Member Highlight: CMJ Christ Church Jerusalem

December 24th, 2017

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

This question resounds from the mouth of a young child during the Pesach Seder (Passover). It reflects a simple quest to understand the meaning behind the celebration.

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 receptivity, humility, curiosity…

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

“We were slaves, but the Lord brought us out… Blessed is He who keeps His promise to Israel.” “We cried out… The Lord heard our voice.” He saw our suffering, our oppression, our affliction. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with great manifestation of signs and wonders. “Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe, who has redeemed Israel” (excerpts from the Pesach Haggadah).

God heard.
He saw.
He intervened.
He redeemed.
This is why we worship and celebrate.

Christmas is a curious tradition. It is celebrated around the world with varying customs—some sacred, some secular. 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 Messiah.

Curiosity is intrinsic 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. Every year, some two to three thousand Israelis come to church on Christmas Eve. They even get together in groups and church-hop all over town on Christmas Eve. Why? Curiosity.

One of their favorite stops is Christ Church, Jerusalem, near the entrance to 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, faithful friends and beautiful décor, inspirational Christmas carols and readings from the Hebrew scriptures—but most importantly—answers.

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?”

They come to hear THE story. 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.

What is the mandate of CMJ?

“Jesus for the Jewish people and Jewish roots for the Church.” Messiah is a Jewish concept. It should be able to be talked about, whether or not you believe Yeshua to be Messiah—it should be a topic open for discussion. During December, the Christian calendar and the Jewish calendar often intersect. “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.”

I recently had an interview with one of the staff members at Christ Church, an extremely wise and witty theologian who 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.

Many churches in Israel don’t open their doors on Christmas. Christ Church has chosen to boldly open wide their doors to all who would come. The staff and volunteers at Christ Church see this as one of the greatest opportunities to engage curiosity with open dialogue and loving answers.

“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 story. 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. 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.” Nothing is forced upon the visitors. People are warmly invited to hear and understand the inherently Jewish narrative of Messiah’s advent.

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.” God cared so much about humanity that He was willing to ‘tabernacle’ with man, to come live and dwell among His people.

“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.”

One year during the Christmas Eve celebration at Christ Church, a group of Jewish Israelis gathered in the Heritage Center to hear the story. A 10-year old girl queried, “Isn’t messiah supposed to be the son of God?” A member of the group skeptically asked, “So 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.

“It would be our hope that all churches could open their doors like this. Be present in the Old City and available to the community. At Christ Church, the door is open.”

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.”

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

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 on the 8th day, exactly at the time of Yeshua’s dedication. He came. He saw. 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.

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Learn more about Christ Church Jerusalem:

FIRM is a global fellowship of Biblically-grounded believers committed to cultivating Messiah-centered relationships that bless the inhabitants of Israel—Jews, Arabs, and others—and the Jewish community around the world.
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