Christmas in His neighborhood
I love Christmas. I store up memories of Christmas from years past. I hope to create many more in years to come.
The years I spent in Israel — the Land where it all began — were years marked with wonderful, meaningful, and memorable holidays.
In late fall of 1982, I spent some time in southern Lebanon serving as a paramedic with a team of Israeli medical personnel supplying desperately needed medical care to a population under-served because of an ongoing civil war in that country.
Our group included a doctor, myself, a Druse translator, and a couple security guys supplied by the Israeli Army.
Before crossing the border into Lebanon, we got rid of everything and anything that would or could identify us as Israelis. It was kind of a secret operation — but a secret for a good cause.
We drove through southern Lebanon to a city called Marjayoun. There we headed for a hospital complex run, at the time, by Maronite nuns.
The sisters lived in a small convent located above the hospital, which basically was a one-story structure aside from the apartments built above a portion of the hospital.
Whenever the hospital would come under artillery fire from the surrounding hills, we all — nuns and the medical team — would take cover in the hallway below the apartments figuring any fired round would need to pass through two ceilings at that point, so our odds of surviving were a little better!
Of course, the Druse interpreter had a better idea. Whenever the complex was bombarded, he would basically attach himself to the Mother Superior on the theory that God would never let her get blown up. We couldn’t get him away from her with a crowbar.
Anyway ... after spending a good amount of time serving the people of southern Lebanon in the hospital and getting to know the nuns pretty well, I hoped to be able to do something for them that would make their lives even a little bit better.
I asked what I could do for them.
They said the only thing the really wanted to do was spend Christmas Eve and enjoy the Christmas Midnight Mass with their sister religious in Nazareth — in Israel.
I spoke with the chief medical officer of the Israeli Army’s Northern Command.
We got things rolling.
On Christmas Eve 1982 a couple armored vehicles crossed the border, and slipped into Marjayoun picking up the nuns who had been forewarned but kept their plans secret from neighbors and others throughout the area.
The sisters were delivered to a border crossing at a place called Metulla.
They then were driven to Nazareth where they spent a long, loving evening in the quiet company of their order.
At the appropriate hour, my wife Dina and I went to the convent to join them in worship.
Christmas Eve was heavenly.
There were some 40 nuns turned out in white habits. The officiating priest was a retired bishop from France.
Dina and I were the only “civilians” in the chapel.
The entire service was in French.
Forty angelic voices singing “O Holy Night” in French with the chapel lit by candlelight and us sitting a mere couple hundred feet from the traditional home of the Holy Family.
In minutes we could stroll to the traditional site of the Annunciation — when Mary was told she would be the mother of a Child who would change the world.
We sat listening to the hum and flow of the service, with awe-inspiring singing and an atmosphere of quiet and calm.
When the Mass ended, Dina and I left knowing the Lebanese sisters’ return across the border was arranged and would be secure.
But ... in the convent courtyard one of the young nuns ran after us and invited us into the communal area where all were enjoying the company of their sisters.
We were embraced with warmth and welcome.
The nuns brought out platters of hot, sticky French cinnamon rolls, and sweet Arab delicacies. They served each of those sitting around the room with a thick, astonishingly delicious drinking chocolate.
They all did their best to make us feel at home.
Later, we left the convent stopping on the street outside to look down into the Jezreel Valley, toward Mount Gilboa and Mount Carmel, and off to the east toward the shadowy Mount Tabor.
It was dead quiet.
This was the scene Mary, Joseph, and their Son viewed daily and every night from their home.
This was their neighborhood.
What a privilege to spend the evening with people we had been able to bring together to multiply their joy.
What a honor to spend the evening celebrating the special birthday of a Son of Nazareth who lived just down the road.