As I sit down to write my Christmas message during this Advent season, there are no words that touch me more deeply than these words from Isaiah chapter 40, “Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God.” During this time I have been moved by the emotions associated with the beginning of life and the end of life, of birth and death. And I am very much aware that life begins and ends with a need for comfort. And in between, there is enough pain and suffering to go around, for people to cry out, “We are all like grass that withers, and flowers that fade.”
We have once again experienced warfare and death with the eight-day war in southern Israel and Gaza. Though a ceasefire has now been announced, we still feel the burden of a war in which there are no winners, in which people on both sides suffer from physical and emotional wounds and are in need of comforting, a war in which the survivors themselves feel the pain of loss and need to be comforted. Even though we are at a distance in Jerusalem, we have all been shaken by the images of families running to bomb shelters afraid, images of the dead and wounded, images of the rubble. We are moved so much by such tragedy, that it would seem that the words of the Book of Lamentations prevail where there is “no one to comfort her” (Lamentations 1:9, 17, 21).
The reality that our people are facing is that “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field” (Isaiah 40:6), and we shed our tears at the human condition. How can we feel optimistic in a world of such suffering? Anyone in their right mind would offer only a pessimistic prognosis and throw up their hands in a feeling of helplessness. Anyone in their right mind would question whether those scarred by the fresh wounds of war would relate to this word of comfort. Anyone in their right mind would ask if mere words will keep the refugees warm in the face of the cold winter rains. Yet we are reminded that this is not the only reality. “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever” (verse 8).
“Comfort, comfort you my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem that her warfare has ended, that she has received pardon.”
We need that word of comfort, offered by the prophet Second-Isaiah. We need to hear the assurance that our sins are pardoned, that there will be no more suffering, no more war, no more bloodshed. The word of comfort consoles us: Rahamu, Rahamu Ammi (Comfort, Comfort my people.) The promise that we are indeed God’s people and that God is in control. That God offers a word of mercy and grace. That this indeed is a word of comfort, and not merely an illusion.
“Speak to her that her warfare is ended,” says the prophet. Yet is this reality? How can this be reality when the politicians announced merely a ceasefire, and not an authentic end to violence, to bombing, to killing? How can this be a reality when all the analysts conclude that the only winners in the recent fighting have been the wielders of weapons and the belief that negotiations and diplomacy are no match for weapons when it comes to solving conflict? How can this be when both sides are busy once again building up their weapons arsenals? How can this be reality—this announcement that her warfare is ended—when there are threats that the killing will resume? We, in this country, are not in need of weapons, missiles, and Patriots. We are in need of justice and security. The real comfort will come into being when swords are turned into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks. “Comfort, Comfort my people,” we long to hear these words, yet how will our people listen, when the facts on the ground seem to speak of another reality?
The Middle East and the whole world was excited when on November 29 Palestine was accepted as a non-member state of the United Nations. This is a step in the right direction to keep the zeal for the two-state solution alive, and we hope that other constructive steps may be taken that security and justice would finally exist for Palestinians and Israelis.
We are now beginning the third year of the Arab Awakening, a movement which began as a quest for freedom, for human dignity, for the recognition of human rights including women’s rights. Many of us watched with interest as the awakening spread from one country to the next. Many cried out a word of encouragement, and also a word of comfort, concerned how these developments might proceed. Like the birth of a newborn child, it would seem such a movement would need the loving tender care, as it faced the challenges of this world and as it grew, like a child beginning to crawl and then to walk. In some places, the awakening saw signs of encouragement and progress. In others, it would seem that the movement has been hijacked by forces of the old order, of oppression and violence, of restrictions on human liberty and of a growth of extremism and intolerance. Once again Egypt is struggling to find its way, repeating some of the events of Tahrir Square from two years ago. “Comfort, comfort you, my people,” the prophet wants to shout.
And in Syria, the death toll has now reached over fifty thousand, and fear rules the day with escalating violence, and rumors of possible imminent use of chemical weapons. Like the exiles in Babylon addressed by Second Isaiah, now over a million persons are homeless, many seeking shelter in refugee camps like the one at Za’atri inside the border of Jordan. During my late September visit to the camp, along with the General Secretary of LWF, the Rev. Martin Junge, when seeing families with over half of the residents under the age of 18 years, when considering their loss and their struggle to survive, and when becoming aware of their vulnerability with the approaching cold winter rains, words failed me, except to say with Second Isaiah, “Comfort, Comfort, my people,” says our God.
