I heard the sound of my FaceBook messenger ding and rolled over to look at my phone.
‘WHY DIDN’T YOU MAKE THE BERRY FILLING!?!?’
It was 5:03 in the morning and the message was from my roommate Anna. I laughed and wrote back ‘DO IT YOURSELF! I’m BUSY folding the pastries!’ I then pulled the covers over my head, hoping to catch a few more minutes of sleep before I started the day.
This messaging back and forth, from one room in the house to another, was a little game Anna and I had started back in August. When the bakers working below us yell back and forth in Arabic, we translate it for one another. When a semi-truck’s loud engine keeps us from being able to sleep, we tell each other what goods the truck is hauling. When cars squeal their tires over and over and over around the roundabout or drift down the straightaway of the main street or blare their radios to an appalling volume, we tell each other how macho they are or all about the girl they are trying to impress. This banter back and forth is our way of coping with the truth that keeps us awake:
There is no such thing as a silent night in Bethlehem.
I’m sorry to dispel any imaginings you might have had, but the images of a quaint little town of Bethlehem that we have sung about for decades is a lie. Bethlehem is big and bustling; its full of loud street vendors and pushy tourists. Traffic is slow moving with big busses and taxis hauling people into Manger Square by the hundreds. Long lines are always flowing out of the Church of the Nativity where people who have traveled thousands of miles wait, sometimes impatiently, to behold the place of our dear Savior’s birth. As they make their way down into the small cave there is not enough room for everyone, which often leads to elbowing and shoving- not exactly conducive to a tranquil moment of awe and wonder at the birthplace of our Lord. Pilgrims are instead subject to stares of “hurry up it’s my turn” and “get out of my way, I want to take a picture.” It’s not exactly peaceful.
It’s not only the noise and the physical crowdedness that inhibits the ability to experience peace in Bethlehem. The feeling of peace is also mightily squelched by the occupation. A 20-foot-high separation wall looms over and closes in the little town of Bethlehem, soldiers armed with automatic weapons drive armored vehicles through the streets, the smell and burn of tear gas hangs in the air, the spirit of oppression and hopelessness and sadness is pervasive.
Peace seems like a far-off idea.
The little town we sing about is not the Bethlehem of today. However, it wasn’t the Bethlehem of Jesus’ day, either.
Mary and Joseph returned to the City of David for the census; we would be naïve to think that they were alone. Hundreds of other families returned to the town as well. The streets were crowded, full of donkeys and carts and people. The town square was packed with loud merchants selling their goods and travelers who were pushy and anxious to buy what they needed. Homes were bursting with family members and guests; there was not enough room for everyone. Many were left without a place to stay and were forced to take residence in caves with the livestock. Not exactly a tranquil place to give birth to a child. The city was occupied under Roman rule with soldiers continually in the streets. Then, too, the spirit of oppression and hopelessness and sadness was pervasive.
Peace was a far-off idea.
But then, in the midst of chaos and commotion, in the crowdedness and the noise, in the anxiety and unease, Peace was born. Not effortlessly, but through great struggle, past fear and doubt, with patience and trusting and persistence, Mary and Joseph gave birth to the Prince of Peace. At first small and helpless, in need of protection and nurturing, but full of the promise of hope, joy and love.
The Silent Night that I sing now, with this new picture, is different. For me, it’s no longer a song about the past, when out of great necessity and longing peace entered the world. Instead, it’s a song about our call- when we, as followers of Christ, give birth to peace. It’s a reminder that in the midst of chaos and commotion, in the crowdedness and the noise, in the anxiety and unease, we have been chosen. The song encourages me that through this struggle, past fear and doubt, with patience and trusting and persistence, we usher in today’s silent nights full of the promise of hope, joy, and love.