Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem
Christmas Homily 2001
Brothers and sisters
Mister President Yaser Arafat
1. A very happy Christmas to you all. On this holy night I pray to God for you all in this Holy Land and for all our faithful in every part of our Diocese, in Palestine, Jordan, Israel and Cyprus, and to all the Christians, Moslems and Jews, that he may grant you every goodness and blessing.
2. I would like to offer a special greeting to President Yaser Arafat prevented by a political decision to participate, as is his custom, in this prayer on this night. For you, President Arafat, we ask God to give you peace of soul, the strength of peace and the hope and firmness to reclaim peace for the people for whom you are responsible until their liberty is re-established. The limitation imposed on your liberty is the same as that imposed to your people. The pathway to Bethlehem, and above all Christmas day, is a pathway of peace. With this we also tell the governors of Israel: peace and security. We also pray for you that you are granted wisdom and light, in order to see that the road toward Bethlehem can be only a road of peace, and in a particular way with the presence of President Arafat. Mister president, you were never as present in the city and the feast in which you venerate God's mystery.
3. Brothers and sisters, we listened to God's word in the readings of this day. The first reading from the prophet Isaiah starts with this verse: "The people that walked in darkness saw a great light " (Is 9,1). This light appeared for us on this day of the birth of Christ Our Lord, Word of God made man, as St John says: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God" (Jn 1,1). These words are still a theme for our meditation, of our prayer and our constant effort to bring God closer to us, who wished to dwell among us, as St Paul says: "He who was of divine nature yet he did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and to become as men are, and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross" (Philp 2,6-7). And it is he the child announced by prophet Isaiah, when he says: "A child was born to us, a son has been given to us… one gave him this name, strong God, eternal Father, prince of the peace " (Is. 95).
4. In the second reading, Saint Paul tells us: God's grace, source of salvation for all men, appeared" (Tite 2,11). Then he makes the link with the second time between Christmas and the mystery of the cross and says: "He sacrificed himself for us in order to set us free us from all weaknesses and to purify a people so that it could be his very own, an would have no ambition except to do good" (Tite 2,14).
In the third reading, from the gospel of S. Luke, we listened to the narration of the event: Joseph and Mary came from Nazareth to Bethlehem, obedient to the orders of the political powers of the time that were Roman: the governor of Syria of which depended Bethlehem, had ordered indeed that each should return to his natal town for a general census. Mary and Joseph returned to Bethlehem therefore with all those who returned there for the census. And the gospel tells the event in simple and concise terms: " While they were there the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to a son, her first-born. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn" (Lc 2,6-7). They returned to their city as foreigners, and in the inn of strangers there was not any more room. They took refuge to a near underground cave therefore and God's mystery was accomplished in the humility.
Before God's Word we adore and we meditate, and we ask God to increase our faith, because our intelligence until today remains impotent to understand all the mystery of God's goodness towards the humanity.
5. And, in our meditation of the mystery of the divine goodness, we return to our human reality, to note the pain and the sin there, in us as people and in the behavior of the governors of this earth; to recover our tearing between calls of the divine goodness and challenges of the man's pain in us and in those with whom we fight. And taken in this pain, we pray so that God's goodness appears in us and in our earth, and fill the hearts of both peoples living here, Palestinian and Israeli.
Our situation today is similar to the one described by the prophet Jeremiah: "If I go into the countryside, there lie men killed by sword; if I go into the city, I see people sick with hunger; even prophets and priests plow the land: they are at their wit’s end…We were hoping for peace – no good came out of it! For the moment of cure – nothing but terror" (Jer 14, 18-10). Yes, the terror fills the hearts of the Israelis, and the Palestinians. And one says: terror, and by this word one thinks to find the pretext not to make the peace. One says terror, and one refuses to see and to hear innocents and men and women like all men and all women who ask for their liberty and their land. It is time that the Israeli people ask himself with courage: for what do Palestinians ask? And to understand that they don't want to kill and to hate, but they ask for the liberty for themselves, and the security for the Israelis will be the fruit of this liberty.
6. The conflict that we live also has a Christian dimension; it takes place indeed around the holy places of the Redemption of the world, where God's mercy appeared. And it threatens the survival of the Christians in this land. It is why, we tell all Palestinian Christian looking for his identity and his mission in this tormented land: you are a Christian and witness to Jesus in his land, and you are Palestinian deprived from your liberty. It is necessary therefore that you be Christian and it is necessary that you ask for your liberty. Your liberty is God's gift; you don't have the right, for no reason, to resign before any strong power in this world. Your identity consists in testifying to Jesus, to his love, to his peace, to the forgiveness, to see God in all human person, in the brother as in the adversary, and with this vision and with the strength of the mind you ask for your liberty, without losing and without distorting God's picture in you or in the soul of the adversary from whom you ask for your liberty.
The pope Jean Paul II invited last December 13 the Catholic Bishops of Jerusalem, the Custos of Holy Land, and some bishops representing the Churches of the world, in order to think together on the peace in Holy Land and on the future of the Christians in it. The invitation in is a sign of the love and solicitude of Holy Father for us. The peace? It is conditioned by the end of the occupation. The future of the Christians? It is in our hands: it is about accepting our vocation to be Christians in this land, and no elsewhere in the world. In this Land, it means, in our Arab Palestinian and Moslem society. If we accept our vocation, we will discover paths to follow and ways to survive in this country. If we accept our vocation, and if we discover paths to follow, everybody is ready to help us in order to have a life of witnesses, honorable even if difficult, in our land, because the future of Christians preoccupy all the Churches; even the Arab and Moslem world also is worried and concerned about our survival. Because together Moslems and Christians we carry the responsibility of this society, the same destiny and the peace in this holy land, with the Israeli society, we are invited to put an end to the occupation, in order to begin the common march toward peace.
8. The angel tells the shepherds: I announce you a great joy: a savior has been born to you. Yes, over the demolished houses, above the hearts suffering under the occupation until it ends, in spite of the families in mourning, in Bethlehem and in all the Palestinian and Israeli villages and towns, in spite of the unjust powers, of the hearts full of terror, the voice of angels rises: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peaces on earth to men who enjoy his favor.
8. And continuing the meditation of the first chapter of the gospel of St. John, we read the following verses: " The Word was the true light that enlightens all me; and he was coming into the world… and the world did not know him”(Jn 1,10). The world refuses the light that comes from God; the light coming from God is prevented to penetrate the councils of war, and the councils of those who plan for the globe, of those who take the liberty to oppress peoples for the only reason that they are poor, on the profit of other peoples, for the only reason that they are strong. The mystery of God and God's light say: it is not permitted to oppress peoples because they are weak and poor, and it is not permitted that other peoples exercise the injustice because they are strong. Because it is a sin. And it is in this sin that is born and grows terrorism, because of the sin of the strong. And its disappearance and the tranquility of all the humanity are also in the hands of the strong, but they humble themselves and accept the light of God's wisdom and exercise the justice.
9. Brothers and sisters, from Bethlehem we pray with you where you are in this holy night. We pray for our president Arafat, present among us. We pray for the prisoners and we put before God their sufferings. We pray for the justice and the peace in the hearts of the Israelis and the Palestinians. We pray for the governors of this world so that God guides them, in order to become capable to hear the screaming of all oppressed. We pray so that God fill our hearts of his love and his peace. Amen.
+ Michel Sabbah
Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem