“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie”. So begins one of the most well-known and cherished of our Christmas Carols. I am fortunate enough to have been able to take two trips to Bethlehem in the past decade. I first visited in August 2005, and this coincided with a rather tense time for the country, as the pullouts began in the Gaza strip. Around Jerusalem, roadblocks and checkpoints were set up every few hundred yards. Heavily armed soldiers and police patrolled the streets. Our bus was searched several times each day. For me, the most moving part of my 2005 trip was to see the impact that the political situation was having on the day to day lives of ordinary citizens. In the West Bank area of Bethlehem, Manger Square was deserted. Those few sellers who were still trading swarmed around our group of tourists, desperate to sell just one bag or stuffed toy. We were the only tourists they would see all day. The stillness of Bethlehem in August 2005 was not a peaceful one. It was a stillness racked with tension. It was a stillness that could have been shattered by a single gunshot, a single explosion. It was the stillness of a country in desperate times. I returned to Bethlehem in 2011, and the atmosphere could not have been more different. Busloads of tourists queued for the multi-storey car park. Hundreds of street sellers and falafel stands crammed every available space on the pavement. Manger Square was so full of people and traffic that cars could neither enter nor exit it. Tourists and locals stood shoulder to shoulder as they came and went from the Church of the Nativity. And amidst the chaos of an ordinary day in Bethlehem, I felt a sense of peace. This was how things should be. Bethlehem was once more a thriving honey pot for pilgrims from across the globe. Restaurants and shops were booming in business. Armed soldiers were still present, but we were further from the knife edge than we had been in 2005, when one incident could have sparked crisis. continued The situation in Israel and Palestine is far from peaceful. And yet the activists, terrorists and politicians who dominate our news headlines are not typical of the Israelis and Palestinians that I met during my visits. Most people in the land long for peace. They are accustomed to living among the shells and the guns, yet neither people want to claim ‘victory’. They simply want to establish a peaceful existence in which they and their children can flourish. Chaos and peace are not mutually exclusive. In the stillness of 2005 Bethlehem, there was little peace when compared to the chaos of 2011. As we approach Christmas, which of us will not feel a sense of chaos?! But even in chaos, we can have peace. It is often in the midst of that chaos that we become aware of the still small voice of God, calling us ever nearer to him. It is only in chaos that we come to fully appreciate peace. This Christmas, why not take some time away from the chaos to come to a place of peace at one of our Christmas services? Perhaps it is in our snatched moments of peace that we will hear afresh the voice of the Christ Child, who comforts, reassures, and calls us ever nearer to himself. Do pray for the people of Israel and Palestine this Christmas, and for all who long for peace amidst the stress of chaotic lives.
As many of you know, I will be taking Statutory Maternity Leave from December. I have been very touched by your prayers and concern during our pregnancy, which so far has been remarkably straightforward. This will be an important time for us to adjust to life with a newborn baby, and to help Ben to do the same. All being well, I intend to worship regularly in the parish during my leave. However, there will be an initial rest and recovery period which may coincide with our Advent and Christmas services, so please bear with me if the baby and I are not out and about until the New Year! Jim will also take a fortnight of Statutory Paternity Leave after Christmas, at a time when we hope disruption to the parish will be kept to a minimum. We are grateful to colleagues from across the Deanery who will be covering services in our absence, and to all those of you who work so hard behind the scenes to help us keep the parish running day-to-day.