Strange times… and by the way, why should they seemingly be strange or a bit bizarre? Some months ago, the shopkeepers and restaurant owners at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem got stunned by the sudden waves of tourists and pilgrims arriving from former communist countries. They stared in particular at the huge crowds of Russians that visit the Holy places of Christianity. They asked me “in shock”: how long will it endure?” We had gone through months, 7 years of absence of real tourism. In Bethlehem, big hotels, many guest-houses had been built for the 2000th. The rooms were empty and some walls were falling down.
Today is the 27th of Kislev 5769כ”ז דכסלו תשס”ט, the day that, in the Jewish tradition, commemorates how the Flood rains stopped. God decided by His own penance not to erase the living from the earth or to destroy His creation. Tonight is the eve of the Feast of the Nativity for the Westerners and all the Christian Churches and movements that follow the Gregorian calendar. This concerns the whole world because this calendar has been adopted by most countries in the secular and business world. The Protestants adopted it lately and maintained for a long time the use of the Orthodox Julian calendar. Nonetheless, it would be ridiculous to split at this point. All the media in the world account how the “Patriarch of Jerusalem” went today to the Manger Square in Bethlehem, entered the basilica of the Nativity. In fact, after he went down the grotto located under the Orthodox Church, he will celebrate the midnight Mass in the Church of Saint Catherine. We cannot help, but the world seems to forget at the moment that the Roman Catholic Church had first canceled the Latin patriarchate in Jerusalem and then reestablished the see toward the end of the19th century. It is not canonical to have two “patriarchs” in the same city. It was not possible for Jerusalem, the fifth and last patriarchate which was recognized in 451AD.!!! There had happened all the events but it took time before Jerusalem got some recognition from the “sister” Churches. In the news, there is a full ignorance and confusion about who is who and what events happened and why, rooted in which cultural and spiritual backgrounds and soils.
Frankly, it is known that we have to humble ourselves in the face of God. But competition can give the way to some humbling the others and let them think that history developed like a bliss of love kissing. Definitely not. At the present, the whole of the Christian world in the Holy Land (Israel, Palestine and Jordan) is swarming and dazzling around about which denomination is first…. It is a silent, foxy mental fight. Nobody would argue about who is second or third… and definitely not who is last for the best of life! Indeed, people would not really mind. The main problem is not raised by ranking and honors.
The question is whether we understand the historic thread that started with a group of believers at mount Zion, continued by the development of the Early Church in Jerusalem composed of Jews that decided to adopt the Gentiles, the Holy Sepulcher. With regards to the Nativity of Jesus, the Christian texts mention he was from Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, the city of King David, was rescued from the murder of the children organized by king Herod (The Innocent children) and returned from Egypt to Eretz Israelארץ ישראל and lived in Galilee, Nazareth. This is the same apparent confusion that we fall into, trapped by our human desires and goals. The whole life of Jesus is dealing with miracles that are beyond nature. It has nothing to do with our subcomputation about who is first and/or last and vice versa.
Indeed, Nativity can only make sense if we believe in the resurrection of the dead. Resurrection is at the heart of the Jewish and Christian faith, though in separate moods at the moment.
Resurrection means that Jesus is born to everlasting life and thus the believers expect his (second) coming. It is simple: either Jesus is the Messiah or he is not. The same question is pending at the present. When Jesus was born, the shepherds sang the glory of God, the Magi (the three wise men) brought their presents to the “king”, to the new-born.
They came from the East, certainly Gentiles or proselytes who had been taught by the Jews of Persia or Mesopotamia. There was a very strong and vivid expectation of the coming of the Messiah in a time of great political and economic turmoil in the area.
The Nativity of Jesus is not known with much precision. The New testament was firstly written over decades after the death of Jesus and the main witnesses.
There are some evident marks, given in a very Semitic way: the census decreed by Caesar Augustus when Cyrenius was governor of Syria (Luke 1:1-2); then the verse “The fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilatus being governor of Judaea, and Herod being the tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests” (Luke 3:1-2).
This statement constitutes a special mark given by Evangelist Luke who was a proselyte and wrote to the Gentiles. But we miss formal and precise information. This is on line with the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth; either we believe or we do not believe; either we have doubts or we trust. And this is at the core of the Christian faith, because no human being was born a Christian. This is something that deals with personal and intimate conviction received and accepted by other believers. The challenge is exceptional and immense. Faith has nothing to do with might, power, proclaiming and preaching abiliities.
This is why Nativity is not the main aspect of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Of course it is essential. But his “birth to eternal life” three days after his crucifixion at the Golgotha opened up the realm of faith in the resurrected Messiah or Christ. This is very deeply felt in the Holy Land: the Christians are not those who celebrate the birth of Jesus. The “taking flesh of the Savior (salvation = yeshu’ah – ישועה ) is comparable to the “bessurot tovot – בשורות טובות – good tidings, “rejoicing taking flesh” in Hebrew and in many thanksgiving Jewish writings and prayers about “food”).
Still, as long as we shall maintain intellectual speculations and surveys, we can reach many points of parallel similarities. We remain in the realm of “arguing competition”. Humble faith in God – whatever manner – means to mirror God’s encounter with human souls. It has nothing to do with fights, ranks, pro’s and con’s.
Thus, when the Evangelist reports: “(the other day – after Jesus died on the Cross – the chief priests and the Pharisees came together to Pilate saying: we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive ‘after three days, I will rise again’. Therefore command that the sepulcher be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night and steal him away and say to the people ‘He is risen from the dead’; so the last error shall be worse than the first”. Pilate said to them: you have a watch; go your way and make it as sure as you can.” So they went and made the sepulcher sure, sealing the stone and setting a watch”. (Matthew 27:65-66).
It should be underscored how two lines are significant: a strong knowledge of all the possible roots of the Gospel, including the Nativity with faith in the resurrection. From the time of his birth till his death, Jesus faced and overcame the defying powers of idolatry, credulity and virtual influence. X-mas has nothing to do with trading, business, embattled spirits. We have to look at the symbols and not lose our minds in them. Nobody will ever birth again Jesus as the Messiah. He will not be found anew in a manger.
Jesus did not know about X-mas carols, X-mas gifts. When the Church celebrates the “taking flesh and coming of Jesus” she announces his coming in glory as stated in the Creed. His birth and resurrection are thus reflecting the oneness and uniqueness of events that can only be contemplated with faith and is linked to Love as the fulfillment of Divine Commandments or Mitzvot.
I answered one year ago to my fellow people at Jaffa Gate that the move is only starting at the present. I use to tell them that they can’t rally imagine what will be going on in the upcoming years and decades or centuries, provided that the situation will not change. This sounds a bit paradoxical. While Christianity seemingly has to abruptly face the reality of Islam in all of the Arab countries and the Middle-East, there are crowds of pilgrims and tourists rush to the Holy Land, in particular to Palestinian Bethlehem. The city is now under Muslim control and law. The visitors arrive via Israel. This is a new move that will grow. It is a very simple matter: the Russian faithful have always come to the Holy Sites. They are never afraid by wars, conflicts. They come to pray and spend some time in the footsteps of Jesus.
The Federation of Russia and most Orthodox faithful from the former communist countries will come because they reconnect with a very old tradition. Then, there are other republics at the present: citizens of Ukraine, Baltic counties, Central Asia, Caucasus, Georgians, Armenians. This definitely raises the number of the numerous and big groups of pilgrims who are ready to come.
This years there is a sort of paradox: on the one hand, the Gaza Strip remains a kind of “trash” area, of people living in inhumane conditions. It is a place of lawlessness, with tunnels bringing in narcotics and throwing desperate snipers on the Negev. The Via Maris has nothing to do with the ancient tribes of all Mediterranean nations. It is a real prison and framed area fenced by the will of the superpowers. What kind of Nativity time? What way to the Sea? What Samshon? Jungle supported by jungle. On the other hand, the Judaean region lost its Christian inhabitants who left the country, most it should also be known that most of them are today in the Merkazמרכז – Central part of Israel. More and more Jerusalem Easterners and Christians who left Bethlehem, Beit Jala or Beit Sahur ask for the Israeli Identity card they were proposed and refused four decades ago.
The Old City of East-Jerusalem is more and more under Muslim comtrol and the Sha’ariya tends to be applied as general rule. There is only one or two Christian leaders left.
In this intriguing atmosphere that show the revolving perpetuum and renewal of history, the 13 heads of the Churches sign their season’s greetings una voce in a formal order and without full respect for the standardized ranking among them. Don’t think this is a political statement. Volens nolens, I admit the historic reality that the Rum Orthodox Church of Jerusalem is headed by the Greek monastics in Jerusalem. It is also the case in the Sinai, at the Mount Ekatherina monastery. The Arab Palestinian clergy is intermingled, descent of mixed couples composed of Greek wanderers and settlers and local Arabs and/or Near East survivors of the genocide perpetrated in Asia Minor by the Ottoman empire.
