On this day of the March for Marriage, enjoy the video below.
Our world today needs a Savior as much as any time in salvation history. In our day, many want to deny the existence of God or at least ignore God in order to have the false freedom to live as they wish. But the truth is that the immortal God took on our human condition in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus was truly human and divine in one person.
The places where Jesus lived and taught make his humanity and his reality accessible to us today. What he taught, the miracles he wrought, his death and resurrection make manifest his divinity.
The Gospel reading today once again returns to the Eucharistic discourse from John. Here, we see Jesus preaching at the synagogue in Capernaum. (pictured right) This synagogue is also just about 300 feet from the house of St. Peter.
Capernaum was a small village along the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. A major travel corridor, the Via Maris, brought ‘world travelers’ to its doorstep. It was a crossroad for the human family of Jesus’ time, and a perfect place for him to exercise his ministry. One’s imagination can easily see Jesus preaching and teaching here.
As Jesus begins to reveal his true identity, people struggle to make sense of how a ‘man’ can claim to have God as his Father. “my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.” (John 6:32) Jesus persists (and insists) with this fascinating teaching:
Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and I will not reject anyone who comes to me, because I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me. And this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day. (John 6:37-40)
Because Jesus is the Son of God, he is also the Bread of Life, as he also teaches in this location:
Amen, Amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I give is my flesh for the life of the world. (John 47-51)
As today, many who heard these words from the very mouth of Jesus found them hard to believe, and they left him. (John 6:66) Let us not persist in our disbelief, but follow in the belief of true disciples, which is expressed so beautifully by St. Peter when Jesus asked him: “Do you also want to leave?” (vs. 67)
Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God. (John 6:68-69)
One sad reality that came more clearly into view for me during our recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land is the plight of the Palestinian people under the Israeli policies. If you have kept up with this blog in recent weeks, you know what a powerful experience we had during our time walking in the footsteps of Jesus throughout the Holy Land.
Faith is such a precious gift, and for people to continue to have access to the land Jesus made holy is crucial. For Christians in particular to continue to make pilgrimage to these holy sites is so important to support and encourage our Mother Church in the Holy Land.
While we were in Jerusalem, we had the opportunity to meet two priests of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and an audience with the Latin Patriarch himself, His Beatitude, Fouad Twal. Each of them spoke passionately about the trials the Palestinian people endure.
It is important to recall here that the Palestinians are indigenous people to this land. Many Americans do not understand that Palestinians are Arab, divided between Christian and Muslims. They trace their lineage and roots back to the time of Jesus and beyond. The land at the time of Jesus was called Palestine, and Jesus himself was a Palestinian Jew. As a nation, the Palestinians experience great harmony between the Muslims and the Christians. The Palestinian Christians of today are direct descendants of the early Church. They are the ‘living stones’ of the Church today, still present in the Holy Land, though they are being unjustly oppressed and systematically forced from their homeland.
Today, the Latin Patriarchate serves the Christian communities from East Jerusalem, the West Bank (of the Jordan River), the Gaza strip and Jordan. I believe Cypress is also included. Humanitarian aid is a primary service provided in and by this local church. Due to the security wall that has been erected in recent years by Israel, the Palestinian people face growing economic challenges, with unemployment rates over 30%. Thus, these Christian families struggle to make a living and provide the basic necessities of life for their families.
As you probably already know, Israel has been building a so-called ‘security wall in recent years, structurally isolating the Palestinians from their own lands. The two local priests we met spoke passionately about this security wall with its numerous checkpoints and obstacles which make life very complicated for the Palestinian families. It has separated families, restricts movement of those enclosed within its walls, and cuts the Palestinian people off from their own lands, employment opportunities and the ability to even visit the Holy sites in Jerusalem without a permit (which are extremely hard to obtain, and often denied.)
For example, those living within Bethlehem and its surrounding Palestinian territory are living in a veritable 5 mile by five mile prison. Think of being a child raised under such conditions with no freedom.
Since the founding of the Jewish State of Israel in 1948, the number of Christians in Israel and Palestine has dwindled from around 20% of the population to less than 1.5% today. The policies and laws of Israel are clearly seeking to diminish the Arab population from the land, thus increasing the Jewish population through the building of settlements and Jewish neighborhoods in the heart of Arab lands.
