Christmas Midnight Mass in Bethlehem

The birth of a famous person is usually a pretty big deal in our society.  For example, when Princess Charlotte, the daughter of Prince William and Princess Kate, was born not so long ago, the news was on TV and in newspapers around the world.  Countless pictures were taken.  The parents were sent many messages from government leaders and ordinary folk alike.  Because of all the media coverage, it was difficult to miss the birth of Princess Charlotte.  Things were very different when Jesus was born some 2000 years ago in Bethlehem.  His parents had to leave behind their family and well-known surroundings in order to travel to an unfamiliar city where they were strangers.  They had trouble finding a place to stay.  The birth of Jesus was not covered in the media of that time.  Mary and Joseph probably did not receive many congratulatory notes!  The birth of Jesus passed largely unnoticed.

This Christmas I had the opportunity to concelebrate the midnight Mass in Bethlehem, steps away from the place where Jesus was born.  From antiquity, the Basilica of the Nativity has stood over the grotto where Jesus was born.  Though this Basilica is ancient and beautiful in its own way, it is not the kind of monument that stands out and is immediately recognizable by everyone in the way St. Peter’s in Rome is.  The Basilica of the Nativity can also be a bit complicated to get to.  In spite of the fact that Bethlehem is less than 10 km from Jerusalem as the crow flies, it takes a while to get there as you need to pass through the border wall that separates Israel from the West Bank.  Although the Mass was solemn and well prepared by the Bishop and the Franciscans who care for the holy site, the liturgy was also humble and simple.  While it was December 25th, it didn’t quite “feel” like Christmas.  The day is not a holiday in Israel.  In Bethlehem, the minority Christian population is continually declining.  In comparison to the Christmas Mass at St. Peter’s or even many parishes in Vancouver, the celebration of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem is modest.  When we went to pray in the grotto after Mass, it struck me that this precisely is the way that Jesus enters the world: humbly and unnoticed by most.
Star marks the spot. The place where Jesus was born. Grotto.
Basilica of the Nativity. Bethlehem.
As we have just celebrated Christmas, perhaps it is helpful to consider how we expect that Jesus should enter our life now.  Do we think that Jesus acts in a flashy, St. Peter's-style or in a more quiet and humble Bethlehem-style?  As we enter Ordinary Time, it is important to remember that Jesus usually works in very ordinary ways.  In our simple prayer, when we perhaps feel that “nothing” is happening. Through our family and friends who are so familiar to us.  At the daily grind at work.  Like in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, Jesus enters our life in a quiet, seemingly-unremarkable way that is all too easy to miss.

Renovations to the Holy Sepulchre: Facts and Faith

Edicule of the Tomb, Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem (source)
Christianity is a religion that 1) is rooted in history and 2) requires an act of faith.  A recent excavation in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem reminded me of this truth. The Holy Sepulchre is built upon the sites where Jesus was crucified and buried.  Hundreds of years ago, a small chapel called the Edicule was built over the tomb of Jesus.  Each day crowds wait for their chance to enter the Edicule and venerate the marble slab covering the place where Jesus was placed after He was taken down from the cross.  This year, long overdue restorations began on the Edicule.  Several weeks ago, this project made international news as the crew had the chance to peel back the marble that covers the stone tomb of Jesus and see what was underneath. What they discovered was quite remarkable. When they removed the venerable marble slab, they discovered a thick layer of debris. Beneath this, they found another marble slab which archeologists think dates from the time of the Crusaders in the 12th century. When the restoration crew removed this older slab they uncovered beneath it a stone bench, which is most probably the spot on which the dead body of Jesus was placed.

When I looked at pictures of this original stone slab, the historical aspect of Christianity struck me. Christianity is a religion that is rooted in real places and events. It centers around a person who lived in a certain place at a specific time. Christianity is not about vague concepts but is a religion firmly rooted in history.  The news coverage of the restoration also reminded me that Christianity requires an act of faith. Though archeologists can tell us that this is the location where Jesus was placed after His death, they cannot say that this is the place from which He rose from the dead. The Resurrection is a matter of faith. We know when and where Jesus lived, died and was buried, but it requires an act of faith to say that He rose again. In this act we choose to believe witnesses - the disciples - who tell us they saw Him after His Resurrection.

Christianity is a religion rooted in history that requires an act of faith. We see this in our lives. The good relationships, beautiful nature and wonderful things which surround us are historical facts. Whether or not we choose to see these people and things as a sign of God’s love for us is an act of faith.  That the world is full of suffering people and injustices is a fact. Whether we choose to believe that the needy are the presence of Jesus inviting us to love Him or that God calls us correct injustices is an act of faith.  Being a Christian requires paying attention to the real, concrete facts in our daily life and responding to them with faith. As we enter Advent, we are reminded of the Incarnation: God became man and dwelt among us. That a man named Jesus was born some 2000 years ago is a fact. To say that He was God is an act of faith that changes our life.

