A Bethlehem Prayer Service at Christmastime: Washington, DC simulcast with Bethlehem, Palestine

One reason music is powerful is that it exists in context — in place and time. A song plays on the radio and we hurtle back in our memory to the sweetheart we danced with once upon a time. A musical theme announces a favorite movie or series and the pleasure of watching it comes flooding back. Context matters. Music we enjoy in one situation might be excruciating if, for instance, our parents (or children) would happen to enter the room. A song we enjoy at a live concert might have us banging on the elevator doors when we’re caught in a Muzak version of that same tune.

At Christmas we’re reminded that our bodies hold the memories of music we’ve heard and sung, whether a silly jingle or a deeply moving work of sacred music.?

This morning I once again attended the Bethlehem Prayer Service at the National Cathedral, a joint service with a Lutheran church in Bethlehem, Palestine. An unusual context for music, perhaps, because it messed a bit with space and time — this service was held simultaneously on two sides of the Atlantic ocean. 9:30 AM in Washington, DC was 4:30 PM in Bethlehem, Palestine. There’s a bit of satellite lag, so it’s pretty amazing to sing together across space and time, quite literally.

We worshipped in the transept of the cathedral, in the wooden choir seats below the high altar, which is a magnificent setting. The cathedral’s professional choir sang. Technology connected us to a small church in Bethlehem with a 6-piece brass choir.

Our opening hymn was “O Come All Ye Faithful,” hardly an unusual choice for a Christmas worship service. But the words of verse 3 hit me:

Sing choirs of angels, sing in exultation. Sing, all you citizens of heaven above! Glory to God all glory in the highest! O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

We were singing literally in concert with people in Palestine, many of whom have no citizenship. Palestine is not a sovereign nation and so the people who live there are denied citizenship. They cannot move freely about, and are treated as “less than.”

Singing with them as fellow “citizens of heaven” had a deeper, more poignant meaning. Together we celebrate Jesus’ coming into the world through a long-ago birth in Bethlehem, which was then, as it is now, a region under occupation.

Whatever you believe — or whatever you question — I wish you a Christmas celebration that breathes new meaning into old traditions, as we prepare to welcome the Prince of Peace.

Here’s an explanation of how this annual Prayer Service began:

In 2006 a group gathered in concern for the deteriorating situation in Palestine and Israel. It was a few months before Christmas, and thoughts turned to Bethlehem and the present-day wall around the city. What if the Christmas events took place today? Would Mary and Joseph be able to cross into Bethlehem on their journey from Nazareth? The 30-foot wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem would block the way. Perhaps Mary would give birth while waiting to cross through a checkpoint, as happens for some Palestinian women today on their way to the hospital. Recognizing that most Americans do not know about the realities of Palestinian life, the Ad Hoc Committee for Bethlehem was formed to raise awareness. This committee then sponsored events to lift up the need for justice and peace in Bethlehem and throughout the land, and to remind the faithful of the calling to be peacemakers. This service is an outcome of their work. Today a concrete wall remains, separating Bethlehem from neighboring Jerusalem, five miles away. Residents find themselves cut off from relatives, unable to worship at religious sites in Jerusalem, and limited in their opportunities for higher education and employment. The concrete wall not only separates the West Bank from Israel: it cuts through Palestinian land, separating farmers from fields and effectively annexing their land. Israeli roads and settlements in the region further segment Palestinian communities. Many Palestinians who have the means have left the Holy Land in search of a better life elsewhere. The Christian population of Bethlehem has declined from a majority several decades ago to about fifteen percent today. The presence of Christians throughout the Holy Land has dwindled to less than two percent. The current situation in Bethlehem is of concern to Christians around the world who seek to follow the Prince of Peace in building bridges that connect rather than walls that divide. Today we turn our hearts to the one God who loves all equally, and pray that a new day will dawn for us, for Palestinians, and for Israelis


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