A Christmas story

By , 21 December 2007 6:31 pm

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.


4 Responses to “A Christmas story”

  1. smokey the dog says:

    I just finished listening to Chuck Swindall’s message for Friday, and it was took a similar tact. He mentioned how God used the secular rulers for _His_ purposes. He entered this Sinfull world to save Sinners, and the times reflected that fact.

  2. Anonymous says:


    Thank you for the reminder that “peace and goodwill” pertains more to the inner man than the outer. I can visualize Joseph and Mary making their way through dark alleys to a dark stable in an environment similar to the one you experienced as you drove the Marines to their barracks.
    And the thing we often forget is that this was all during a time of occupation and oppression by an invading army. As has been said before, if there ever was a time Israel needed the Messiah, it was then. Only, not in the way they had thought.

    And the darkness is still here. In our Western world, it isn’t so obvious, but the desperation in people’s souls tells us that the Messiah is as needed now as ever. Perhaps more so…

    May your Christmas be filled with a strong sense of Immanuel – God With Us.

    Take care,


  3. Tom Terry says:


    Just read today’s entry. I’ve never found a great deal of joy in the Christmas season. I find the modern Christmas we celebrate to be a mask hiding the bloodied face of a crucified Christ. Perhaps that’s a bit too graphic for some? Tragic.

    I repeat a blog entry that I post yearly about Christmas on my site titled, The Promises of God Come With Separation and Death, So Merry Christmas. Okay, so it’s not exactly filled with “holiday joy.” But I have a feeling that the eternal Son of God becoming a human being wasn’t exactly a holiday picnic.

    Many Blessings,
    Tom Terry

  4. mjs2 says:

    Isaiah 9:2 “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”

    Forgive me, but I don’t believe that the subject ought to be left as is. One week ago a designer that I work with lost her mother, and the week before that one of our editors died. In light of those two events, and a third mentioned in a couple of paragraphs, I offer a few thoughts.

    Let us not forget that Christmas is a symbol, a metaphor, for a truth. All holidays are (or ought to be–I don’t really know how to classify the deep meaning found in Super Bowl Sunday). If we attack the metaphor, as some do, we may find ourselves attacking the truth behind it. Yes, the holiday is so commercialized to the point of hurting the metaphor, but let it not be us that tolls its death. Rather let us ring, shout, or scream out the truth behind the symbol.

    This Christmas my church released six women to go home to their families. The female ex-prisoners had given up on life before they started our program. In the rehabilitation ministry they found Jesus, the mercy of his forgiveness, and the hope of his resurrected life working in them. For the first time in years, Christmas means hope and regeneration to them and their families.

    Let us remember that Christmas is about how, though we lived as enemies toward God, God loved us in spite of our evilness. Let us not forget how Jesus made Himself vulnerable, coming as a dependent baby, and may His tender approach move us to worship. And finally let us remember that Jesus was not only tortured to death, but that as He died He spoke the words “forgive” and “Paradise,” foreshadowing the message of His resurrection.

    At my editors funeral, the family requested we sing “Joy to the World.” We did not sing it to drown out the truth or to mask our tears. Instead, we emphasized how we do not mourn as if we have no hope.

    My brother, may this Christmas bring you a fresh realization of that hope and joy–Jesus–the Almighty God come to live with us.

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