Gaza, which our group did not visit, is also Palestinian territory. Gaza is perhaps the most densely populated area in the world. The are approximately 1.8 million people living in this small strip of land, and only about 1,300 of them are Christian. 80% of Gaza’s inhabitants depend upon humanitarian assistance.
I know I do not fully understand the long history of these people and this land, but it is clear that the Palestinian Christians need the support of the broader Church. The patriarch asked us to do three things: Pray, Pilgrimage, and Projects. Obviously, prayer can move mountains, and to a large extent, it would appear that God alone can bring peace to this troubled area of the world. Second, as stated already, the “Mother Church” in the Holy Land needs our presence, and they need our support. Finally, whatever we can do to support the many humanitarian needs, we should do so.
Below is a video regarding the works of the Latin Patriarchate. I think you will find it helpful to better understand the challenges they face.
Let us pray for the Peace of Jerusalem, and all of the Holy Land and Middle East.
This week the Church is listening to the Bread of Life discourse, given by Jesus after a miraculous multiplication of two fishes and five loaves of bread. The miracle took place along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, in a place known as Tabgha, or Seven Springs. In time, around the year 350, a church was built over the rock where it was believed Jesus performed the miracle of feeding the 5,000. Around the year 450, a larger church was built, and over time, the floor was covered with mosaics.
Beneath the altar of this church was the rock of multiplication. In front of this altar, on the floor, is a widely known mosaic of the multiplication of loaves and fishes. Eventually, this church was destroyed, and the mosaics covered over, not to be rediscovered until the 1930′s. This mosaic is now preserved, and visible once again in the floor in front of the altar.
You will notice that the mosaic only contains four loaves, instead of five. The artist did this intentionally. The location of the mosaic (beneath the altar of the church) is the key to its interpretation. The ’5th’ loaf is now upon the altar, to be broken, multiplied, and distributed in the Eucharist.
As I visited this church and heard this story, I recognized its significance for me, and for all of us who take our faith seriously. I wish to be this 5th loaf, placed upon the altar. My (our) desire is to live a life so centered in Christ, that we are willing and capable of ‘giving our self away’ through the manner in which we live our lives. Thus, through the sacramental life of the church, especially through the Eucharist, Christ takes up his dwelling within us. We become another Christ, and just as Christ became the grain of wheat, fallen to the earth to die and bear much fruit, so our lives yield to Christ, in whom we bear the fruits of love for God and our neighbor.
From this location, Jesus walked across the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum (John 6:16-21) where he then delivered this well know, Bread of Life discourse.
I am the bread of life; whoever come to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst. … For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day.” (John 6: 35, 40)
I’m happy to share with you this year’s Living and Giving in Christ; Unity Through Diocesan Ministries Video. Please prayerfully consider supporting this year’s annual appeal for the Diocese of Cheyenne.
Even though I will make at least one more post here sometime soon regarding the Israeli / Palestinian conflict, I wish this morning to thank the Pilgrim Center of Hope for their outstanding work in preparing for and leading this pilgrimage. More specifically, I wish to thank Mary Jane and Tom Fox for their faith-filled ministry and service to our pilgrim group.
Mary Jane and Tom have been leading pilgrimages to the Holy Land since the early 1980′s. It was in an early visit to the Holy Land as a couple that they felt the Lord calling them to dedicate their life to this unique ministry of bringing pilgrims here to encounter the Risen Lord and to deepen their faith. Our pilgrimage was (I believe) their 46th group to the Holy Land.
This couple are people of deep faith. Our group was so blessed to have been introduced to the Pilgrim Center of Hope, and to have them serve as our guides.
I have been very intentional about referring to this trip as a pilgrimage, because that is indeed what it was. It was not a tour, not a vacation, not another international trip. Mary Jane and Tom were instrumental in making it a true pilgrimage, focused very intentionally on seeking the Lord, encountering Him in this land he made holy by his very presence. We literally prayed our way across this land, and indeed, met the Risen Lord, his mother, Mary and so many of the other holy men and women who lived and died here.
Another critical component of our pilgrimage was not just visiting the ancient stones and sites, but also meeting the ‘living stones,’ those descendants of the early Christian community who still live in Palestine and Israel. One such Palestinian Christian was our guide, Rula Shubeita.
