Christmas in the Holy Land

Palestinians with intellectual disabilities make felted wool ornaments, Nativity sets and other gift items from the wool of Bethlehem sheep at the Ma'an lil-Hayat in Bethlehem. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

This year I was blessed with the opportunity to spend the Christmas holidays in the Holy Land, something I have always hoped to do, thanks to my one year of studies in Cairo. Yet, going from Egypt to the Kingdom of David struck me as a little odd. Didn’t the Holy Family escape from Herod in Bethlehem to Egypt, and not the other way around? Still, embracing my pilgrim mindset, I set off to celebrate the Nativity.

As the plane approached Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv and the arid hills and olive trees of this sacred landscape came into view, a troubling thought came to mind. I’m usually a fairly level-headed person, but this was my first time in the Holy Land (if I don’t count what I consider as the “Wider” Holy Land, sometimes considered to include parts of Syria and Egypt). What would happen if I succumbed to what they call “Holy Land Syndrome,” a certain craze that infects those overwhelmed by physical surroundings so steeped in religious meaning? So I braced myself for the prospect, casting a cold eye (in the spirit of Yeats) on the motley assortment of passengers on the Air Sinai flight: two nuns and a big group of Evangelical Christians wearing bright red shirts and hats proclaiming the End Time. This, oddly enough, brought back a certain calm to my disposition, and I serenely sat back in my seat as we approached the tarmac.

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Christmas Midnight Mass took an unexpected turn. It was decided that I wouldn’t risk trying to participate at the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It would be too difficult to try and enter without a ticket. Instead, I tracked back for Tel Aviv, and served as the deacon at a Mass for migrants held in a derelict basement in a rundown neighborhood. I don’t know whether you have followed the news in Israel lately, but besides the usual tensions, migrants, documented and undocumented, suffer regular persecution. Celebrating with them was a great gift, and reminded me of the uprootedness of the Holy Family, a true Bethlehem Christmas but in the modern city of Tel Aviv.

On Christmas Day I went to Bethlehem and participated in a Mass at the Altar of St. Jerome underneath the Basilica of the Nativity. This is a great tradition of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem, who hosted me, and I was very happy to join them.

I opted to remain in Bethlehem and Palestine until the New Year, and took the opportunity to see old friends and meet new ones. There is a thriving L’Arche community in Bethlehem, and they very warmly welcomed me into their midst. I also visited a former L’Arche community in nearby Bethany that still lives the spirit of L’Arche with great aplomb, even though they reside in various institutions. Another highlight was Hebron (al-Khalil in Arabic), where I visited those Friends of God, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs whose tombs are shared between the Jewish Synagogue and Muslim Mosque.

My time in Palestine, no matter how blessed, did remind me of the closing of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. There was a characteristic of science fiction in passing between the ever-proximate State of Israel and Palestine. Rather than just two worlds divided by an imposing wall, there was the interpenetrating reality of two communities that live amongst each other, and yet remain so distant. The significance of this was made evident to me when I considered just how close Bethlehem is to Jerusalem, and yet how that distance has been exaggerated by the barriers of politics.

I returned to Jerusalem for New Year’s Eve and prayed in vigil with Jews, Christians and Muslims in a service of the Psalms proclaimed in many languages hosted by the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community. I wandered home just before midnight so that I could watch the fireworks from the roof of the Jesuit community overlooking the Old City. As I stepped onto the roof, the view was blocked by intense fog, but, as the hour struck and the bells began their joyful harmony, the fog lifted and the midnight sky became clear. I prayed for the skies of 2014 to be clear, and that the call of every believer be one of harmony.

I of course returned back in time to celebrate Orthodox Christmas once again in Egypt, uniting myself to the itinerary of the Holy Family.

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