Choosing to be agents of unity

The Tomb of the Patriarchs, Hebron. A divided holy site in a divided city.

I hoped that after having spent some months in the Holy Land I would have gained some clarity regarding the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine.  The longer I stayed, however, the more confused I became.  I had the opportunity to hear from people on both sides and found aspects of each narrative compelling.  I cannot say that one side is all in the right while the other in the wrong.  Unless things change dramatically, I do not see how things will change for the better.  A critical problem, in my opinion, is the breakdown of communication. People on both sides of the conflict rarely get to personally know one another.  They often don’t appreciate what the other thinks and why.  This problem is hardly confined to the tensions between Israel and Palestine.
There seems to be growing division in many areas.  Politics is becoming increasingly polarized.  Within the Church factions can easily arise.  In families a breakdown of communication is all too frequent.  Disagreements are becoming more charged.  Those on the other side are quickly dismissed, often in a nasty way.  People don’t seem to be able to talk with those who have a different view than themselves, let alone trying to understand why they think as they do.  This deterioration in dialogue is ironic considering we live in an age where technologies such as social media promise to make us more connected.  It seems to do just the opposite.  On Facebook for example, the algorithms of the program ensure that we generally see content we like and agree with.  Hearing and learning from those we disagree with is not really facilitated.  More traditional media operates similarly.  The variety of newspapers and television newscasts cater to every taste.  Unless we really make an effort, we tend to read, watch and listen to perspectives we find most in line with our own.
This fracturing of community goes contrary to our Christian understanding of what it means to be human.  We believe that we are made in God’s image.  God is a Trinity of three persons living in a perfect relationship of love.  Though we are all unique individuals, we become more like God and therefore more human when we grow in deeper relationships with others.  When we polarize into groups we move further away from how God intends us to live.
On the one hand, when we consider the various conflicts around us, whether it be between Israel and Palestine, local politics, the Church or within our own family, it can be tempting to despair because the situation is so complex and seemingly hopeless.  On the other hand, the first and most important step towards peace is simple: we choose to get to know those on the other side, attempt to understand their point of view and empathize if possible, even if we disagree in the end.  Maybe the other will not reciprocate, but we will never know until we try.  Moreover, we need to seek to be agents of unity if we really believe we have been created in God’s own image.

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.