Rula grew up in the old city of Jerusalem and is Greek Orthodox. She and many other Palestinian Christians can trace their Christian roots through their ancestry to the time of Christ. She knows the faith, and she certainly knows these sites where Christ lived, ministered, suffered, died and rose from the dead. This community of faith is truly our “Mother Church.” It was such a privilege to meet so many of these Palestinian Christians, and to worship and pray with them. They need our presence, prayers, and support.
People are curious if we felt safe during our time in the Holy Land. The answer is a definitive “Yes.” From the time we departed the US throughout our stay and our flight home, I never once worried about our security. The Christian community in the Holy Land needs our presence, needs Christians from the rest of the world to continue to make pilgrimages and support them in their day-to-day life.
One other person who gets an honorable mention is Mohamad, our bus driver. He, too, is a local Palestinian, and he is truly the best bus driver in the world! He is a servant in every sense of the word. He was amicably present for every move of our group, including a few very early morning starts. He made sure we always had water, he handled the luggage, and miraculously maneuvered our bus through streets and spaces I never dreamed possible!
Finally, Mary Jane and Tom handled all of the details of our trip with professional excellence. From arranging for Masses in the many basilicas and day-to-day schedule, to daily meals and wonderful lodgings. The preparations materials for the pilgrimage to an excellent pilgrimage book that contained all the daily schedules, prayers and Mass readings, along with important and helpful historical information about the Holy Land.
If you are wishing to plan a pilgrimage of any sort, but particularly to the Holy Land, I highly recommend to you, Pilgrim Center of Hope, San Antonio, Texas, and its founders, Mary Jane and Tom Fox.
Now that we our pilgrimage has come to an end, rather than giving a day-by-day account, I’ll recall the sites of Jerusalem according to our Lord’s final entrance into Jerusalem and his Passion. (Our group arrived home shortly after noon today. The pilgrimage far exceeded our expectations!)
The Upper Room:
Obviously, the structure that exists today is of Crusader architecture, and would not have been the actual room where Jesus gathered with his disciples. But, in visiting the Holy Land, it is quite instructive to understand the lay of the land. There is the temple mount, not far from where Jesus celebrated the Last Supper. The actual stones of a road from Jesus’ time are more the likely where his feet passed in walking from the Last Supper to the Mount of Olives, Gethsemani.
Visiting during the Easter season also gave our pilgrims a clear picture of the ‘time’ Jesus experienced as he freely laid down his life for our salvation. The olive trees are in full bloom, the flowers are of varied and beautiful color. The moon is full and the atmosphere is still battling from the transition of seasons. The night before we visited Gethsemani, there was an incredible thunderstorm and a torrential downpour. There was lightning and even an earthquake as Jesus died on the cross, and the rock of Calvary was split and the veil of the temple torn in two.
The Upper Room as we know, was not only the place where Jesus gives the Church the two gifts of Priesthood and Eucharist, but it is also the site of resurrection appearances. The Lord revealed himself in his risen glory to the apostles in order to strengthen their belief in all he taught and promised them. He is truly risen! Death has no power over him. And, finally, this is the privileged place of Pentecost, where the Lord bestowed upon his mother Mary and the apostles the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.
One of the many blessings of this pilgrimage is to not only see and experience this land made holy by our Lord, but in these places to experience as the disciples on the road to Emmaus a lived experience of the Risen Lord’s presence. In these days and places, in prayer, it is possible to express a desire for a greater docility to the Holy Spirit and a greater clarity of God’s providence and will. As the Apostles knew the presence of Mary with them, pilgrims also come to know of her abiding presence and motherly care.
Even though we did not walk down into the Kidron Valley, it is a rather deep valley that lies to the east of the temple mount, between the temple and the Mount of Olives. Jesus would have walked through this in his numerous visits from Galilee to Jerusalem, and certainly on Holy Thursday night.
Near the foot of the Mt. of Olives is the Basilica of Agony, and Gethsemani . The church is built over a large rock formation, where it is believed Jesus came to pray with his disciples before he was handed over. Scriptures indicate that this was a favorite place of Christ to stay when he was in Jerusalem and well as to gather with people and teach them. There are still a few olive trees today which date back to the time of Jesus, even one that would have been a thousand years old at the time of Jesus.
