Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

December 2023 letter

Dear Friends

The Christmas Bible Readings at the Carol Service this year will have extra resonance because of the disturbing events in Israel and Gaza in recent times. The same land that has witnessed such brutality and death this year, that same land saw the birth of the Prince of Peace and the giver of eternal life two thousand years ago.

It is worth pausing to receive the help of the Bible and the Christmas story in understanding the long history of the land at the crossroads of Asia, Africa and Europe. It will help us to be aware of the complexities often ignored by the political rhetoric, and of the fuller list of peoples who have claimed ownership of this land over the centuries.

Palestine is named after the Philistines, a seafaring people from the Aegean Sea, who settled on the coast at the same time (c.1150BC) that the Israelites were beginning to dominate the inland areas of Canaan. The Philistines, who urged Delilah to cut the hair and capture the famous Israelite leader Samson, took him as a hostage to their capital Gaza. But the present-day self-proclaimed Palestinians in Gaza are not descendents of the Philistines. The present-day Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza are of mainly Arab descent, introduced after the Muslim Arab armies conquered Jerusalem in c.638AD.

The Old Testament people of Israel were the dominant group of inhabitants from 1150BC to 70AD, through the time of invasions from Assyria (c.720BC) and Babylon (c.590BC) and the occupations by the Greek Empire (following Alexander the Great) and the Roman Empire (who sacked Jerusalem c.AD70). So it was that Galilee (where Jesus’ family settled and he began his gospel ministry) and Judea (where Jesus was born and met his death) were part of the Roman Province which became known as Syrian Palestine.

The old city of Jerusalem in Israel today has four quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian. Palestinian Jews and Christians co-existed in the Holy Land under the Romans and then the Byzantines. Palestinian Jews and Christians continued to live in Jerusalem after the Muslim invasion. Palestinian Jews and Christians and Muslims continue to live in the new state of Israel (est.1948), fellow citizens in a functioning democracy.

The Holy Land has been conquered and reconquered many times through human history. We should be full of sorrow, but not shocked, that the battles continue in our own age. And let’s not be naïve. If a ceasefire was agreed in Gaza, experience tells us it wouldn’t last long. Palestinian Arab leaders rejected all of the Peace Agreements proposed in the second half of the 20th Century.

We should work for peace, but we should not expect peace in our time. Tyranny is on the increase in many places in our world.

The only peace we can seek confidently is that peace (which passes all understanding) which comes from knowing Jesus and following him.

Jesus left the throne of heaven to be born in a land which was tyrannised by a ruthless army. The boy babies and young children in Jesus’ town were all murdered. His cousin, and fellow preacher, John the Baptist was beheaded on the orders of the local tyrant. Jesus himself was executed by the Roman authority. And many Christians met similar cruelty in the decades which followed.

Nothing is new. Solutions are not simple. Violence and revolution only add more layers to the mess.

The eyes of the world media are on the Holy Land now. But who was looking when the Son of God came to live on this earth?

Surely that is where we should be looking: to Jesus, the one who was not afraid to make his earthly home in a place of perpetual conflict, so that others might see his uniqueness, turn to him, and share his heavenly home.

Happy Christmas and a good New Year to you,