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Pilgrimage, Day 7: Where it all began

Morning talk in the conference room on the -2 Level of the Inbal Hotel felt strangely like a trade conference breakout session with rows of stacking chairs, reposition-able walls, and convention-like banners from America Media. While the opulent hotel’s amenities have been enjoyed, it does not offer the quaint intimacy of the Mount of the Beatitudes Hospice, our former Galilee accommodations.

Fr. Ricardo da Silva, SJ, began his talk with a sobering accounting of the deaths, injuries, and consequences of the 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank of the Jordan River and its aftermath. He continued by referencing St. Ignatius’ notion of the Trinity looking down on the Earth, seeing both the mess and the joy. And that’s what it seems to boil down to: times and places of great hope, joy, and consolation, countered by times and places of unrest, devastation, and desolation.

Da Silva said that today’s experience would provide tension. He challenged us to use the bus ride as a time of contemplation upon the Gospel accounts of the Nativity with a particular focus upon the question, “What can be done to affect change?” In doing so, Da Silva offered that we should enter into such contemplation so that “tension into which joy, promise, hope, and faith is borne is mirrored within our own lives.” It reminded me of a saying that Mahatma Gandhi is credited with, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

The bus ride through busy Jerusalem streets eventually led us to a checkpoint passage through an imposing concrete wall, some 30 feet or so high – as formidable as any prison wall and bearing the trim of the same: towers, razor wire, cameras, and motion sensors. Once through that pinch point, we encountered the sprawl of Bethlehem, a cacophony of narrow streets, hustle and bustle, and commerce. It is far from the sleepy little enclave of my Christmas imagination.

Stepping from the bus and entering the Basilica of the Nativity was a dramatic contrast – a true understatement. Three faith branches share the space of this hallowed ground, yet the Greek Orthodox portion is the most ornate and historically rich. An eight person wide queue wended its way toward a single file stairwell, where we pilgrims funneled into a tiny grotto space, traditionally viewed as the birthplace of Jesus. Each person had the opportunity to venerate at the niche in a confined, yet solemn space. It was moving, and doubly so, when an impromptu “Silent Night” began to resonate around the curved ceiling of the grotto. That moment experienced, we pilgrims emerged singly from a far less congested egress – as if congestion ended upon entry and expansiveness grew in the passage.

We celebrated a pilgrims’ mass in the adjoining Church of Saint Catherine, steps away from the place from which one emerges from the Nativity grotto. Celebrant Fr. George Williams, SJ, opened with a joyous “Merry Christmas!” Every day is Christmas in Bethlehem, as it should be.

After liturgy, we pilgrims ventured into Manger Square, a broad expanse, bordered by shops and cafes to explore and to shop.  I sought out a ceramic chalice and plate at the request of Fr. Travis Russell, SJ, my President of Verbum Dei Jesuit High School, then settled into a comfortable chair overlooking the square to enjoy a cold, tap-poured glass of Golden lager brewed in Ramallah. The little respite was welcomed.

The return to Jerusalem somewhat tempered the hope and the joy of the Nativity with the return passage through the sobering reality of the wall and the tension which it represents. Every day is Christmas Day in Bethlehem, as it must be.

John Stradley