These olive trees are significant, let alone beautiful. Gethsemani literally means, Olive Press. As you may know, the olives when harvested, are pressed several times. The first press provides what is known as virgin olive oil. The other pressings provide different qualities of oil used for a variety of products. However, the significance of this meaning becomes important on the night Jesus is betrayed. Here in this olive grove, Jesus is being ‘crushed’ by the weight of his pending passion. As Jesus now takes on the sins of the world for our redemption, the ‘pressure’ causes him to sweat and weep blood. This is the blood that when freely and lovingly poured out becomes the font of our salvation.
From this mount, once betrayed, Jesus is led for the final time back across the Kidron Valley to a place not far from where he celebrated the Last Supper, to the house of the high priest, Caiphas. This is where Jesus under goes the first trial and his disciples begin to disperse in fear. Another beautiful church has been built over this site recalling St. Peter’s denial of Christ. Another vivid sound I experienced while in Galilee was a crowing rooster for three different mornings. Of course, all I could think of was St. Peter. Thus, the name of this church is St. Peter in Gallicantu (meaning, cock crow.)
During this night at the beginning of Jesus passion, he was lowered into a well which had been carved out of stone. It would have been damp and cold and dark. We were able to enter this well during our visit, and pray the psalm that would have clearly been in Jesus’ own prayer that night. Psalm 88. It is the only psalm that does not end with some note of hope. Jesus death draws near.
In the morning, Jesus was led from this location, now weary from a night with no sleep, his body beginning to be drained of energy from the cold and damp conditions. He is led before Pontius Pilate where he will be condemned to death. A convent and pilgrimage center now inhabit this location. A stunning chapel is over the actual location where Jesus would have stood while being questioned by Pilot and presented to the people. As someone pointed out, on this location where the savior of the world is condemned and rejected, the Risen Lord is now perpetually present in the Blessed Sacrament.
When we visited to excavation site where Jesus stood, several of the pilgrims took off their shoes to stand and pray here. This location is known as Lithostrotos , or pavement. Here Pilate proclaimed: “Ecce homo,” or “behold the man.” This was a powerful place to pray with that phrase, to behold Jesus, the Son of God, in the hour of his condemnation. How great is the love and mercy of our God! Here is the ‘grain of wheat’ that fell to the earth to die and bear much fruit; the bread from heaven who is to become the Bread of Life.
It is during this time that Jesus was scourged. Perhaps Pilate thought that blood would suffice to appease this angry mob. But as we know, blood alone would not quench their thirst for the death of Jesus. The chant rises up: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” And Jesus’ via crucis continues towards Calvary.
The part of Mount Calvary where Jesus was nailed to the cross and crucified are now within the walls of the present day church of the Holy Sepulcher. We spent a very moving morning here in prayer, and of course, another powerful morning celebrating Mass inside the empty tomb.
To kneel on the very spot where Jesus laid down his life is another experience that is beyond words. Here, Jesus freely offered himself as the sacrificial lamb. Here he entrusted his Mother, Mary to John, and thus to the whole Church; to us. Once he breathed his last, his side was pierced, and from his Sacred Heart poured forth blood and water, the font of eternal salvation for all who believe. One can only come in silent adoration to such a sacred place and give thanks and pray for even deeper understanding and greater gratitude for such a priceless gift.
At the base of Calvary, they laid the lifeless body Jesus to prepare it for burial. A stone slab now rests here, where pilgrims come to touch and pray. Many pour out similar oils that would have been used to anoint the body of Jesus, and then absorb these oils with their cloths to take home. Once again, imagination carries the prayerful pilgrim to that moment when Jesus was placed in the arms of his agonizing and sorrowful Mother, Mary. No wonder she knows how to comfort us in all our trials. Here is just one more reason why we need our Mother, Mary, she who can and desires to teach us how to apply our faith in Jesus to every experience and moment of this life, in order to remain with him until he brings us into the life that is eternal in the fullness of God’s Kingdom.
From here, the body of Jesus was carried the short distance to the new tomb for burial. How heavy the hearts of Jesus’ disciples during the time he laid in the tomb? How disappointed and afraid they must have been? Then comes the incredible news that his body was gone, and then the message and appearance from the Risen Lord himself! In Jesus we have the Font of new and eternal Life!
