I had the honor of visiting Bethlehem in September this year, with a group of Catholic American journalists. We were touring the Holy Land on a fact-finding mission, so that we could report accurately during the coming year, as the Holy Land is in the news.
You can see my daily reports on this web site; you can read my story in the January issue of St. Anthony Messenger. We experienced so many things, though, both in Israel and in Jordan, that Bethlehem itself didn’t get into the magazine story.
In Bethlehem we went to the Church of the Nativity, one of many Holy Land shrines cared for by the Franciscans. We stood in line among a crowd of pilgrims, all descending an ancient flight of stone stairs into a small room where, on our knees, peering into a cavity in a large wall. A star-shaped frame, with a glass in the center, looked down into what is considered to be the spot where Jesus was born.
My journalists’ eyes soon gave way to what St. Augustine called the “eyes of faith” through which one could see emotion encountering transcendence among those who literally were “falling on their knees,” as the carol proclaims, before the place of the Lord’s birth. Some were weeping. Others were praying silently. A group of Asian pilgrims was taking a lot of photos. (I was shooting video with a Flip camera, so look who’s talking!) People, some from our own group, brought holy objects and laid them before the spot. We were in a sacred space, peoples of the world together, each of us coming from our own place, with our own hopes, our own needs. The line kept coming down the stairs; those who came to venerate had only a moment up close, and then exited to make room for more.
Christmas Mass will never be quite the same for me. In this best of senses, I carry in a new way an awareness of the Incarnation, an awareness of just how much it means to each of us. Emmanuel: “God with us,” we say. It’s pretty cool to see that in a real, historical place. It’s even cooler to be aware that it’s happening in a real, historical place, in my life, in the place where I work and live, every day of the year. The same goes for you.