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After Christmas, Being Present

In our family, the wrappings and gifts of Christmas morning have all been put away, but the Christmas season that follows the festival has me still focused on presents—and on presence.

It’s not only the song about the 12 days with its succession of gifts, or the anticipation of Epiphany, Jan. 6, when the Western church celebrates the visit of the Three Magi with their royal gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It’s also the echoes of “The Little Drummer Boy,” and the invitation to “Come… your finest gifts to bring to lay before the king. Pah-rum-pah-pum-pum.”

The gift of God’s incarnation brings us the challenge to embody God’s love in our own lives. Luther spoke of Christians being “little Christs” to the neighbor. Christian formation in every tradition has been about shaping our lives to resemble the life in which we believe God was most fully present to the world. This year again, the invitations have come for me to meet the challenge of the incarnation by standing in solidarity with others at some holy site for some holy cause.

Jewish voices have called from the Temple Mount, what Islam calls Haram al-Sharif (“Noble Sanctuary” in Arabic), which is under rhetorical siege by Muslims who deny any Jewish heritage to the site. “Temple denial,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Michael Oren, “is also denial of the Gospels,” referencing the many gospel stories that connect Jesus with the Temple. Will I give my presence for a Temple Mount respected as the focal point of Jewish and Christian holiness?

Christians in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and elsewhere have raised their voices of desperation, and their pleas for solidarity, as they struggle against regimes, insurgencies, and societies that have made their faith a crime—too often punishable by death. Will I give my presence for religious freedom and for fellow believers to be able to live safely and faithfully in the towns where they were born?

From some evangelical Christians comes a voice reminding me that the birth is part of God’s great master plan of salvation. For their vision of that plan to come to fruition, the Jewish people must have sovereignty in their homeland. Will I give my presence for them in a Bethlehem restored to its Judean heritage?

From Bethlehem, the very site of the holy nativity, comes a voice that wonders if there is “no room at the inn” for the Christians of Christ’s own land. Will I give my presence for the Palestinian poor in the only home they have ever known?

Each invitation comes with a compelling logic and an emotional appeal. Each has justice on its side in the eyes and hearts of those who send the invitation. Each drums at my conscience with an insistence that I respond well—pah-rum-pah-pum-pum.

But responding is complicated. Author Lela Gilbert says my response to the Temple Mount controversy will show “the common ground on which Jews and Christians stand.” But do not Muslims also stand on that holy mount? Is that not, in fact, the point?

Does the plea for room at the inn by Palestinian Christians allow for Israeli sojourners at that same inn, or would it exclude them? Must a sovereign Judean Bethlehem spell the end of centuries-old Christian and Muslim communities for the sake of a Christian vision? Does religious freedom extend to Christian militias that are no less brutal than those they oppose? When my presence is invited in a way that denies another’s place in the world, can it be a redeeming presence, a presence worthy of the Lord of Life?

The Lord of Life is also a Prince of Peace, who has reconciled all people in his one person. He has incarnated a presence of God that embraces every community in nurturing love. As William Klassen has written in “Love of Enemies: The Way to Peace,” Jesus expressed “his love to those who were God’s and his enemies… in a manner which affirmed their dignity as human beings by allowing them free choice… He treated his enemies as people who could respond to the gracious drawing of God. That is what it means to love your enemies.”

In Klassen’s image I find inspiration for the complicated response I want to embody. In my efforts at faithful presence, I want to stand in solidarity with those who cry out for support and encouragement. I want to do so in a way that also respects the human dignity of those who afflict them, a way that affirms their capacity to respond to God’s presence. I want to give my presence not for my narrow understanding of a cause or my limited grasp of justice and mercy, but for God to use as God’s own presence to all who are caught up in conflict.

I almost certainly cannot gauge accurately the impact of my presence in any act of solidarity. I am as susceptible as anyone else to blindness and self-interest and misguided motives. So, I struggle with my complicated response and choose it prayerfully, asking for God’s presence in the process. I do so remembering that our struggle is not against any people, but (again, citing Klassen) against “bigotry, fear, selfishness, intolerance, violence, and cheapening of life… which reside in us as well.”

Rev. Dr. Peter A. Pettit is co-Director of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s New Paths: Christians Engaging Israel initiative and director of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.