It is one of those times of year. The Jewish holiday of Chanukah finished just over a week ago. For Christians like me, we are well into the season of Advent, being nigh unto the fourth and last Sunday before Christmas Eve.
Spending this December in Jerusalem should be fascinating and wondrous. It is, possibly, a once-in-a-lifetime event for me. Not only am I in the land where all the stories took place, but in addition to the calendar my tradition keeps, there are two other local Christian traditions with their own calendars, so I could celebrate Christ’s birth three times if I wish! The very landscape should be bountiful for my creative imagination.
But it’s not–not yet, anyway.
Everything seems stuck so far, like Advent is not really progressing; each day seems pretty much the same as the last. Oh, yes, the Advent candles are being lit one week at a time; still, it seems like the season is requiring a massive effort of make-believe, even with the decorations at the Christian theological institute where we are living and the cool Lego Advent calendar that Alana gave me last year. You might think that this is the consequence of residing in a place where Christians–despite all the churches–are a definite minority. However, that festive feeling proved elusive even during Chanukah. Alana and I lit the candles (each evening preceded by having to borrow a lighter from the chapel here as we neglected to buy matches) and celebrated more or less as we have each year that we have been together. A giant chanukiah went up in Zion Square, many of the stores had candles in their front windows, and the larger, busier thoroughfares had decorative lights on lampposts. I also should not forget the sufganiyot–special doughnuts for the holidays, wonderfully fresh at local bakeries (shh, don’t tell my arteries). Yet being here did not dispel the curious sense of looking on everything as if through the glass of a snowglobe.
Last week, when Alana and I went for a walk one night, I saw a lit-up Christmas tree in a high apartment window. While I was pointing this out to her, we both neglected to see one of those decorative trees that city planners use to obstruct sidewalks, and Alana stumbled into the shallow pit. This pretty much sums up things.
What is causing this?
It could be the unsettling nature of travelling. We only just got back from our prolonged absence, which made me miss any service for the first Sunday of Advent. There has been little time for preparation, decoration, relaxation.
It could be, for me, the lack of most of the usual church-related Advent events. As the minister of the local Church of Scotland congregation observed, to do things in Advent requires people who will be there throughout the season, and many people who usually attend go away for part of the holiday time. Then again, I have always found that the Church of Scotland celebrates Advent haphazardly at best, seemingly putting up candles as an afterthought and barely integrating them with the liturgy, something quite different from the version of the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition in which I grew up.
It could be a side effect of me being Protestant. We are not supposed to be that big on sacred places and pilgrimages, except for metaphorical ones. We are supposed to want true history, whatever that is, and that is not always easy, even in a land with an ancient pedigree. Perhaps, too, I don’t have a real pilgrim’s eye; I always had a greater desire to see Iona than any specific place in Israel or Palestine.
It could be that my heart’s two sizes too small.
One thing it is not: the holiday funk is not caused by life in an interfaith partnership. I understand that holidays are often flash points for partners who do not share the same traditions, as family and personal expectations about customs will be disappointed and require readjusting. Holidays are full of myths and memories which have grown up since one’s childhood, and I admit it is not always easy when you cannot fully share the things which have been most important to you. Yet, Alana and I made a decision early on to celebrate together what we can, and to share our stories when we cannot–to enrich our lives in learning about one another as best we can. Besides, holy day observance is part of the kind of theologians we are.
But it could be that all the political and religious tension that permeates this place corrupts holiday hopes. Bethlehem and Jerusalem, while physically closer than I ever imagined as a child, are now separated by a wall. How can you celebrate when there is no justice, no peace, when even the rhetoric of those who uphold the principle of justice is at times unjust on every side, when theology meant to present wise and loving relationships among human beings, God, and others is used as a blunt instrument of spiritual violence?
In the end, though, while each of these things has some part to play in what is happening here, there is another piece to the puzzle. Holidays require community. Celebrations need family and friends for the quiet moments and the enchantment hidden in the songs, for the enjoyment of the lights and imagining life in the stories. This community, for Alana and for me, is still being forged here; we’re still missing the people we have left, the people who are far away. (You know who you are, I hope.) We’re doing the best we can, and maybe holiday observance will not be as it has been, or as we have expected, but maybe through them new friendships will surprise us.
We have to try, in any case, because perhaps it is precisely in an area of religious tension like Jerusalem that holy days, at least the part of them that sings of alternative ways of relating, of peace and joy, are needed. Where the easy things about holidays are hard, where celebration is always going to be a little ambiguous, then there is a possibility for new and wondrous things to happen. So, here’s to perseverance for the sake of even the slightest possibility. Cheers.