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WCPU
Wednesday 26th January 2022 @ 9:12 am

The following words are the reflection given to an Ecumenical Service in North Dublin to mark the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

 

 

 

It can be a strange thing to enter the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

You probably drove through Jerusalem to get there … a land with all the traits of a modern western liberal democracy … tarmac roads, glistening billboards, McDonalds … but then you would have driven down the Bethlehem road, most likely driven toward Rachel’s tomb, and while the disputed tomb of Rachel (the 2nd wife of Abraham), revered by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike appears in the distance you would have taken a left hand turn and driven through an army checkpoint … checkpoint 300

I say checkpoint, as a Northern Irish man brought up in Belfast through the 70’s + 80’s checkpoints are something I recognise … this is not like any checkpoint in Belfast, this experience is more akin to driving into Palace Army Barracks, or The Curragh Army base – This S shaped checkpoint fits in a space in a Wall that stretches over 400 miles, and in Jerusalem reaches over 8 meters (26ft) high. The checkpoint is guarded by young men and women with immense firepower, trained to be suspicious and alert, as any military would be.

Most likely the mood in the bus will change as you go from tarmac roads and billboards to potholed dirty, dusty streets, much more crowded, busy – and the only place in the world where I have been where a 150K Mercedes 52 seater tour bus can be sharing the road with someone riding a donkey, or a horse and cart.

If you get to Nativity Square at the same as the [Adhvan] the Arabic Call to prayer, rings out, you will most likely be taken aback and stopped as the muadhin (leader of the prayer) sings over the square and a sound and sense we don’t hear in Ireland very often captures and captivates you … you might even at that point welcome it as romantic as you drink in the depth of the experience as one very different from Dublin. You might not welcome it quite so much at 4.23AM if you’re staying in a hotel close to a minaret …

 

Let me jump sideways for a minute:

Through my work as a chaplain in TCD I have been hugely privileged to lead a lot of people, especially young adults, through the Holy Land. Primarily, several years ago we initiated a program called ‘Space to Breathe, Living in contested Spaces’, where we have taken young adults from GB and Ireland into Palestine and Israel. We have connected with Palestinians and Israelis living on the land. We also then have a Part two of the project where we bring everyone together in Dublin. British, Irish, Palestinian and Israeli young adults sharing days of human engagement. Building peace and understanding one small step at a time.

 

On one of these trips I was standing talking with a young Methodist leader beside the Ibramhi Mosque in Hebron, the place where Muslims, Christians and Jews revere as the burial caves of the Patriarchs Abraham, Sara, Joseph and Issac and Rebecca – and this brilliant woman of c.22  turns to me and says,

“Jools I wasn’t in Catholic church until yesterday,

and now you’re bringing me into mosque!!!”

 

The Catholic church she was talking about was part of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the part of the church you will see on TV if you tune into midnight mass from Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. She was both horrified and amused that she had inadvertently walked into a Catholic church. The reality is that in this Holy place she had been walking through …

A HOLY place which for centuries has been used to remember and celebrate the miracle of incarnation …

THE INCARNATION – God becoming HUMAN – not Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Melchite, Antiochian, Pentecostal, or even God save us, Methodist …

… in walking through that centre piece of global Christian faith, she had already walked through parts that are Greek orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Coptic Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox as well as Roman Catholic.

Not a Methodist corner in it!

 

I have had many contrasting experiences myself walking through the church – especially as you walk into the cave where the miracle of incarnation is sanctified and celebrated.

I remember going by myself early one morning, no–one else around, it was a time like no other when I was able to sit in stillness and reverence, prayerfully imbibing the stories and comfort and challenge of our faith.

I will always remember those moments.

 

I also recall being with a group of young men – the second student trip I led to Palestine. Watching as young Catholic students and Anglo–Catholic students whom I previously did not appreciate as being as deeply gestured as they demonstrated, chose to kneel, kiss, and touch the star that marks the traditional place of Christs birth. I remember being impressed and humbled watching young adult males be overcome, and desire to take the knee.

It was a beautiful moment. I also remember how it was somehow hurried – there were other groups there, many people wanting to pay homage.

Just as wise man had done millennia before, still people came to pay honour and worship.

While beautiful, it was also harried, controlled, commercial even.

 

As well as those two experiences I recall another occasion when a member of staff from Trinity was physically bullied aside by determined women from another country, whose tour guide had seemingly prepared his group for worship at this most Holy site by making sure they took no prisoners in the queue – physically shoving all around them out to make sure their visit happened in the way they had planned.

Not the Holiest moment of that particular trip.

 

But, sadly, there is form:

On Dec 28th in 2011, Greek Orthodox and Armenian monks started a brawl with each other, in that church, with each one claiming the other was intervening on their part of the basilica, while cleaning.

Trespassing, if you will.

While cleaning!!!

At the site where Christianity remembers God became HUMAN.

The Palestinian police had to come in. I jest not.

 

Of course, you probably don’t need me to remind you on this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity that should you go home tonight and google ‘fight in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,’ – the most Holy of Christian sites, where we remember the glorious resurrection of Christ, that defeated death, validated life, and invited ALL of creation into a new creation of HIS Kingdom of Light and Love,

THAT Holy place …

… google ‘fight in the church of the Holy Sepulchre,’ and you will witness Armenian and Greek Orthodox priests again, getting into a fisticuffs brawl.