The [British] Anglican (Episcopalian) in the North and the [German] Lutheran in the South: colonization does not disappear from frightened scary memories that are at pain with updating.
Thirty years ago, it was clear that Bethlehem was losing the soul of Christianity just as it happens at the present in Iraq, the original cradle of monotheism. But one thing was evident, just evident but difficult to anticipate: the rush of the pilgrims coming from abroad as a part of the tremendous memorizing capacity of unexpected faith revivals.It only starts. The move will develop and spread: the Russians will come en masse. Nothing is small or narrow with the Russians. It is always wide, broad, immense.
The Palestinians had not thought of that though many of them studied in Soviet universities and have their shops today in Jerusalem and in the Old City. The Jews who came to build the State of Israel from the time of the first Aliyah in the 1880s arrived from the Russian empire. They continue to arrive. They are not Russian, Ukrainian, Bielorussian, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, or Tadjiks or from Caucasus.
They are newcomers to the State of Israel and many of the clergy and the Muslims would hardly cope with such a change that grows more and more real along the decades.
It is time for the Christian world to recognize Judaism and Israel for who they are. Not to connect diplomatically with some hopes that the construction will soon fall down and die out. It will not. The Churches are not lost. They are stumbling in trouble. The Churches are today under Israeli control. They never could contemplate such an “ab-surdum” that, at first glance, does not correspond to any traditional teaching of Christendom. There is a big misunderstanding about the eschaton and the end-of-time expectations (cf. St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans ch. 9-11).
Israel has her views and train her specialists with regards to the views that Jews may consider Christianity by means of specific visions. It often drifts away from the normative teachings and surveys that developed in the ecumenical period that followed the second world war and the awakening of some European consciousness about what has been done against the jews throughout ages of stiff ignorance and rejection. At the present, Christianity is presented to the foreigners in a “new Israeli” way that slowly integrates something that is personal and does not necessarily match with the traditional Jewish points of view.
The remnants of the traditional Churches would try to “convert” any soul to whatever denomination. Islam is often attacked as trying to convert by force the local Christians – in particular women. Still, the Holy Land area will always be a place of encounter, a shelter, a place of transition, with much flexible cultural and mental sensitivity.
The Church of Jerusalem is basically one or she does not exist and will not survive. I would never make any difference among the “members of the local Jerusalem community”. It is evident that this unity rises from huge linguistic and cultural identity backgrounds and feelings. But the Church is born of the Holy Spirit and shall endure because of that, beyond any human or organizational framework or patterns.
This why the way only opens up for new relationships among the faithful. For decades, the Russian Church has been separated from the ecumenical dialogue in Jerusalem. She also maintains a certain theological distance and prudently considers the way the other Christian denominations behave in a post-Ottoman ruled period.
Whatever financial and economic crash concerned, the Russian faithful will show with various multitudes. They also arrive from the Ukraine, from Asia, America. Thus, Christendom only starts in this birthing 21st century. Most of the Churches would speculate about “new paganism, new catechization”. Faith always needs to be reinvigorated. Indeed, the task is huge for all community of faithful.
We may think that the universal extension of religious proclamation all over the planet is diminishing in the Holy Land and in the Near and Middle East. We go through very cruel times and troubles. This is true. The way seems foggy and dark, with all sorts of humans embattled in dizziness. In the coming years, as it showed this year already, thousands and thousands of pilgrims will visit the Holy Sites. This goes far beyond any tactical and political prospects. True, it causes again and again “the fall and rising of many [in Israel]” (Luke 2:34). It remains a sign of contradiction for any human soul.
I usually add to the locals that the move only begins because they don’t know the incredibly rich and great fighting spirit of the Eastern Orthodox as also of the ancient Oriental Churches. It is a prophetic move. It is not limited to the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Christianity does not die out in the Middle East.
Faith is like the snake shown by Moses in the desert and raised up like Jesus on the stake. This is why the point is to be able to embody and assemble the Body marked by the sign of eternity and Love. A new “skin” grows and changes the aspect of what is visible. It does not alter the meaning of redemption.
In the forthcoming years, Asian, North and South American pilgrims will come to Bethlehem as today bigger flocks of Philippinos and Chinese, Japanese. Jerusalem is dual: heavenly and earthly and the keys of death cannot prevail.
“For with God nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37).
Av Aleksandr [winogradsky frenkel]
December 25/12, 2008 – 28 deKislev 5769 – כ”ח דכסלו תשס”ט