Advent Reflection-2009: From Darkness to Light in Holy Land – Past and Present

By Joseph Donnelly, Caritas representative at the UN in New York

Advent season unfolds in liturgies around the world, as December days count their way toward Christmas amidst darkened wintry times in the northern hemisphere. These seasonal moments and environmental shifts are nowhere more symbolic than in the Holy Land itself.

Nowhere more truly authentic as Biblical echoes speak out than in the land which was home to the ancestors of Mary, Joseph and Jesus – and that Holy Family. Old Testament readings from Jeremiah, Isaiah, the ancient Psalms, followed by New Testament readings, Infancy narratives, Apostolic letters. All familiar. All old but ever new, reminding us of God’s people, long on their journeys, surviving through struggles of all kinds. Indeed, people walking in darkness finding great light, hope, belonging. It is said that places, like people, have an identity all their own – especially places like this one where people have moved from sorrow to joy – and then back again. Thus, places like Nazareth, Ain Karem, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Hebron, Nablus, the Jordan River, Gaza and Egypt.

These sacred spaces of our own salvation history remain quite real, concrete destinations where families

were born, where families migrated, where families took flight, where families still wait. While some traditions of our faith culture run the risk of romanticizing the birth of the Christ Child – as if in some perfect place in some perfect moment, enough reality check remains on-the-ground to remind us that <that> silent, and indeed, holy night was a time of darkness. Yes, a Child was born, but it was a time of preoccupation under Roman rule in Palestine. It was not an easy moment for most people living in the land at that time. Risks were part of every next step. That Holy Family we treasure were not near Nazareth where their life and roots began. To that end, they were homeless. They took flight from the ancient city of Bethlehem through Gaza into Egypt as refugees. What light there was guided them into a safe place, where strangers would become friends. Still – it was a life with distinct uncertainty, even vulnerability. Still – belonging to the community and families in Nazareth, but far from their home, far from the most basic comforts of familiarity.

Then, as now, the Holy Land offered a constant conversation with God. Where are we going? To whom shall we return? Where is God leading us? Part of Mary’s own proclamation at the time of the Annunciation was in fact a deep question: How can this be? This seems the quintessential message of the Advent season from the past to the present, from the desert to the darkness, from the insecurities to the uncertainties, from the hopes to the preoccupations – to the lasting light with the power to transform people and places.

Depending on life and faith experiences, it’s easy enough to enter into the Advent season with all the serious disciplines of tradition and contemporary spirituality. It’s a reasonable challenge in a clamoring world to take time to focus on the Incarnation, to prepare the way as John the Baptist called out in the desert and hillsides to any would listen to his enlightened message. His vision was real and inspired. He knew what he was talking about. Who and what inspired him in that moment was greater than he knew or imagined.

From the dark days of his own existence, he saw the light – found that rock bottom hope. He knew the ancient promises – God accompanies His people as from their exodus out of Egypt. He knew God could be found in the heart-breaking moment of every crisis. He met complex expectations with a faith that was a real road map within – taking him, and those who believed or were curious enough onto a path to peace. They reached that place, living, giving their own lives, as liberating light through darkest nights. Their lives were the message!

In the Holy Land today – complex expectations still struggle with ancient and modern interpretations of history, rights, tradition, faith, culture, ownership, opportunity, insult, isolation, hopes and so very much more. Constant competition races through persons, communities and families with self-determining destinations for where that saving grace will be found – where peace? where security? where freedom?

where dignity? where the light of enduring justice with absolute respect? Whether man-made borders are

real, honest, fabricated or evidence of “necessary” compromises amongst peoples, what we still have today is an excruciating wall of preoccupation which continues to deepen the darkness which imprisons the light.

The very gift of life, humanity and nature continues to be tortured into unrelenting anxieties on all sides.

Twisted lives mirror the ancient entangled roots of the famous olive trees, themselves vulnerable to both policy and unchecked extremism. Indeed, lovely lady of Nazareth echoes on: How can this be?

These facts of life in The Land today present an imperative invitation as Advent days of wintering unfold in hearts, homes, prayers and churches. If prayers and fasting rituals from our faith traditions leave us remote from the Living Stones, the real peoples and places in the ancient cities today – something essential is truly missing, abandoned, lost. While Christians “journey” to Bethlehem these weeks before Christmas, Muslims have just celebrated their Eid exactly as Jews prepare for their Hanukkah celebration of light later this week and on for many days.

Jews, Christians, Muslims – all real people in a very exacting time and place which is rarely far from the lens of global considerations. What some condemn as willfully complicated is hard to dismiss. What others complain as intentional chaos is also hard to contradict. However, what some see no matter what else – no matter what else for which reason – is the unrelenting God-with-us.

Light constantly transforming darkness – so that the long years of loss and brokenness don’t ever completely extinguish every last hope, precarious potentials lingering long on the very edge of that last possibility for peace. Extraordinary risk. Extraordinary possibility. Still!

This too – quite real! This too – the only way forward from the vanquishing desperation of abandonment, both real and imagined. Over and over through the multiplying years into difficult decades, it is said to all: Please, don’t forget us! Please keep our hopes alive! Please share with others what you know, what you’ve seen, what you have come to understand! Remove the myths! Be sure believers know the Holy Land is a real place, home to families with faith, hope and dignity. Be with everyone here – Christians, Muslims, Jews, Israelis, Palestinians and all. Please don’t work or pray to separate us further. Our destiny, our vocation being born in this Land, brought us together. Maybe not our plan, but clearly God’s plan for all his people.

Don’t divide us with your plan or prejudices. Hear the prophet Micah: Do justice, walk humbly with others, love God.

Advent invites everyone of us to make Christmas as authentic, even holy-awesome as possible so that truly the gift of the Christ Child long ago is born fully anew as that Prince of Peace, shattering the darkness of what cannot be into the promise of all that can be – for us as believers, but equally and urgently for all God’s people in the Holy Land this year, next year and beyond.

This Advent invites us to be reconciled with the facts and faces of history in particular places. The Manger now needs to be incredibly real – fragility of a simple home, a refuge, room for strangers, a mother, a father, an innocent child, promise and wonder, amidst deep unknowing. Neighbors, shop keepers, shepherds, children, farmers, animals, visitors along the way, great and small – where gifts of human solidarity create, sustain and develop every potential. In this Manger will grow respect, responsibility, justice, dignity, compassion, hope, mercy, kindness – love for all.

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Filed under Conflicts and Disasters, Emergencies in the Palestine, Jerusalem, Middle East & North Africa, Peacebuilding

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