I recently had the good fortune to visit the Holy Land as part of the first parish pilgrimage organised from Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in Dublin. In just over a week we visited many places associated with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: places like Nazareth, Cana, Capernaum, the Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, Calvary and the Holy Sepulchre. Visiting these places helps bring the Gospel stories to life – there is a danger that reading them we can regard them as just that, stories, inspiring perhaps but not exactly life changing.
Perhaps none of the Holy Places inspires quite like Bethlehem, To get there from our hotel in Jerusalem we had to bring our passports as Bethlehem is in the West Bank, administered by the Palestinian Authority. We had to pass through a checkpoint at the infamous wall, though security seemed to be more relaxed this year than on previous visits.
We paid two visits to Bethlehem – the first on a Sunday in September when we arrived early at the Basilica of the Nativity, where ever since the first century AD, the site has been venerated as a place of singular importance. The first basilica was built in the fourth century by St Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine. It was burnt down in the sixth century in one of the Samaritan revolts, but rebuilt in its present form in 565. According to legend, it was spared from destruction by the invading Persians when the commander of the Persian army saw depictions of the Magi in Persian clothing. Over the centuries it has been greatly expanded – indeed ongoing works mean that for several years the inside has had scaffolding as works to preserve it have been ongoing.
Buildings are just buildings when all is said and done. After a lengthy queue we had a chance to venerate, for just a few moments the very spot where our Saviour was born.
Whatever else happens this Christmas, we will be reminded of where we were on the morning of 17 September. Aspects of Christmas do tend to dominate our lives from early December onwards – lights, presents, the Christmas rush, Christmas music of every kind from the sacred to the banal. Those of us who were in Bethlehem can use all that to remind ourselves with wonder and awe, that we were at the spot where it all happened just a few short months ago.
Three days later our group had an outdoor Mass in the Shepherd’s Field, a mile or so outside Bethlehem. Here again the sense of occasion was wonderful. It was a bright sunny day, but in that hilly area it was easy to imagine shepherds on a hillside, minding their flocks in a dark isolated scene, being disturbed by a heavenly light and a choir of angels singing Glory to God in the highest.
This Christmas, let’s all go to Bethlehem, if not physically, in our thoughts and prayers.