Is Life Worth Living Before Death?
One of the hazards of living 24/7 surrounded by biblical history, as I do in Nazareth, is its unexpected impact on spirituality the reverse of the famed "Jerusalem effect," in which fervent Christian pilgrims are overwhelmed by the city's intense spiritual atmosphere.
In Nazareth, my office at the Baptist school is 200 yards away from "Mary's well." According to tradition, the Virgin Mary, together with her fellow women of first-century Nazareth, would go there daily to fetch water for the family and touch base on the latest news of the day. My office is also half a mile away from the sites, recognized by ancient tradition, of the holy family's Nazareth home and Joseph's carpentry/masonry shop. My favorite restaurant is in between them.
Most of the world's two billion Christians would count it a once-in-a-lifetime blessing to visit these holy sites. But for those of us who live and have lived for generations in this part of the world, these places become very familiar perhaps even too familiar which can work against healthy Christian spirituality. In our daily lives as Christian inhabitants of Nazareth, living close to the sites that witnessed so many meaningful events goes unnoticed. They become ancient, taken-for-granted monuments.
But there is another complicating factor here. Starting around November and lasting through Easter and Holy Week in the spring, Christian pilgrims by the multitudes are escorted through the top sites from the life of Christ and the early church.
These pilgrims have nary a personal encounter with the contemporary church of living stones everyday saints who maintain the Christian witness in Nazareth, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and other communities. This further feeds the perception, rightly or wrongly, among the Mideast's Christians (especially Christian youth) that Christianity is mostly about the past and has little to do with their hopes, dreams, and aspirations for bettering their lives.
Even in this great and festive season of Christmas (Dec. 25 in the West), Orthodox Christmas (Jan. 7), and Epiphany (Jan. 6 this year), we Christians must not avoid looking at the realities of the Middle East in 2008. If we understand Israel, Palestine, and the entire Middle East only through the lens of historic Christianity or the passionate rhetoric of end-times prophesies, we will lose out.
Examining the plight of Christians in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Gaza, and elsewhere means evaluating their conditions and challenges. And we must do that assessment in light of the divine events that the Gospels chronicle so faithfully. This benefits the global church as well as the Middle Eastern church.
I have the privilege to write freely from my location in Nazareth, a thing most fellow Christians cannot do. My conviction is that the global Christian community is not sufficiently aware of the pressures and difficulties that everyday life holds for Middle Eastern Christians. David Aikman's recent article in Christianity Today, "Suffocating the Faithful," did an excellent job of reminding American Christians of the dwindling community of Christians in the Middle East.
Our reality is the hardest thing to admit the Holy Land has become a curse for many of its inhabitants, especially but not only for Christians. We need to convince these people that there is a life worth living before death.
One way forward is a fresh understanding of the incarnation of Jesus as one continuous story leading from Christmas, through Epiphany, eventually to Easter. The celebrations of these events often seem to compete with each other. Easter in the Middle Eastern tradition is called "The Big Feast." This necessarily means that the other feast (Christmas) is of lesser importance.