As a college student studying in Jerusalem, I was privileged to spend one rainy and cold Christmas wandering around Bethlehem with my mother. In the days before a concrete wall divided Israel from the West Bank, this majority Muslim city about six miles south of Jerusalem was an easy fifteen minute taxi or sherut ride from our school.
Arab shopkeepers, with their open-sided kiosks lining the streets, sold strings of Christmas lights along with olivewood nativities and traditional sweets. With a flock of other worshipers, we knelt on the stone floor near the shrouded hollow in the Church of the Nativity where Christ is traditionally believed to have been born.
While many religions venerate such places as holy — or having an otherworldly power – Protestants tend to view them as objects of history or curiosity. In fact, the actual birthplace of Christ is unknown, reminding me that power rests in the Creator rather than the created and that worship can take place anywhere. On a humble hillside. In a humble house. In a humble heart.
Contemporary Western congregations tend to understand worship as assembling musicians and belting out a song – often, the louder the better. Historical Jewish worship, however, as I was taught by a rabbi, also includes studying Scripture, giving to the poor, and other acts of kindness and mercy.
And so, here we are, preparing to welcome the fifth and final week of Advent, which culminates in the celebration of Christmas. Looking back in Luke, we find plenty of worship. Here are the angels, praising God and proclaiming his goodness for Christ’s birth (Luke 2:13). And here are the shepherds, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (2:20).
What more fitting way to celebrate Advent than through true worship? Music is a direct path to the divine. Thank God for the gift of Christ. Invite friends to a candlelit worship service. Carol to your neighbors. Set aside time as a family for a special night of praise. Many churches hold Christmas Eve services, and Christmas itself falls on Sunday this year.
But don’t neglect other forms of worship. Roughly 300 miles from the place where Christ was born lies Aleppo, a city of horrific suffering. Rather than building walls to keep others out this Christmas, let us open our hearts and glorify God through acts of kindness and mercy.
After all, isn’t this what Christmas is about? A God, who though we were his enemies, extended great kindness and mercy to us in the gift of his Son. Let us kneel, not on a stone floor with detached curiosity, but wherever we are in deep and humble gratitude for God’s great goodness. And let us share that goodness with others. The orphan. The refugee. The lonely. Those bent by heavy loads. Let us worship loud, not only with our voices but with our lives.
From my heart to yours, Merry Christmas.
Meadow Rue Merrill writes and reflects on God’s presence in her everyday life from a little house in the big woods of Mid-coast Maine. Her memoir, “Redeeming Ruth: Everything Life Takes, Love Restores,” releases in May 2017.