The invisible God became visible. The Word became flesh. God in the person of Jesus spoke in human language, walked with the afflicted, gave hope to those who despair, healed the sick, fed the hungry, brought those in darkness into his marvelous light, led those deceived by falsehood with his guiding light of truth, forgave sins, and in every human encounter gave meaning and purpose through relationship with him.
He who freely laid down his life now freely has taken it up again, and in him humanity knows redemption and salvation.
My friends, may you come to experience the abiding and indwelling presence of Jesus in your life. May you experience him walking with you through life, just as he walked this land he made holy by his presence. May each of us learn the meaning of true discipleship, by giving our all to the One who gave his all for us. This is true life; to lay down our life in service to God and one another.
As the apostles were soon dispersed throughout the world after Pentecost, so now our pilgrimage ends, and we are sent out into the world, renewed, and refreshed in the task of being witnesses to the Risen Lord in our day-to-day life.
Thank you for joining our pilgrimage through this blog. May God bless, refresh and renew you in the faith! I’ll close with a prayer from Elizabeth Kindelmann:
May our feet journey together
May our hands gather in unity,
May our hearts beat to the same rhythm,
May our souls be in harmony,
May our thoughts be in unison,
May our ears listen to the silence together,
May our glances melt in one another,
And may our lips beg our heavenly Father,
Together, to obtain Mercy.
Ein Karim is believed to be the community in the Judean hillsides (Luke 1: 39-40) where our Blessed Mother visited her cousin, Elizabeth. Ein Karim is only 7 miles from Jerusalem and about 100 miles from Nazareth, so it would have taken Mary about two weeks to journey to this town. The literal meaning of Ein Karim is Spring of Generosity, or Spring of the Vineyard. There is a spring in this town which is over 2,000 years old, and tradition says that when Mary and Elizabeth greeted each other, the rock split open and water poured forth, and has been flowing ever since. This is a beautiful tradition which expresses the refreshing life that stems from Our Lady.
Zechariah was a priest in the temple, so he would have been a wealthy man for his time. It is believed that he had a home at two locations here in Ein Karim. The Church dedicated to St. John the Baptist is where it is believed St. John was born. There is a well preserved cave in the base of this church commemorating his birth.
As I entered this church, there was another pilgrimage group celebrating Mass, and the priest was just elevating the host after the fraction rite and proclaiming the words of St. John the Baptist: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” Amazing greeting to enter this church! Here, I prayed: “Lord, grant grace and blessing to all those who proclaim and preach Jesus Christ. Please grant me the courage to always proclaim his truth, even when it is unwelcome.”
The Basilica of the Visitation sits up on the hillside of this small town, and would have been the summer home for Elizabeth and Zechariah. It is in this locality that the two great Gospel Canticles were first proclaimed. First, Mary’s Magnificat is proclaimed after greeting Elizabeth. (Luke 1:46-55) A few months later, at the circumcision of John the Baptist, Zechariah proclaims the Benedictus. (Luke 1: 68-79) The Benedictus is prayed during Morning Prayer and the Magnificat of Evening Prayer every day in the Church’s Liturgy of Hours.
Another interesting part of tradition holds that since Ein Karim is in the Judean territory, John the Baptist would have been under the threat of Herod when having learned of the birth of the King of the Jews he ordered all boys two years old and younger to be killed. It is thought that Elizabeth and her son, John, hid in a cave at the site of this Church, and had a stone rolled in front of it to keep from being discovered. Thus, the Precursor, John the Baptist, was spared.
As I offered Mass at this church, I was very mindful of the dignity of these two great women, Mary and Elizabeth. They discovered their dignity by first humbly serving God. These two women were so obedient to God’s will, and joyful in singing their praises to God. Having recognized their own dignity, they were then able to recognize the dignity of others, and thus were both great servants of God in their neighbor. My intention for this Mass was for a renewed understanding of the dignity of the human person, the dignity of the Marriage, and the dignity of the family.
