Sunday, January 1, 2017

Christmas in the Holy Land: A spiritual frontier

Dear friends,

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and your families where ever you may be in this beautiful world.  After a busy couple of weeks leading up to December 25th, the calendar date reserved for Christmas for a large part of the Christian world, I am enjoying a few days of rest, relaxation, and reflection. While I have tried to stay off of my email and computer, I have found this blog to be a useful tool in conveying my own spiritual reflections and learning during this year of mission service in Jerusalem with the Young Adult Service Corps (YASC).

Each year, Christmas takes on a new, deeper meaning for me as a Christian and servant of God.  In my youth, Christmas represented a time of material infatuation and increased stress due to the pressures of finding and purchasing gifts for friends and family that they might actually enjoy and figuring out the complex dance of scheduling times to see and please each respective party.  In many ways it seems that I thought that this was what Christmas was all about.  I was wrong.

Growing up in Maine, Christmas included going to a local United Church of Christ for the Christmas Eve service at midnight.  A special evening of caroling and readings retelling the fateful and miraculous story of events leading up to and the subsequent birth of Jesus Christ.  Going to church back then seemed more like a rite of passage, a necessary step along the way to the extraordinary bounty of gifts and presents that found their way under our pine Christmas tree in our living room each year on Christmas morning.  For me, Christmas more about the goods, and less about the inherent goodness and ultimate love of God revealed in the birth of Jesus.  Yes, I certainly knew something special had occurred in human history 2000 years ago with the birth of Jesus, but I neither had the will or perception to take things a step further, to go beyond what I read and heard each Christmas Eve to discover the full meaning and importance of Christmas.  Perhaps I did hear these messages, but they did not root as firmly as they have in recent years.

Christmas Eve service in the Greek Orthodox Chapel of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
This year, being away from friends and family, in a foreign environment, serving in the church, has revealed additional parts of the truth surrounding the glory of Christmas.  Without these familial and societal pressures, I am able to see with a clearer perspective Christmas' meaning and magnificence. Being alone in this setting comes with its perceived hardships, but the fruits gained from this experience are far greater than those supposedly lost.  By experiencing Christmas in the Holy Land, I am blessed to see that Christmas is all about God's love for us, and for me.

Seeing our suffering, imperfection, sin, and poverty of spirit, God chose to become fully human in Christ. He made the choice to do this, a choice not motivated by compulsion but by love.  A love so profound, so divine, so powerful that it surpasses our best abilities to try to comprehend.  And so God sent His only begotten and beloved Son to dwell among us.

Christmas Carol service on Chirstmas Eve
at Shepherd's Fields in Beit Sahour
As mentioned in an earlier blog post, what was different about this year's Christian experience is that I am serving in the church and not simply participating in the celebration of the Nativity from the pews.  I have many duties and responsibilities during each service.  Be it taking photographs, printing programs, preparing the Sacraments, singing with the choir, serving as a Crucifer and Lay Assistant, and setting up the Cathedral space.  What this continued thread of experience shows me is the power and importance of facilitating religious experiences for others, acting as a conduit of God's divine love and Christ's servant nature.  
Christmas Eve midnight service at St. George's Cathedral, Jerusalem
This service and leadership in the church helps me to discern God's call for my life and for all our lives.  Yes, sometimes this service can be physically and emotionally draining, but the treasures revealed to me in understanding Christ, His love, and acting as a vehicle for Him to communicate his love for us is the greatest gift a person can ever receive.  This peace found in Jesus Christ, which surpasses all human understanding, leads us to the Father.
Singing "Silent Night" during the Christmas Eve midnight service
at St. George's Cathedral, Jerusalem

In his Christmas Day sermon, Archbishop Suheil preached that the birth of Jesus Christ teaches us "do not be afraid."  This simple yet profound statement holds as much weight today as it did 2000 years ago for the Jews and Gentiles living in the land of Palestine then, and Israel/Palestine now.  For this Christmastide and for the year 2017, I hold fast to and relay this message of Faith, Hope, Love, Peace and Light revealed in Christ the Savior.  Do not be afraid.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

In Christ,
Jack Karn

The Most Revd Suheil Dawani preaching on Christmas morning

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