "Kake"s of all nationalities - strudels included, coffee, which I would make pot after pot, red wine, a little shnapps (only for the health and because it was a cold night) and egg nog and nuts all over the place. But all this was only smell, don't touch,at this time, because now would be begin, the next phase.
Gathering in the living room, which was large, but not that large, but with no second floor but a high slanted ceiling ending in an overlook balcony peopled with kids, with a ceiling fan on wafting the odors from below to all parts of the house, were our guests, which explains the "smorgesbord" of our dinner table, usually 30 - 50 of them, Philippinos from Church, Jewish Israelis, Arabs from work and from our friends, both Israelis from Israel and Muslim Palestinians from the west bank co- workers of Mike, the friends of our children, when they were kids, when they were teens (same ones), when they were in the Israeli Defense Forces (also the same ones), when they were out of the army (same ones again). for example, and only one example - Kfir, when about 4 or 5, the cause of my gritted teeth who used to every time without fail, sit at the edge of our waterless pool (7 by 5 feet) which held just enough water to hatch mosquitoes that the neighbors never figured out where they were coming from, and which I emptied from time to time with a plastic tubing by sucking, and next to which once Rosalinda Peria de Santos, Ambassador to Israel from the Philippines sat at a meeting, this Kfir would roll small boulders I had set around the edge for beauty into the pool and I had to take out. Time and Time Again. But now a paratrooper in the Israeli Army!
Gathering in the living room, Tess would come first to play on the guitar the familiar Christmas carols, almost always around that time, the Israeli army, in the form of a) my children who were sometimes released on Christian holidays by the Army their being Christian, and their sometimes being released on Jewish holidays their being Schlossbergs, and sometimes being released on both Jewish and Christian holidays by different officers not knowing, their being Jewish and Christian, and sometines being not released on either Jewish or Christian holidays having to fill in on these holidays for their army buddies of the opposite religion so that these could celebrate these holidays that my children were considered sometimes alternately, sometimes simultaneously, not of, and, b) the friends of our children, in the successive stages of their military service, Kfir, Guy, Matan, Jesse, Shiran, David, Sivan, Yiftach, Avi, Avri, etc. etc. Thus, the Israeli army would at first gather in the back, but then make their ways to the center and around the sides, and on the floor, sitting, standing with all the rest, and then, one of my best memories, join in the singing of our Christmas Carols. There is nothing more enchanting and devastating than to hear the Israeli army sing (from the song sheets) Little Town in Bethlehem, and Silent Night in English and Ang Pasko ay Sumapit (Christmas has come) in Tagalog in deep rich Hebrew accented Off-Tune. Never underestimate the power of beauty mixed with goodness to attract and inject the Christ who loves us. Long before I became a believer in Jesus, and long afterward, I would hear Christian Christmas carols and wonder and feel new and hopeful, being drawn. This from a person, some of you will be surprised to learn, that had requested, at 19 years of age, of Pastor Stanley Topple of the Clarendon Road Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in Brooklyn if he would baptise him on condition that he not be a Christian! He did, and as I always say, it took!
And then the reason for it all time came, I vested in a stole, that's all, but that was enough, while they brought out the table with white cloth, two candles, to be lit, and the silence began to be heard. The bread, the wine. The chalice. The Holy Gospel in big, red binding, from the Church of the Risen Savior, the reading of the Gospel of Luke, the angels, the shepherds, Unto you is born, this day in the city of David, and the believers, believing in their eyes, and the Israelis, and Muslims, like the donkey, sheep, and camels in the creche all face the Christ child in the manger looking, fixated, and hearing the Divine words that bring salvation, is born unto you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord, then suddenly.., the 5 minute sermon telling of how and why the Son of God had come, the believers the first around the light of the Gospel, then the not yet believers that chose to remain in the warmth of the stable. In those close quarters and around the Gospel, there were no non believers, only believers and the not yet believers. Always, that is what I felt. Those were some of my finest moments. Then the getting to ones feet, the lining up, one by one, to take the Body and Blood, All this was holy to us, and to the not yet believers, without exception all refraining from the communion, as is wont, to them, all this was new, deserving of respect and viewed with awe, and I believe, a source of hope and possibility. Whoever will, let him come. Then the closing Aaronic blessiing in Hebrew, and always in deference to me, my choice, as I pick up my accordion to set the tune and the tempo with Tess on guitar and the accompanying hand-clapping and stamping of feet, as is heard in the wild but not at church, Ang Pasko ay Sumapit, a Philippino Carol in march time, like John Phillip Souza did it, and in minor telling the coming of Christ. G minor: D, Eb,D, Db,D. G,D, G7: G,G,Ab,G,F,D, C minor: C,Eb...
