Rev Dr John McCulloch reflects on hope and peace this Advent

Rev Dr John McCulloch, the minister at St Andrew’s Scots Memorial Church in Jerusalem, has written a thought-provoking reflection on the season of Advent.

Banksy's 2005 'Christmas card' painting
Banksy's 2005 'Christmas card' painting

As the days shorten, and the heat of late summer begins to subside, giving way to the cooler wintry sun, Bethlehem is preparing for Christmas.

Lights and decorations are going up everywhere, and the Christmas Tree in Manger Square stands as a symbol of joy and hope in the town where Christ was born.

The other evening, I crossed through Checkpoint 300 (the main checkpoint which separates occupied Bethlehem from Jerusalem), and walked along the Separation Wall and into Aida refugee camp.

The Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem was set up shortly after the 1948 Nakba, when families were forced to flee from their homes in what is now the State of Israel.

Over the years, like many other refugee camps across the West Bank & Gaza, Aida has suffered from a lack of amenities, poor housing, and has frequently been subject to military incursions and reprisal.

What struck me as I walked through the narrow streets, was that 2,000 years ago our saviour was born as a refugee in a context of military occupation.

The hope of the world which we anticipate and look forward to in Advent with expectation and joy, comes to us in the fragile vulnerability of a refugee baby, who has a death sentence over him from the day he is born.

And yet, this is how our God of peace chooses to enter our world.

Not as a warrior God, who comes in military might and power to crush his enemies.

But he comes in weakness, to shame the strong and to teach our world the ways of non-violence, commanding us to love our enemies.

It is easy to gloss over this message given its familiarity, and to trust in the structures of power and violence that have become so naturalised in our world of perpetual conflict and injustice.

As I walked by the wall, I remembered a quote from Wim Wender’s film Wings of Desire, which was set in Berlin before the wall came down.

One of the most memorable quotes in the film relates to the yearning for the ways of peace to prevail in our world:

‘My heroes are no longer the warriors and kings… but the things of peace, one equal to the other (...) What is wrong with peace that its inspiration doesn't endure... and that its story is hardly told?’

A scene from Wim Wenders ‘Wings of Desire’ (1987)
A scene from Wim Wenders ‘Wings of Desire’ (1987). © StudioCanal

As these thoughts went through my mind, I walked past a gnarled olive tree, with its silvery-green leaves radiant in the evening light.

I was reminded of the words from Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov: ‘the world will be saved by beauty.’

The message of Advent is that beauty has come into our world, and keeps coming again and again.

Let us open our hearts up to the mystery of that beauty this Advent, as we await with expectation and hope, the light of Christ’s in-breaking into our world.

A Christmas tree painted on Separation Wall in Bethlehem
A Christmas tree painted on Separation Wall in Bethlehem. Photo credit: N. Ray/EAPPI

I leave you with the words of Kate McIIhagga, and her Advent prayer ‘Pregnant with Hope’ - Kate McIIhagga, The Green Heart of the Snowdrop (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2005), 76-77.

Pregnant with Hope

Now is the time of watching and waiting
a time pregnant with hope
a time to watch and pray.

Christ our Advent hope,
Bare brown trees,
etched dark across a winter sky,
leaves fallen, rustling,
ground hard and cold,
remind us to prepare for your coming;
remind to prepare for the time
when the soles of your feet will touch the ground,
when you will become one of us
to be at one with us.

May we watch for the signs,
listen for the messenger,
wait for the good news to slip into our world, our lives.
Christ our Advent hope,
Help us to clear the way for you;
to clear the clutter from our minds;
to sift the silt from our hearts,
to move the boulders that prevent us meeting you.

Help us to make straight the highways,
to unravel the deception that leads to war,
to release those in captivity.
May sorrow take flights,
and your people sing a song of peace
and hope be born again.