Going up to Jerusalem

From where I sit writing, I can look out the window and see the Jaffa gate, which is one of the main entrances into the walled Old City of Jerusalem. The Old City is a spectacular sight, especially when the sun reflects off the bright stones which make up its buildings and walls. It feels surreal to be sitting here right now.  For years coming to Jerusalem has been a dream of mine. The fact that I have the chance to live in this city for a good stretch of time is something I never really expected.

Last year when I started my studies in Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute (PBI) in Rome, I began hearing about the opportunity to spend one semester living and studying in Jerusalem. This program has a long history. The PBI has had a house in Jerusalem since around 1930. Since then, this house - which actually looks more like a castle from the outside - has been run by the Jesuits as a center for biblical and archeological research in the Holy Land. When the late Cardinal Martini was rector of the PBI in the 1970’s he created a structured program that would allow students from Rome to study for one semester in Jerusalem as they work towards their degree in Scripture. Students would follow most of their classes at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, one of the oldest and best known universities in Israel. Here classes would focus on the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). These courses would be supplemented by classes on the New Testament taught at the PBI.  In addition to classroom instruction, students would have the opportunity to visit archaeological sites and broaden their knowledge by hearing from a wider range of scholars, particularly Jewish ones.

The Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem
Since Cardinal Martini started this program, about a dozen or so students have participated in it each year. As soon as I heard about this opportunity I wanted to be part of the next group to go to Jerusalem. When I proposed the program to Archbishop Miller I was extremely happy and appreciative when he gave me the go ahead to participate.

I arrived in Jerusalem (or “went up to Jerusalem” as they’d say in Hebrew) in early August. In all, I will be here for about six months while following the PBI program. Since my arrival, I have been participating in a two month “Ulpan” at Hebrew University. The Ulpan is an intensive course in Modern Hebrew, which is the form of Hebrew spoken in Israel today. Because it is closely related to the Hebrew of the Bible, learning some modern Hebrew is very helpful for my studies. After the Ulpan finishes at the end of September, we will have a month-long course on New Testament history at the PBI. In November, I will start my courses at Hebrew University. These courses will be on the language, history and archaeology of the Hebrew Bible. In addition, I will keep studying some Greek at the PBI. In addition to classroom instruction, many of the courses will include some very interesting field trips! Sometime in the beginning of February I will write my exams and make my way back to Rome to continue studying there.

My time so far in Jerusalem has been amazing. It is a fascinating and exciting place. Much of what makes Jerusalem so intriguing is that is a holy place for Jews, Christians and Muslims. As a result, in the city there is an incredible, vibrant combination of religious sights and sounds. Jews have many beautiful synagogues in the city and the iconic Western Wall. Each Friday evening at sundown, sirens can be heard signalling the start of the Shabbat. Christians have an abundance of churches in Jerusalem.  Perhaps the most important of these is the Holy Sepulchre, the church built over Calvary and the tomb of Jesus. From these churches, bells can often be heard ringing out Marian hymns. Being able to visit and pray at the Christian holy places has been a wonderful experience. Throughout the city, Muslims have many impressive mosques and monuments; one of the greatest among them is the famous Dome of the Rock. In the city the Muslim call to prayer can be heard five times a day. This lively blend makes the city incredibly interesting and at times somewhat overwhelming to take in.

Adding to the texture of the place is its long and complicated history. Though I feel quite safe in Jerusalem, the many troubles from the past and unanswered questions about the future of the region creates a palpable tension. Jerusalem is something of an enigma. On the one hand, it is the Holy City, a place sacred and inspiring to billions. On the other hand, the place seems to bring out the worst in some people of all religions. There are tensions on various levels: between different religious groups, within each religious group, and between religious and secular aspects of society. In spite of the very real difficulties that exist, the atmosphere of the place is not dark or depressing. On the contrary, in general I find the city to be full of life and energy.

In my time here so far I have been struck by how much I have to learn from this place and those who live in it. People often tell me how lucky I am to be here. I agree of course and am usually aware of this fact. I appreciate the reminders, however, so that I don’t begin to take things for granted. I really look at this experience as a gift and adventure. I will try to learn as much as possible so that I may be more effective in my future ministry in the Church. Along the way I hope to share from time to time some of what I experience.

Melting in the sun on the Mount of Olives with the Old City of Jerusalem in the background