One of the most interesting aspects of this Holy site for me? The key to the church cannot be held by any one of the denominations present in it.

For over 850 years two Palestinian Muslim families have been entrusted with the keys to the worlds most sacred Christian shrine.

I know this week has been about Christian Unity, and our prayers and thoughts have been guided by Christians in the Middle East, but for a second, how’s that fact for a reality of deep respect and trust between faiths.

Maybe that arrangement could inspire a little more unity internally to Christianity.?!?

 

Let me try to connect some dots with the Gospel we just read, and with some thoughts inspired by the Christians of the Middle East who created this years material for WPCU.

 

The Christians in Palestine and around the Middle East have invited us to remember the land that Jesus was born into, the land he walked, is a land experiencing turmoil, violence, oppression and occupation in ways that the international political community condemn as illegal, yet arguably do little about.

 

That Wall I mentioned – over 400 miles of it and 26ft of it, has been judged illegal by the international court of Human Rights.

 

Israeli settlements, where Israelis forcibly build houses and infrastructure on Palestinian land, creating enclaves (settlements) connected by internal tarmacked roads and guarded by their own security, are termed illegal by international law. Most countries and international bodies have long recognized these settlements are illegal under international law. The European Union (EU) stated that: “settlement building anywhere in the occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, is illegal under international law, constitutes an obstacle to peace and threatens to make a two–state solution impossible.”

 

The Star we read about, the story we remembered, the places I mentioned, all arose from and appeared in the East … and, as the commentators in Middle East have written for this week, “the history of the Middle East was, and still is, characterized by conflict and strife, tainted with blood and darkened by injustice and oppression”

“It was in the Middle East that the Word of God took root and bore fruit… it gave thousands of Christian witnesses and thousands of Christian martyrs. And yet now, the very existence of the small Christian community is threatened as many are driven to seek a more secure and serene life elsewhere. Like the light which is the child Jesus, the light of Middle Eastern Christianity is increasingly threatened in these difficult times.”

 

There is nowhere I have been friends, that is quite like Jerusalem – the sights and sounds and smells of Jerusalem are a veritable feast upon the senses. No wonder – three of the holiest sights on earth for the worlds Abrahamic religions all sit within about 1.5m sq. Jerusalem is claimed in our Scriptures as a powerful symbol because it is the City of Peace – it is where all humanity was saved and redeemed. 

But today Peace is missing from the city. 

It can be easy to turn to external battles and faiths to denigrate the path to peace. But let us be reminded of the Christians fighting each other in Holy shrines, while most of the world looks on and says,

‘why would we listen to one word that comes from your mouth about a so called Prince of Peace, while your churches demonstrate anything but …’

 

Let us not forget friends, the Star of Christmas led the Magi through the politics and courts and influential classes of Jerusalem to a backward suburb where a King was found in an animal trough. And in the very next stanza of the story, the ruling class plots the murder of innocent life. Still today, in various parts of the world, innocents suffer violence under the threat of violence, and young families flee tyrants such as Herod and others. And we know on this beautiful island we have seen once again in recent days the ability of humanity to act out of its lowest rung as a young woman with her whole life in front of her was murdered in broad daylight.

At the very least, and it is the very least that can come of such a brutal murder, the death of Ashling Murphy seems to have opened the eyes of a nation, to a world we are totally sick of, and heightened the desire that we all live in a world where women, and anyone, can live without fear of being brutalised in such a horrific way.

The Star led to the Prince of Peace.

And we have no Peace to flow into the world, apart from that which we live ourselves. Christ’s peace living IN us flows FROM us into a world so badly needing it.

 

As a Methodist I am ‘honour–bound’ to remember the words of our founder John Wesley, who in a letter to a Roman Catholic in 1749 wrote;

“I do not suppose all the bitterness is on your side. I know there is too much on our side also — so much, that I fear many Protestants (so called) will be angry at me too for writing to you in this manner, and will say, “It is showing you too much favor; you deserve no such treatment at our hands.”

But I think you do. I think you deserve the tenderest regard I can show, were it only because the same God hath raised you and me from the dust of the earth and has made us both capable of loving and enjoying Him to eternity.”

 

Wesley finishes his letter with four suggestions for Unity of purpose and traveling a road of faith together, and I offer them to all of us this evening in finishing:

 

“in the strength of God, let us resolve first, not to hurt one another; to do nothing unkind or unfriendly to each other, nothing which we would not have done to ourselves”

 

“Let us resolve secondly, God being our helper, to speak nothing harsh or unkind of each other. “

 

“Let us, thirdly, resolve to harbour no unkind thought, no unfriendly temper, towards each other.”

 

“Let us, fourthly, endeavor to help each other on in what­ever we are agreed leads to the kingdom. So far as we can, let us always rejoice to strengthen each other’s hands in God.”

 

There’s a path to Unity of heart …

 

Don’t hurt each other – that’s the physical action of the hands

Don’t talk hurt to another – that’s the action from the heart

Don’t think hurt of each other – that’s the action of the head

Rather, help each other, however we can – that’s the action of the head, the hand and the heart held together.

 

May it be increasingly so.

 

In 1742, in his writings on ‘The character of a Methodist’, Wesley sums up what his attitude to difference is, and how unity through difference might be lived, as he quotes King Jehu from 2 Kings 10:

 

“If your heart is as my heart, then give me your hand.”

 

May it be increasingly so.


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