Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Journey to Bethlehem in Advent

Advent 1 - Week of Nov 30, 1 Corinthians 1.3-9

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus…

Advent is the season of preparation, but what should we do to get ready? How do we prepare for this gift God gives us at Christmas? This gift of God’s own self, come to us, just like one of us—not a powerful human king, not a superhero, but a tiny, squalling, diaper-dirtying baby. How do we prepare for this gift?

Hospitality is a highest Arab virtue. Above all else, even if the person in front of you is your enemy, you have a duty to welcome him or her. In Jerusalem’s Old Suq, the market, a shopkeeper you don’t even know will offer you tea, or a cold drink. Hospitality is a sign, not of the importance of your guest, but of the kind of person you are. And food is the gift.

When we arrived in Beit Jala, we were welcomed by Sami and Sousan and their daughters and son. They opened their home to us, a busload of hot, thirsty, weary travelers. They included us in the celebration of their daughter’s birthday with cake and candles. After lunch they took us on a tour and told us the story of their orchard.

Sami’s family’s farmland is on the outskirts of Beit Jala. When Sami had his elastic manufacturing business, the land lay untended—but the olive trees survived. Sami is not a farmer, but when his company went out of business because of Chinese competition a few years ago, he decided to start farming the land. You see, the Israeli government confiscates Palestinian land that is not being used; uncultivated farmland is deemed “abandoned” and turned into parkland or open space or used to build new Jewish settlements for Israelis. So Sami developed his land; he installed an irrigation system and planted fruit trees—apricots and apples—and vegetables as well. Shortly after all these improvements were made, the Israeli government decided to build their security wall on Sami’s farmland. The wall would protect the new Israeli settlement that is just over the top of the hill from the orchard. So, the bulldozers came and plowed up his olive trees. The wall sits today, still unfinished, no explanations offered, not protecting anything, but taking up one third of Sami’s orchard.

We spent that evening with Ipptysam and her family, who insisted we eat snacks and treats and then, after we were full, offered us supper. It didn’t matter that we were not hungry, however. It was too much, but refusing hospitality is an offense to your host. In fact, our Arab hosts trained us in the art of receiving hospitality by not letting us refuse them.

So, how do we prepare to receive a gift? Like my reaction to the salty snacks and Cokes, we may not even really want the gift God offers—God’s presence among us. So we prepare to receive it by practicing hospitality—welcoming all, with an abundance of food—not just our friends, but people we would not dream of associating with. Who can you feed today? Is there a food bank or a free meal in your community that you could help with this week? Buying canned goods and donating them to your local food bank will not work, because that does not include the human interaction of hospitality. Canned goods may be OK for Americans, but an Arab will spend the evening with you, ply you with food, take you on a tour of their farm and celebrate their birthdays with you.

In preparation for God’s coming, how can we practice hospitality?

O Lord our God, creator of the universe, you have planted your merciful grace in us, cultivated and watered it. In a world of fear, make us courageous bearers of your hospitality. In the name of your Son, the babe of Bethlehem, Amen.

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