Thursday, November 15, 2012

Worshiping in Arabic at Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem

When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Acts 2.6-11.

* * *

Ich verkündige euch grosse Freude. - Lucas 2.10 [stained-glass window in Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church]

The Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, worries that the Holy Land is becoming a "Christian theme park" where busloads of tourists rush through the holy sites - including those in his own city - but no Palestinian Christians remain as a living presence. On Nov. 11, shortly before the current escalation of violence in Gaza, he touched briefly on the theme.

"They run where Jesus used to walk," he said at his Sunday morning service. "By doing that, they miss what God is doing in this land today."

Christmas Evangelical Lutheran Church in downtown Bethlehem.

Certainly there were worshipers present who'd been doing their share of running from holy site to holy site. In addition to the group I accompanied from St. John's Lutheran Church in Rock Island, Illinois, there were groups from Oregon and California, and Pr. Rahrib welcomed others in German. A fourth American group, from Connecticut, was snowed in at home and unable to make a planned trip to the Holy Land.

But it was also clear God is doing a lot at Christmas Lutheran Church.

Sunday's service had the familiar ebb, flow and rhythm of what Lutherans call the liturgy of the Word.

Visitors from Illinois in the nave before Sunday's service.

But the service was in Arabic, "the language of our people," as the bulletin noted. I found it an unexpectedly moving experience as I joined in worshiping in an unfamiliar language, aided by translations and transliterations in the service bulletin. Was the first Pentecost something like this?

Sunday's service began with Psalm 90, and a sung response, in Arabic, set to a harmonized melody that wouldn't sound out of place in any of the American Lutheran hymnals. An opening hymn, "How Great Thou Art," originally Swedish but most familiar to Americans perhaps from Billy Graham's use of it during the altar call in his crusades.

The Confession of Sin, the Kyrie and the Absolution were all in Arabic. As was the Gloria, "All glory be to God on high ...," followed by the Prayer for the Day.

The service bulletin was set up so I could follow the English translations and recite the transliterated Arabic, and it all came together.

At first I tried singing the service music - the Kyrie, the Gloria and liturgical responses - in English, but I couldn't hold the cadence, so I switched to singing the Arabic transliteration and found it emotionally satisfying to be blending my voice with with the Arabic speakers in the congregation.

Again, I felt echoes of the first Pentecost.

The First Lesson from the letters of St. Paul (Romans 14-7-9) and the Gospel (Luke 17:20-24) were read by two American pastors who were present with their tour groups. When we recited the Creed, I noticed the English translation for the phrase we recite at "the holy catholic Church" was "holy uniting Church," closer to its original meaning in Latin. It was followed by another familiar American hymn, "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name," with our English-speaking voices blending together with the Arabic speakers' and held together by the meter of the hymn supported by the organ.

The organ, by the way, is magnificant. It is German, manufactured in Berlin around 1890, and it was rebuilt recently through a fund-raising campaign in Minneapolis.

As we came to the Lord's Prayer, the service bulletin noted, "You are invited to pray in your own language." We did. And the cadence, in English and Arabic alike, blended together perfectly. I've been told that always happens, no matter what the languages, whenever the Lord's Prayer is recited. The effect, again, was profoundly moving.

So was the closing hymn. It was an English version of "Fairest Lord Jesus," best known to Scandinavian-American Lutherans in a slightly different translation from the original German (by way of the old Dano-Norwegian dialect used for books) as "Beautiful Savior."

Lutherans in Bethlehem?

Well, yes. Of the 300,000 Christians in Israel and the West Bank, more than half are Eastern Orthodox and the others belong to a broad array of mostly Eastern denominations and (Latin) Catholics. But there are seven Lutheran churches, established in the 1800s and serving indigenous Palestinian congregations. Founded in 1854 by German missionaries, Christmas Lutheran Church (Evangelisch Lutherische Weihnachtskirke) is the oldest of six Lutheran congregations around Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

The building dates from the 1890s, its theme echoed in a late Romantic stained-glass window (pictured at right above) that shows an angel with European features announcing glad tidings of

great joy to a group of shepherds in the foreground. More recent Arabic calligraphy in a cupola (at left) spells out the angel's message in Arabic.

During the mid-1900s, the church's German missionaries pastors were replaced by Palestinians who studied in Europe. (Raheb's doctorate in theology is from Phillips University in Marburg, Germany.) Its congregation numbers 250, and it has active ministries for youth and elders alike.

In addition to conducting services for the Lutheran community in Bethlehem and its nearby villages and refugee camps, Raheb has established an umbrella organization known as the Diyar Consortium that is responsible for the administration of the International Center of Bethlehem, the Dar Al-Kalima Health & Wellness Center and the Dar Al-Kalima College. (“Diyar” [Arabic: ديار‎] is the plural of “dar” [Arabic: دار‎], meaning “house” or “homeland” in Arabic), according to its profile on Wikipedia.

There's something else, too.

Raheb has long been concerned about the ongoing outmigration of Christians from the Middle East, especially Palestine. He sees the Christian churches as a bridge between East and West, and he sees the Palestinians as providing a "living witness" to Christianity at its place of origin. Let alone such mundane functions as maintaining the holy sites. In his book I Am a Palestinian Christian (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), he writes:

If the Christians disappear from Palestine, much of the Holy Land will be transformed into ruins - churches and other buildings can be photographed but not attended as places in which to worship. They will be turned into amusement parks rather than sites of witness. For after all, the value of the land lies in its people and living stones, not ruins. The value lies in its faithful inhabitants, not tourists.

If the Christians disappear from Palestine, the legacy of 1300 years of joint Christian-Islamic heritage will be lost - a heritage of coexistence, interrelationships, and peace that we have bequeathed to the world.

Raheb wrote nearly 20 years ago, in a much more hopeful time than our own. But that hope clearly remained alive Sunday morning at Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.

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