Friday, 21 December 2007

A Christmas story

I thought I would tell you a true story of the most memorable Christmas I ever had. Twenty five years ago exactly, we were living in Beirut in a very fine apartment overlooking the Mediterranean on the campus of the American University. Now, by way of background, you need to know that 1982 was the year the Israelis invaded Lebanon, pounded their way up to Beirut, besieged it and drove the PLO out. I was a helpless and rather scared bystander of the first part of that episode; it was horrendous (it is now generally admitted to have resulted in 17,000 plus deaths). It was also ultimately futile; the war was planned and a success, the subsequent peace unplanned and a failure. (Sound familiar?) Towards the end of the fighting, a thousand plus Palestinian civilians were massacred at Sabra and Chatila by “Christian” militiamen: to what extent the supervising Israeli army knew – or even approved of it – is debated. The upshot was that a horrified West sent in a peacekeeping force, a large component of which were US marines. By the end of ‘82 the peace was still holding, although fighting in the mountains was beginning as various parties tried to settle old scores. But that December, a quarter of century ago, US troops were still driving around the city without body armour and weapons.

Through the Southern Baptist church that we attended, we invited three US marines for Christmas lunch. They arrived at church in their battledress, took part in the service and then walked down with us through the protected greenery of the campus to where we lived. They were polite and reserved but glad to be away from barracks; we ate good food and talked of all sorts of things. In the afternoon, we walked around the campus; it was a dry, cool day and the sun shone on the snows of the mountains above Beirut. We came back for more food and we have a photo of our eldest, John – just eight months at the time – sitting on a Marine’s lap, all smiles, his head almost buried by a forage cap. At some point, we would have made the inevitable observation that if there wasn't a heavily defended border in the way, we could have driven down to Bethlehem in a couple of hours. As night fell I prepared to take them back to their barracks and before they left they signed our visitor’s book. I have it before me now and their names were: Walter T. Kennedy of Duxbury, Mass, William H. Bowman of Marlow Heights, Maryland and Hector Colon of Vieqeus, Puerto Rico.

I drove them the five miles or so back along unlit, ruined roads and between wrecked buildings. On the way we passed Sabra and Chatila and the mass graves: we fell silent. Evil was about us and you could believe that in the dense shadows by the roadside, ghosts lurked. At the barracks – an ugly, four-storey building on the edge of the airport – we said farewell.

Yet if there were the ghosts of the past that day, there were also ghosts of the future. Almost exactly ten months later, on 23 0ctober, 1983, just after six on a quiet Sunday morning, a driver with a truck full of explosives drove into those Marine barracks and detonated a massive amount of explosives (5,400 kg of TNT; “the largest non-nuclear blast ever detonated on the face of the earth” ). 240 Marines were killed as the building was instantly turned to rubble. The blast woke me; a second blast, minutes later, that hit the French contingent, kept me awake. Looking at the list of the killed years later on the web I found that none of our guests had been slain; presumably their tour of duty was long over and they had been rotated out.

Now this point I hear the protests. Chris, you promised us a Christmas story. This is not one. It is awkward, it is troubling and doesn't have the happy glow, the chestnuts-roasting-on-an-open-fire factor that we like. No, it doesn't. But let me turn this round: who said that this sort of Christmas – the one promoted by Dickens, Hollywood and a billion Christmas cards – is authentic? Haven't we created – and connived in – (for all for the best reasons, of course) something that goes against the Christmas story? Read the biblical narrative again; isn't it all set in dark times? Do you see much cosiness in the stable? Much seasonal joy In Herod? (He would have understood Sabra and Chatila!). Have we erased the greedy brutality of the Roman occupation? What has happened to the warning of Simeon in Luke 2: 35 “And a sword will pierce your own soul too”?

Isn't Christmas all about God intervening in a thoroughly messed up and horrid world? Isn’t celebrating Christmas itself a declaration of faith – sometimes proclaimed in darkness – that despite the reign of evil, good wins in the end. In fact, and here’s a theologically worded thought: have we gutted Christmas by taking eschatology out of it? Doesn’t the mess that is this sad world only make sense in the light, not just of the first coming of Christ, but the Second?

Anyway, whether at peace or war, have the best of Christmases.