One final place from our visit that is connected with the Blessed Mother is the Dormition Abbey. This Church is located on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. It is believed to be the site of the home of the Apostle John. As we know from Sacred Scripture, from the cross, our Lord entrusted the care of his mother to the Beloved Disciple, John. It would be easy to believe that Mary lived here with John after the resurrection and asencion. Even though the greater tradition is that after Pentecost, John and Mary went to Ephesus and that Mary was assumed into heaven from there, there is also a lesser tradition that says that eventually, John and Mary returned to Jerusalem, and her Assumption took place in this location.
So, dormition means ‘sleeping.’ One of the dogmas of the Church regarding our Blessed Mother is that she did not undergo death and the corruption of the grave, but rather fell asleep and was assumed into heaven and crowned Queen of heaven and earth.
Our group also celebrated at Mass at this beautiful church, which is now entrusted to a group of German Benedictine monks. Here I reflected upon just how much the Church needs a Mother; our Mother Mary. I was also very aware of just how much Mary wants and desires that we turn to her in our need. She is anxiously waiting to help us, and of course her deepest maternal instinct is to lead us to her Son, Jesus. I was also mindful that God wants all of his children ‘in the Church,’ which is to be ‘in the body of Christ.’
Besides Mary’s desire to lead us to her Son, there also exists a close association between Mary and the Holy Spirit. Mary and the Holy Spirit desire us to know Christ more intimately. They are constantly working so that we can all serve God, serve the Church, and God’s people with greater intensity and joy.
Well, my friends, as I write this post, our pilgrimage is entering the final 30 hours of our time in the Holy Land. I apologize for the delay in updating this blog on our journey. The days have been long and full, and the internet service since arriving in Bethlehem and here in Jerusalem has been non-existent to sporadic at best! Alas, the penitential nature of a pilgrimage. But, please bare with me as I will eventually get the journey documented, here.
Tuesday morning was not only the highlight of this trip (for me) but perhaps one of those top ten moments of my lifetime. When I visited the Holy Sepulcher as a seminarian 26 years ago, it was a noisy event, and did not have much of an impact upon me. I never would have dreamed then of being able to return, let alone as a bishop, and have the opportunity to celebrate Mass over the place where Jesus was buried, and rose from the dead!
Given 17+ years as a priest, and now an additional 5+ years as a bishop, and all the experience and love of the Lord and his people that have gone into those years, the experience of celebrating this Mass on this morning was more than I can express.
This tomb is very ornate, as is most of the entire church of the Holy Sepulcher. It is an ordinary type of a Jewish tomb, composed of two chambers, one communicating with the other by means of a low door: the first served as the vestibule (this is where the pilgrims stood for the Mass) and in the second, on a couch cut into the rock the corpse was laid. This is the site of the altar for the Mass. The actual place of Christ’s tomb is below this level. The entrance to the tomb was closed by a massive slab, like a millstone, which rolled into place. As you enter, you see the first chamber. This would be where the Angel appeared to the women on the third day exclaiming; “He is Risen!”
I cannot sufficiently put into words the experience of celebrating Mass at this place where Jesus was buried and rose from the dead. Throughout this holy land, not only the Scriptures come to life, but our creed is constantly being called to mind. “I believe in One God, the Father almighty. I believe in Jesus Christ … who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, was buried and rose from the dead.”
Just 50 yards away from the tomb, and up the Mount of Calvary, Jesus was nailed to the cross where he died. At the base of Calvary, his bruised and bloodied body was anointed and prepared for burial, and finally laid in this tomb. I was highly aware of all of this as I mingled the Body of the Lord with the Precious Blood in the chalice during Mass. Here, the Son of Man died. Here, the Son of God took up his life again in the Resurrection! Here, we once again do as he commanded us: “Do this in memory of me.” Here, he feeds us with his Body and Blood. Here, his teaching takes on the significance of its meaning: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11: 25-26)
During this Mass, as in all our prayers during this pilgrimage, we brought our petitions. Particularly during this Mass, I prayed for ‘new life’ for our Church.
Sunday, April 12, Holy Land
Bethlehem was a very small town at the time of Jesus. Translated, Bethlehem means “House of Bread.” In God’s eyes, this must be one of the reasons this humble town was chosen to be the birthplace of the Son of God, the Bread come down from heaven. Sloping away from Bethlehem there is a deep valley where the shepherd’s field lies below the town, and is where the angel appeared to the shepherds to announce to them the birth of our Lord.
“Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.’ … And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’” (Luke 2:8-14)
Scattered throughout the field there are many caves. The shepherds used to bring their flocks into the back of these caves, and then keep watch at the entrance. It is also in one such cave that the Holy Family took shelter and gave birth to Jesus. It is over this site that the star shone and led the Magi to pay homage. A lovely church is built in this location with beautiful mosaics recalling the angel’s visit to the magi and their obedient response to visit the new born savior.
The star of Bethlehem has fourteen points, which represent the fourteen generations from Abraham to David; from David to the Babylonian exile, and fourteen generations from the Babylonian exile to the Messiah. (see Matthew 1:1-17)
There are three main criteria used to determine the authenticity of the sites of the Holy Land; written texts, including Sacred Scripture, oral tradition, and archeological findings. One of the archeological findings that led to the belief we have discovered the birth place of Jesus was in one of these many caves were found many bones and skulls of children, and among these bones were found other bones of adults. The belief is that the many children who died at the hands of Herod upon learning the news of the birth of Jesus (Matthew 2:16) were later buried near his birthplace.
Sunday morning, our group traveled from Bethlehem a short distance to another town of Beit Jala, to the parish church of the Annunciation. There, the pastor, Fr. Aktham Hijazin welcomed us to join the parish 10:00 Mass. This was Divine Mercy Sunday. The parishioners here are the descendants of the Palestinian Christians of Jesus’ time. Many people do not realize that there are Arab Christians today, who are not converts, but were born Christian, and trace their faith roots back to the time of Christ. These Palestinian Christians face great struggles here in Israel today, and it was a great privilege to celebrate Mass with them. We were happy to tell them that part of our pilgrimage was to be here with them in support and solidarity.
Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria is adjacent to the Church of the Nativity. Beneath the church are grottos where St. Jerome lived for many years. It is in this location that St. Jerome translated the bible into the Latin (vulgate.) St. Jerome is also buried in one of these grottos, not far from where we celebrated Mass.
The Church of the Nativity and the Church of St. Catherine are part of the same complex. Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the design of the church is the door of entrance is very low and narrow. Practically, these doors were made so over the centuries of wars and conflict to prevent animals entry. On a more spiritual level, the door also requires one to humbly bow as they enter the sanctuary which preserves Christ’s birthplace. Here as in all the other major sites in Jerusalem, various faith communities share the space, such as the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Armenians, and so on.
On Monday, our pilgrimage traveled to Obeideyah, to see some of the work of our Catholic Relief Service. We met here a Palestinian woman, Hanan, and here daughter, Claudette. Hanan has worked for CRS for 26 years. She presently manages this project which helps Palestinian women practice a trade of making hand made crafts embroidered with Palestinian artwork. Three villages participate in this project and it presently serves 26 women. Many of the men are unemployed since the Palestinian villages are now cutoff from Jerusalem, unable to obtain permits to travel or work. So, these women are able to receive funds or vouchers for their work as a means of providing food and services for their families.
Catholic Relief Services has had a presence in Jerusalem since 1961, following the 1948 establishment of the Jewish State, and the devastating effects it continues to have on the Palestinian people. Today, there are 18 refugee camps for Palestinian across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Besides providing space and materials for women to earn a living in this project, CRS continues to provide training, water projects, infrastructure, agricultural projects, youth projects, fuel for hospitals and schools, and relief and recovery shelters following this summer’s war between Israel and the Palestinians.
Another stop today was Bethany, (House of the Poor), and this too is within the Palestinian territory. There is extreme poverty experienced here. As we were leaving, we came upon a car accident. The people here are left to provide for themselves. About twenty people had surrounded the cars to lift them up and separate them. There were no police, and no ambulances, no public services of any kind. So many men stand around idle all day due to the very high unemployment rate. These are very difficult realities to live with day in and day out.
We know from Scripture that Bethany was the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus and is only two miles from Jerusalem. Before the Security Wall, pilgrims used to be able to walk from Bethany to the Mount of Olives (as Jesus would have done in his time.) But now, people must drive around the wall which takes approximately 30 minutes to get back to Jerusalem.
The church here has no windows. It is built to resemble a tomb, and thus, recall the raising of Lazarus from the dead. (John 11) Again, there are some lovely mosaics depicting Jesus’ visit with Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and the miraculous event of raising the dead man to life.