The biggest Christmas tree in the entire Middle East at the moment is apparently in Israel! Ambassador Dani Dayan is proud of the fact that Israel allows such freedom to its Christian population, and has published this to the world.1 You may take it for granted that Christmas day is a holiday from work and school, or that you are free to put up trees and decorations, but celebrating Christmas is not so easy in some countries. Even in Israel, it can cause a bit of friction.
Christmas day is a regular working day for most of the population. Israel is a Jewish state, but 20% of our citizens are not Jewish – mostly Muslim and Christian Arabs – and they need to be considered too. However, some city municipalities embrace the diversity more than others.
The Mayors who stole Christmas!
A Christmas tree displayed a shopping mall in Ashdod caused great controversy recently. The deputy mayor was outraged and insisted that the “disgrace must be removed”.2 There can be great opposition from more religious Jewish people to any hint of Christmas, which they equate with idol worship. Additionally, the Muslim mayor of Nazareth declared Christmas was cancelled last year. His ban did not last long, however, and he soon recanted from his harsh decision.
Today, there are lights and Christmas celebrations a-plenty in Nazareth, Jerusalem, Haifa, Shfaram, and other cities around Israel. It may be controversial, but it is definitely not cancelled this year!
Even some Messianic Jews struggle with the extra-biblical aspects of the holiday (Why do Some Messianic Jews Object to Christmas?). However, as the Jewish and Arab communities are coming together in unity more and more, we are learning how to honor both traditions – with all the sensitivities – in the way that we mark the birth of the Messiah.
Undeterred and unabashed by such concerns that arise each year, Christchurch in Jerusalem makes the most of Jewish Israeli curiosity about Christmas. They hold special events at the church by the Jaffa Gate and throw “a big birthday party for Jesus”, opening their gates and inviting the entire city to come and celebrate.3 They decorate their compound with a huge tree and offer traditional food, along with music, special services, and explanations about the profound meaning behind the celebrations. And they take care to do so in such a way that makes sense to the many Jewish visitors who come each year.
What’s worse: Exclusion or inclusion of everything?
The northern city of Haifa, in contrast to Ashdod, is proudly displaying the symbols of the three faiths together: the Hanukkah menorah, a Christmas tree, and the Muslim crescent and star all right next to each other.
Most Israelis will tell you, “Each has their own path”. The verse in Habakkuk that says, “The righteous shall live by his faith” (2:4) has been twisted to mean, “Each according to their own belief”. This leads to a fairly workable coexistence, which is good, but the truth of the matter is, there is only one way to the Father, and it is through Yeshua, the Messiah.
It is good that to some degree at least, Israel accepts other faiths and traditions – there is tolerance and freedom – but as believers, we don’t accept the idea that all faiths are basically the same.
Jewish and Arab believers in Haifa, unfazed by the uncomfortable juxtaposition, make the most of the golden opportunity to share with the thousands of Israelis who come to see the joint festival of faiths called the “Holiday of Holidays”.
Both Arab and Jewish believers from many different congregations will go out to share the Gospel together in the weekends leading up to Christmas. There are book tables with literature in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and English, free face-painting and portraits, worship songs and carols, and even a life-sized nativity scene! Their message? God loves you, unconditionally! And Yeshua the Messiah has made a way for you to know Him personally, so that you can experience His love.
Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the Lord. And many nations shall join themselves to the Lord in that day, and shall be my people.
And I will dwell in your midst, and you shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you. (Zechariah 2:10-11)
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