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Exactly Christmas

A dangerous Mideast bears Advent lessons for Lutherans here

An Advent miracle this year in Minnesota? People of different faiths treating one another with decency and respect? This is the hope of someone far away — the Rev. Munib Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land.
Minnesotans are good, tolerant people, he thinks. After all, Minneapolis voters elected Keith Ellison, the first Muslim ever elected to Congress, in 2006.
Thus a tense Mideast finds common ground in distant Minnesota. Tolerance, reaching out in Mideast and Midwest, are “essential,” says Bishop Younan. “And that,” he adds, “is exactly the meaning of Christmas.”

Bishop Munib A. Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land

Bishop Munib A. Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land

A few miles south of Bishop Younan’s office in East Jerusalem, worshippers await this same miracle at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. They wait for God as baby — incarnation.
In this, Bishop Younan finds great meaning. “It could have been easy for our Lord to stay in heaven and give us his salvation from heaven,” he says, “but he really intended to incarnate and to engage himself with humanity.”
Christmas, then, is a reason to go forth and engage as Jesus did — Mideast, Midwest, everywhere. In fact — is this God’s demand?
Living in a pluralistic society
Christmas, if nothing else, is the right time. Fifty miles east of Bethlehem, in Jordan’s capital Amman, Sen. Akel Biltaji is a distinguished government official, a Muslim, who came to Jordan from the Holy Land. Yet as a child, he attended Christmas worship, he told Christian journalists this autumn.
In 1929, Biltaji said, his father, a police officer assigned to the Church of the Nativity at Christmas, stood outside during services. Years later, in Jordan, someone tattled: “Do you know your son goes to church and sings in the church?” Retorted the elder Biltaji: “I’m glad my son manages to go in!”

Familiar carols sung in the cacophony of many languages at once still give Bethlehem resident, Melanie Nassar, goose bumps.

Muslims acknowledge Jesus as a prophet. Then and now, they might well share the joy of Christmas services. “I swear to God,” says Sen. Biltaji of his own church attendance, “we were more Muslims than Christians.”
In the Mideast, Muslims and Christians are neighbors and friends, living side by side year-round. Dar al-Kalima Model School in Bethlehem has 292 students — 57 percent Muslim, the rest Christian. Its student musicians perform for holiday services at Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.
The cradle of the manger
Muslims and Christians share Christmas visits in the Holy Land and in Amman. Nada J. Zabaneh, program coordinator for Jordan’s Mennonite Central Committee, is a Palestinian born in Lebanon and now a Jordanian citizen. A Lutheran who became Anglican by marriage, she always makes an Advent wreath and puts up a tree a day or two before Christmas — baking cookies earlier and buying wine and chocolate for holiday guests.
A favorite Christmas memory is her late father, a pastor, playing piano and singing Christmas hymns — in German, English, and Arabic.
Nearer Bethlehem, Christmas meanings deepen. Melanie Nassar, a Minnesota Lutheran who works as a translator in adjacent Beit Sahour, attends afternoon Christmas Eve services at the Shepherd’s Field. There, familiar carols sung in the cacophony of many languages at once still give her goose bumps. This is where angels terrified certain shepherds.
In Bethlehem itself, aside from the Church of the Nativity, a favorite church is Christ- mas Lutheran. Go early, advises Allison Schmitt, a 2007 graduate of Luther Seminary in St. Paul and now Bishop Younan’s communications assistant. Last year, Schmitt found a seat in back — behind TV cameras. She thinks her parents, watching a Webcast back home, had a better view.
Still, she was going to church on Christmas Eve with her family, … sort of. Here in the Midwest, we’re just not that far away from the Mideast.
When the time came for Jesus’ purification, two temple regulars were waiting. An old man named Simeon held this baby in his arms. “Lord,” he said, “lettest now thy servant depart in peace.”
Both aged Simeon and Anna, in Luke 2, were ready for new life. Today’s young, however, look forward to this life. In the Midwest, it’s not so easy. In the Mideast, the difficulties are still more daunting.
Is Advent about waiting? Who isn’t? We wait for jobs, for economic recovery — for a just peace.
Wherever we wait, this season opens a window. Will we huddle where we are? Or will we go out into the great night — as Jesus did?

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