But, just like having the telling of this almost at the end of all the other paragraphs, behind the scenes, throughout it all, without she herself eating but preparing for the others, not having the time and having no leisure, like a butterfly bringing pollen and sweet smell, from one flower to the next, was my wife Exie, talking, really talking and listening, really listening to the lonely, the alone, the overbearing, the unlikely, bringing Christ in words and smiles, and warmth, and then in dancing with them, pulling them up, sometimes the men, usually woman to women, filipinas for heart breaking years without their children and husband, working in a foreign land, in the midst of a foreign people, but now exchanging smiles for the silent tears, and heartbreaking aloneness. How much more painful is pain sometimes in the presence of exquisite happiness. But how good it is to see the sob stifled and the tear wiped away as the involuntary smile and laughter pushes them aside. How much victory there is in, yes, in the disregarding of pain and entering into joy now, at least for the while. Jesus, Exie's and ours was there, then, with Exie, Jesus and Exie for them all. Not many people knew it but Exie is a Deaconess of the Church.
And the giving of presents, from under the Christmas tree, each one picked specially for a certain person, how the person who wasn't on the list because he or she had enough courage or desire or opportunity to come only at the last minute, actually got a gift that was so unmistakely made for him or her just because someone felt that he or she might just come after all. How thankfulness and relief can breakthrough on just anybody in such circumstance. How important the giving, So often with no children to give to in Israel, no family to give to in Israel, then to give to each other in stead of, in place of, But that is how it always was, why a sick and elderly Israeli became their grandfather or grandmother they had left in the Philippines whom they could no longer serve but still loved. And why one of our filipinas, at the death of her Israeli Old Man, her sick employer, was given part of his inheritance, just as if she were a daughter. Why remembering birthdays was so important. To be remembered. And the Karioki, the singing together of popular songs or Christian songs in English or Tagalog where you watch the changing words on the Television in front of beautiful scenes, and you hear music accompaniment but no one singing and you supply that. And you do this together with everybody else, and when its your turn to solo, and you forget how you sound, and sing as you imagine you sound, and you do it when everyone laughs at it, and so do you, and you have fun, and you laugh a lot. And how playing musical chairs can be done even as an adult, tumbling over one other being caught in another's "national costume", just the normal clothes of your particular group all prettied up, and you remember that it was at the end of a gun barrel or at the throw of a stone, or just on the other side of the street, that you would have been with such a person in other circumstance. But this was different. This was Christmas, and you were invited, and some how it has to do with Jesus and you are laughing and having fun and forgetting.
And I remember what I will never forget, how it happened only by God, I know no other way, and on Christmas, sitting in our pergola sitting area built over the "pool" now all filled in, how Ami and Anika, who live two houses down, whose 19-year-old son Daniel was blown up by a terrorist at the seaside town of Nahariya found themselves seated next to and talking with the mother of Jonathan's best friend Asaph, Asaph who was killed by a suicide bomber in Jerusalem's Zion square, an attack that Jonathan escaped only by moments and by a miles away prayer of Exie, "God, protect my son tonight!", you can read it here http://www.conservapedia.com/Suicide_bomber:_a_personal_account, talking as only those can who share the same grief, and the same anger, and myself with them, knowing that I had not planned this, and not even had invited one of them to this Christmas, she had just "dropped in", and next to me also listening a foreign "Pro Palestinian Peace Activist", so Christian and correct in sentiment but so naive and vulnerable and misguided, a friend of mine, he would soon excuse himself in confusion and leave early, and behind them in the living room, through the outside patio door, I could see Shmuel, in his long, black, Orthodox coat, black top hat he never took off, and black beard whom Exie had lead to Jesus in Hebrew at Christ Church where he had come in and "felt love", Shmuel with his back to us because he was looking at the television video movie "Jesus" staying until 2:00AM, and the always-smiling-and-always-appearing-at-parties Eli, the young Jewish jeweler, who came because he always wanted to, and loved to, and because his customers were the filipinas who bought jewelry for themselves, for their family in the Philippines, for other filipinas here in Jerusalem to buy from them, and for Eli's sake because they liked him, and sitting to the side, watching all, Salsabil, a devout, heavily covered Muslim Arab nurse friend of Judith, whom Judith used to visit in Wadi Joz to learn how to make grape leaves, the Wadi Joz that had burned to death an Israeli in his car whose car had wandered in, "But Aba, Salsabil's house is only at the entrance of Wadi Joz", Salsabil who had worked with Judith at Hadassah hospital and was loved by them all, and had advanced in nursing as had Judith, because she was intelligent, and respected. All of this I can never forget and never separate from Jerusalem at Christmas. "He took flesh and dwelt among us", And how!
Only God can love everybody so uniquely and so fully and by the billions and at the same time!