It’s a familiar story. It’s been made trite, perhaps, by all the syrupily-cartoonish Hallmark cards and cheesy ceramic mantel figurines. It’s been made divisive by overly-combative-but-well-meaning church congregants intent to wage a culture war against sinister “liberals” and by an unreasonable interpretation of the phrase “separation of Church and State” by organizations like the ACLU. A truly simple holiday has been warped, distorted, and hijacked for use as a tool of division and discord, by believers and non-believers alike. And that’s just in the past century.
Nevertheless, it remains an enduring example of God’s ability to accomplish the cosmically profound through the simplest of circumstances. To the uninformed observer—indeed, probably even to the informed observer—the scene would have been laughably unremarkable. A poor man and his wife, finding no vacancy at the local Motel 6, were forced to take shelter in the parking garage out back, with only a beaten up Yugo and a few stray cats to keep them company. Well, something like that.
It was probably cold and drafty, likely smelly, and definitely less than comfortable. What’s worse, she was nine-months prego. And of all the nights, the baby had to come that night. There was no reason for the situation to be joyful; in fact, Mary could rightfully have wept in frustration. Actually, she very well might have. At the very least, the scene in the stable was likely much more chaotic than Precious Moments figurines would suggest. In many respects, the situation was slightly humorous in modern sitcomish sort of way.
Now, fast forward a couple thousand years. A church sits sits atop the grotto where Mary and Joseph allegedly spent their first nights as parents. The Church of the Nativity is operated under a fragile truce between three sects of Christianity: Catholics, Orthodox, and Armenians. So delicate is this collaboration that the three groups haven’t been able to agree on who has the right to fix the place up. This is problematic as the church has been in need of serious structural repairs for more than 500 years. So bad have the defects become, in fact, that the early-Byzantine era wooden beams supporting the ceiling are in danger of falling in on worshipers.
Then, who comes riding in to the rescue? It isn’t the Orthodox, Catholics, or Armenians. Nope, it’s the Palestinian Authority. According to an AP story from today, Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian government along with “international donors” are going to fund and supervise the long-overdue repairs. Their goal is to have the church declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, which they hope will demonstrate their ability to act as custodians of world history sites and bolster their bid for statehood.
In many respects, the scene of three Christian sects bickering over who has the right to fix the roof beams in a shared church would have overtones of sitcom as well were it not for the for the fact it’s true. It’s sort of like three siblings fighting over who should get to fix the garbage disposal in their parents’ house because each wants to be the one to curry favor with mom and pop.
I don’t think the issue so much is the fact that the Palestinian Authority is taking on the repair work—though it should give pause to believers around the world to see a secular Arab government taking the initiative to repair a Christian house of worship. No, I think the real issue is the fact that they’re doing it because the believers who worship there can’t agree on who has the “right” to do it. I guess whether its funny or sad is largely open to interpretation. For me, it seems like the Church needs to grow up and stop fighting like Kindergartners squabbling over who gets to go down the slide first. It’s just not cute anymore.