As I sit in Jerusalem this Christmas season, I hear the drums of war sounding so much louder than the trumpets of peace.
I fear that people today are placing more faith in violence and weapons to solve the conflicts of the Middle East than peaceful, non-violent means.
I fear that hatred is proliferating and the urge for revenge and counter-revenge have made their way deep into the hearts of so many people.
I fear that extremist ideas are spreading as if they were a virtue.
I fear that the leaders of the world no longer hold the vision, the courage, and the resolve to seek solutions that will endure.
I ask myself, do these words of comfort continue to make sense in our world today? Do people see that the route that is taken—that the whole Middle East is taking us—is one of peril?
I am once again reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s warning, “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.”
As a Church in the Middle East we say, That is not our way! Wake up, politicians! Wake up, leaders of the world! Listen again to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars… Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Our reliance on weapons and violence will only lead to more hatred and more tragedy. World leaders must assume responsibility to a non-violent preferential option. Now is still the time to find peaceful, non-violent solutions before it is too late. This is the reason that Jesus was incarnated in Bethlehem to bring true peace.
Our ELCJHL continues to commit itself to work for peace based on justice, and reconciliation based on forgiveness. Our ELCJHL continues to educate its youth in peace education and conflict resolution. Our ELCJHL continues to preach a word of hope. Even if we swim against those terrible waves, we announce to the world that our way will always be one of non-violence, that our way will always promote moderation, that our way will always teach respect for the other, that our way will always seek to see the image of the Babe in Manger in the other, that our ways will continue to raise up generations that seek peace.
Peace between Palestinians and Israelis is still possible and justice is still possible. History remembers those who work for peace, not those who merely talk about peace. Courageous and bold steps must be taken for the sake of humanity. This is the reason Jesus taught us, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
The season of Christmas takes us to Bethlehem where the word become flesh, where God bridges the gap between the two realities, offering hope in the place of optimism, offering the fulfillment of God’s promises, especially when we are let down by the world’s disappointing failures. We are drawn to the manger and the child sent by God to bring comfort to a world of suffering and pain, a world of tragedies and disasters, a world of loneliness and sorrow. And in the words of Jesus, grown to adulthood and on the eve of his own death, “I will pray to the father and he will send another Comforter. . . the Spirit of Truth.” (John 14:16-17) This spirit continues to work in messengers of comfort within our world today. This spirit continues to motivate us, the Arab Christians of the Middle East, to strive untirelessly on the path for peace.“Comfort, O comfort my people,” says our God.
Because of Christmas, the incarnation of the eternal Word of God, I am neither pessimistic nor optimistic, but I have hope. I have hope because Jesus was born in our broken world, in the midst of turmoil, similar to what we experience even though Jesus found a place to incarnate. Jürgen Moltmann, the theologian of hope, reminds us of the essence of hope: “I tried to present the Christian hope no longer as such an ‘opium of the beyond’ but rather as the divine power that makes us alive in this world.” This is none other than the Comforter described by Second Isaiah.
That Comforter makes our words of comfort come alive, as we act in our world to prepare the way of the Lord.
We prepare the way of the Lord when we bind up the wounds of the injured and hold the hand of those grieving.
We prepare the way of the Lord when we condemn all acts of violence and oppose every kind of extremism.
We prepare the way of the Lord when we provide shelter for the homeless and winter boots for refugee children.
We prepare the way of the Lord when we work for justice with one standard for the whole world.
We prepare the way of the Lord when we call on politicians to repent of their policies of self- interest and ask them to pursue the ways of peace.
We prepare the way of the Lord when we make education the highest priority that our children may learn respect for the other.
We prepare the way of the Lord when we uphold the human rights of all and defend the freedoms of speech, expression, and religion.
We prepare the way of the Lord when we give others a reason to hope.
And when we prepare the way of the Lord, we offer those words of consolation from Isaiah 40, “Comfort, comfort my people.”
We prepare the way of the Lord who becomes our Immanuel, God with us, so that we pray the prayer of St. Patrick:
Christ be with me,
Christ within me,
Christ behind me,
Christ before me,
Christ beside me,
Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort
And restore me.
May this word of comfort speak to your hearts as you prepare the way of the Lord.
Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year in 2013
وكل عام وأنتم وعائلاتكم بألف خير
Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan
The Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land