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12.25.2011 _____________________

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it” — Hebrews 13:2

The sky was amazingly clear, filled with stars. I looked for one that stood out above the rest but couldn’t find one: I was about 2,000 years too late.

It was my first Christmas in the Holy Land, and I was in Bethlehem.

Hospitality. The night was cold. Crisp and cold. I pulled my blankets close and snuggled closer to the fire. A cup of hot, sweet tea warmed my hands. I was spending the night in the hills outside Bethlehem with Palestinian shepherds encamped with their sheep, as had generations of Canaanite, Jewish, Christian and Muslim shepherds before them.

Beyond our camp I could see the twinkle of lights in Bethlehem, and aside from the occasional murmurs of speech from my companions, and a dog barking, all was silent.

Silent Night.

I had come to Bethlehem to take photographs on behalf of UNWRA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency that worked with Palestinians displaced during the 1948 and 1967 wars. My visit predated my embrace of Islam. As a Christian I was fully in thrall of Luke’s Gospel, of the history and tradition that surrounded the birth of a Jewish baby, Jesus, a Palestinian boy born in an animal stall to a teenage mother, believed by Christians to be an Incarnation of God.

His mother was homeless. Mary and Joseph were citizens of a land oppressed through occupation by Rome. Indeed, according to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod felt so threatened by Jesus that he ordered the slaughter of an unknown number of children in a futile attempt to kill the Christ child.

Jesus, born in Bethlehem, was a Semite. He was probably dark and swarthy, olive skin complexion, short, curly-haired and, as a very active walker and carpenter, very fit.

The next day was Christmas Eve, and I moved from the countryside to Manger Square, where I met Abdul Majid and his family, who had invited me into their home via a missionary friend.

Hospitality. The Abdul Majids lived in one large room, unheated, tall ceilings, dark, damp and cold, and a small fire, used for both heating and cooking, was tended day and night by all members of the family.

There was a small Christmas tree in the middle of the room, with meager decorations and real candles waiting to be lighted.

They welcomed me as they would a long-lost brother, gave me more sweet tea, showed me a corner where I could unroll my sleeping bag and apologized for not being able to give me privacy other than a screen.

We became family. In coming years, whether I could visit them or not, I sent them support and presents to supplement Abdul Majid’s meager income as a day laborer.

Holy Night.

They lived around the corner from Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, which on Christmas Eve filled with Arab and Israeli dignitaries, diplomats, pilgrims from foreign lands and special guests. A little room was left for local Palestinians like Abdul Majid and his family. As a guest and photographer, I had permission to wander at will but, during the Mass, amidst its beautiful chanting and incense, I sat with the Abdul Majids, embraced by their hospitality, their love of Jesus and the miracle of His birth.

“Be kind to parents, and the near kinsman, and to orphans, and to the needy, and to the neighbor who is of kin, and to the neighbor who is a stranger, and to the companion at your side, and to the traveler.” — Qur’an 4.36-37

Hospitality. I had come to Bethlehem from Beirut via a series of what are called “service” taxis; five-passenger taxis. To the Allenby Bridge, where I crossed the Jordan River and entered the West Bank, drivers and passengers alike had welcomed me, fed me and entertained me for countless hours across a foreign landscape. Never once was the proverbial tent flap closed in my face.

Hospitality. I encountered my first Israeli at the Allenby Bridge. I was nervous. The Israeli Defense Force soldier was polite, curious and courteous and, as requested, put my entry stamp on a separate card rather than in my passport so I could re-enter Arab countries. When I told him I was going to Bethlehem he handed me back my passport with a cheerful, “Merry Christmas.”

Hospitality. Today, Christmas Day, my Christian friends have invited me to join them for dinner to celebrate the miracle of Jesus’s birth.

I’ve accepted. I will help cook and I will bask in the pleasure of their celebration and love. Today, God’s gift of Jesus, His gift to all mankind of Love and Hope and Promise, transcends all theology.

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself.” — Leviticus

19:33-34

This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.

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