Rev Páraic Réamonn
“Halas!” said Naheel.
“Halas” is a useful Arabic word. It can mean that something is finished or done. It can also translate “Enough already!”
Naheel is head of housekeeping in St Andrew’s Scots Guesthouse. On the side she takes care of my church,  and “Enough already!” is what she meant.
She was talking about the Christmas tree.
We put it up last year in time for Advent, as we always do. Its green leaves and red and white lights at the back of the church nicely match the Advent wreath on the baptismal font up front.
But we didn’t take it down after Epiphany, as we usually do.
Partly this was because this year the Sunday of Epiphany fell just as early as it can – on January 1, when I wasn’t even in town. Partly it was because in Jerusalem we celebrate Christmas not once but three times.
January 6 is Orthodox Christmas – and, mostly, Oriental Orthodox Christmas too. But in this town the Armenians bring up the rear, celebrating Christmas on January 18 (don’t ask). 
So we thought we’d leave it up until all three Christmases were past. And then Celtic inertia set in firmly, and I thought about leaving it up until the end of the Epiphany season.
The western season, that is. There are limits, after all.
But that was before Naheel said “Halas!”; the tree came down; and I began to think it was high time to finish writing this post about our Christmas Eve service.
On Christmas Eve in St Andrew’s, we mostly have a Jewish crowd. They get to sing the Christmas carols with which many of them grew up, and for five minutes I get to preach the gospel as Paul did – “to the Jew first, and then to the Greek”.
This year there weren’t so many Jews. It was the first day of Hanukkah, and besides, the city was bitterly cold. That was a pity, because in 2016 we tried to adapt our service to fit more snugly into its Jerusalem context.
In 2014 and 2015, we stole the structure of the service of nine lessons and carols famously broadcast from King’s College, Cambridge. This service was first held in December 1918, a month after the Great War ended. It was introduced by Eric Milner-White, the young Dean of the College, whose stint as an army chaplain had led him to recognize a need for worship that didn’t send people to sleep.
The nine lessons still used today were standardized in 1919. Their main theme, said Milner-White, is “the development of the loving purposes of God”, and that is our theme also.
But they have two defects: Nine is too many, and in our setting not all the readings easily work.
The Gospel readings are sacrosanct. The angel Gabriel to Mary must come. Joseph and Mary must travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and there must be no room in the inn – not a problem that hotels in Bethlehem currently suffer from. There must be shepherds abiding in the fields of Beit Sahour – although this year, instead of our reading Luke’s text, my wife Vivien sang the recitative from Handel’s Messiah. Wise men must come from the East – although this year (with all that is happening not just here but throughout the Middle East), there was a strong case for adding the massacre of the innocents. And the prologue to the Gospel of John tells us limpidly what the stories in Luke and Matthew mean.
We need these stories, and we need to get to them fast.
“In a screenplay,” says William Goldman, “you always attack your story as late as possible. You enter each scene as close as you can to the end. You also enter your story as late as you can.” 
What is true of a screenplay is also true of an order of service, and this is the problem with the Old Testament readings: they slow us down.
Genesis 3.8-19 gives us the second half of the story of the Fall and introduces the classic framework of the Christian story: “as in Adam die, so in Christ all shall be made alive”. Genesis 22.15-18 gives us a snippet from the story of Abraham and Isaac and reminds us that in the seed of Abraham all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.
Two readings where we need one; and two that require way too much explanation. How to get there faster? After some thought, I settled on Genesis 18.1-20.
In a Bible where women too often play second fiddle,  we get Sarah as well as Abraham. We get Sodom and Gomorrah, a byword for human wickedness.
Most important, we are told how all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in Abraham and his offspring: “I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him” (Genesis 18.19).
In a land and a world where justice and right are in short supply, our calling as children of Abraham cannot be stated too often.
The problem recurs with the two readings from Isaiah but is more easily resolved.
Isaiah 11.1-9 is wonderful but again requires too much explanation; while, for anyone who loves Handel’s Messiah, Isaiah 9.2, 6-7 almost selects itself. 
“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”
In a five-minute sermon, you also have to be fast. Here is how I set up the question to which Christmas is the answer, the question that we are:
“All the complications in our relationships with God come from our side.
We are divided from each other, we are divided within ourselves. And in this way we divide ourselves from a God who wants nothing more than to put an end to our divisions and to give us God’s peace.
There are moments in our lives when we want that too, but never always and everywhere, never in every time and place – never consistently, because we are always complicated.”
And this is how I responded:
“On Christmas Eve, it doesn’t much matter whether we are Christians or Muslims or Jews, Israelis or Palestinians or Scots. We are all children of Abraham. We are all children of God.
On this holy night, only two things matter.
First, that God loves us, simply and uncomplicatedly, just as we are, in all the mess and muddle of our human living, and shows us this love in the ridiculous form of a helpless child lying on a bed of straw.
And second, that what God wants from us, more than anything in the world, is that we should respond as Mary did, that we should respond to God’s love with as simple a ‘Yes’ as we can muster.
For when we do that, God can work wonders with us. God can show us God’s capacity for miracles, in our divided world, in our divided lives, in our divided land.”
Now, I suppose, I should start thinking about Easter.
 I sometimes suspect she thinks of it as her church, which she just lets me use on Sundays. I don’t really think of it as my church either: I tell visitors I’m just looking after it for a friend.
 Our non-Christian friends tease us: “So your Jesus is born three times and raised from the dead twice?”
 William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade (London: Abacus, 2003)
 Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. See, for example, “Geena Davis: ‘Thelma & Louise changed everything for me’”, The Guardian, March 25 2017
 This month I shall be singing Handel’s Messiah in Hebrew – “in the original language”, as I like to say – in a benefit concert for Syrian refugees at the YMCA on King David Street.