Christmas in Jerusalem
On one hand, ‘Christmas in Jerusalem’ sounds like a great idea. It is the Holy City after all, and for believers in Yeshua (Jesus), its streets retell the story of our Messiah at every turn.
But the predominantly Jewish capital of Israel is not one to dress in Christian symbols. If the holidays don’t overlap, Hanukkah decorations don’t stay up until the end of December. Is any part of Jerusalem festive at Christmas?
Holidays in the Old City
If you’re thinking of the Christmas bazaars all over the Christian Quarter in the Old City, that’s a step in the right direction. Christians in the Old City (majority of them Arab or Armenian, Catholic or Greek Orthodox) are doing their best to exhibit some Christmas cheer.
You also can’t miss the famous Christmas Market at the Lutheran Church. Go munch on waffles and shop locally made souvenirs. But if you want to attend a meaningful service, meet other believers and curious local Jewish families (yes, this is not a typo)…
You need to visit Christ Church.
Curiosity is a hallmark of children. It indicates openness—a compelling inner drive to learn and understand. Yeshua said that no one can enter the Kingdom of Heaven unless they receive it like a little child (Luke 18:17).
This implies some level of humility and curiosity. And Christmas is a curious tradition. It is celebrated around the world with varying customs—some sacred, some secular.
Jews looking for Christmas?
Israel is the birthplace of Messiah, and yet—somewhat ironically—it can often feel taboo to celebrate His birth here. This may be due, in part, to societal resistance to Yeshua, or the lingering controversy over the actual birthdate of the Messiah.
Nevertheless, curiosity is natural to Israeli culture. Israelis travel the world after serving in the military. They surf the internet in greater numbers per capita than any people group worldwide.
And imagine this: every year, some 2-3 thousand Israelis come to church on Christmas Eve! They even get together in groups and church-hop all over town on Christmas Eve.
Welcome to Christ Church in Jerusalem
One of their favorite stops is Christ Church, Jerusalem, near the entrance of Jaffa Gate. It is a well-known fact that every Christmas Eve at Christ Church, people are guaranteed to find tasty cookies and hot drinks, and beautiful décor.
But they will also hear inspirational Christmas carols and readings from the Hebrew scriptures. Why do they come in droves? They want to know the story: “What do you do here? And why?”
They may entertain answers about the Heritage Center, antiquities library or the beautiful buildings at Christ Church. Or about the rich history and broad impact of the many ministries of CMJ.
But in the end, they ask, “Can someone tell me what you believe?”
Tell Me the Story of Jesus
They come to hear the story. And it is, in fact, a Jewish story! Jewish prophecies that pointed to a Jewish baby, born in a Jewish town. This is a story that has captured the hearts of over 2 billion people worldwide.
And it started right here in Israel. This is the greatest story ever lived. Immanuel: God with us.
Messiah is a Jewish concept. Christ Church believes that everyone should be able to talk about Him, whether or not they are followers of Yeshua. But especially if you believe Yeshua to be Messiah—it should be a topic open for discussion.
“Jesus for the Jewish people and Jewish roots for the Church”
This is the mandate of CMJ, the organization behind Christ Church.
We had the pleasure to talk to one of the staff members at Christ Church, an extremely wise and witty theologian.
“It’s like a little window of heaven opens for 3 weeks around Christmas. This gives us an opportunity to engage in the Jewish-Christian dialogue. God pursued man. We like to share it and celebrate. Let us tell you about this wonderful story.”
Why Do We Celebrate Christmas?
In the meantime, he quickly settled the score on any lingering doubts as to why Christmas should be celebrated.
There are many Christians who really like the Jewish roots of the faith, but they turn around and don’t like Christmas. It’s like there’s an obligation to reject it.
Christmas wasn’t a holiday borrowed from the pagans. If Christmas replaces winter solstice, why do we miss it by four days every year? And why do the Orthodox celebrate Epiphany on January 6th, or the Armenians 2 weeks after that?
The core of Christianity was rooted in Middle Eastern Christian Judaism and flourished in North Africa during the first several centuries of its growth.
There were different calendars regionally, with various dates. But there is enough evidence to point to the fact that early Jewish believers celebrated times commemorating both the birth and death of Yeshua.
Sharing Our Wealth
Many churches in Israel don’t open their doors on Christmas. Christ Church has chosen to boldly welcome all who would come. The staff and volunteers at Christ Church see this as a great opportunity to engage curiosity with open dialogue.
All the fluff with the fat guy in red clothing and decorated trees—that’s not even the real story. When people come to visit Christ Church, they want the real thing.
This story has had such an amazing impact on the world throughout history. Why wouldn’t we want to dialogue about that? When dialogue stops, that’s when things get dangerous. People are curious, so we give them real answers.
From the Mouth of Children
One year during the Christmas Eve celebration at Christ Church, a group of Jewish Israelis gathered in the Heritage Center. A 10-year old girl queried, “Isn’t messiah supposed to be the son of God?”
Another member of the group skeptically asked, “Where do you get this idea that God is going to come?” Prompted by one of the local hosts, the young girl opened the Tanach (Hebrew Scriptures) to Isaiah 9:6 and began to read:
“For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God (El Gibor), Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Closing the book, she said, “His name was Mighty God. See Abba, I told you.” And the room was silent in awe.
The Truth about Christmas in Jerusalem
Nothing is forced upon the visitors. People are warmly invited to hear and understand the inherently Jewish narrative of Messiah’s advent.
We want to keep the dialogue open. This is a celebration. We tell them the facts. When asked whether people want the donuts or the Maccabees (referring to the sacred vs. the traditional aspects of celebrating Hanukkah), they inevitably say: ‘We want the real story’.
There is always an underlying tension: Do we put on a display, or do we actually worship? We choose to worship and simply allow people to watch and participate as much as they want.
What is the crux of the story?
Abraham Joshua Heschel, a well-known Jewish philosopher and theologian, said, “All of human history as described in the Bible may be summarized in one phrase: God is in search of man.”
The core of Christmas is a Jewish story and that’s what makes Israel unique among the nations. Every nation or people group has unique religious traditions, diet or dress. What makes Israel unique is that their God chose to live with them.
In essence, He said, ‘You give me a tent and I’ll come live with you.’ Even the tabernacle was made out of skin, and took nine months to build. Immanuel. God with us. Robed in Flesh. This is the story of Christmas.
God cared so much about humanity that He was willing to ‘tabernacle’ with man, to come live and dwell among His people.
Come and See!
When asked how he would appeal to different groups of people in this season, my witty theologian friend said,
“For Christians – don’t run away from Christmas, celebrate God being with His people. For Jews – don’t be afraid to come and see, or fearful to simply talk and enter into a dialogue. Come to a safe place. Come and see.
Simeon was a devout Jewish man who was faithfully waiting for the consolation of Israel. He was moved by the Spirit to enter the temple on a specific day, at a specific time. It happened to be the day of Yeshua’s dedication. He came and He declared:
“My eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:30-32).
Come to Christ Church. Come and see.
This article originally appeared on FIRM, December 19, 2021, and reposted with permission.