Tuesday, December 25, 2007


Here is one of the best Christmas presents I recieved. Fr. O, studying in the Holy Land, sent a report of what it is like celebrating Christmas there. This is great not only because I enjoyed it, but that he thought it would be appreciated as a post for a couple days following Christmas allowing me more time to spend with family. Thank you Fr. O! And God bless. And now, to Jerusalem!

Waking up on Christmas Eve morning, it occurred to me that this was the first time this season that I actually felt like Christmas was coming. Advent is kind of a different experience here in Jerusalem. Christians are a distinct minority, so I have only seen one Christmas tree and one store selling Christmas things this whole month, and there is no snow like we have back in Ohio. But this morning I woke up with nothing to do but explore the city, so it felt like Christmas to me.

I began my day in a peculiar place for a Christian: a few friends and I decided to go visit the Dome of the Rock. This is the third most revered Muslim shrine in the world, built on the site of the former Jewish Temple. The western retaining wall of this area is still the most important place in the world for Jews. Why a Muslim shrine in a Jewish locale on Christmas Eve morning? Just because it was something on our "to do" list that we had not found the time for until now.

It was surprisingly beautiful and peaceful up there. The gleaming golden Dome rises above an octagonal shrine, which is covered with blue and white tiles in geometric designs. All around it there are courtyards and gardens, and we spent about an hour just meandering around, enjoying the view of the surrounding Mount of Olives, Mount Scopus, Mount Zion, and other sites. Unfortunately, non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the shrine itself, but it was pleasant enough just taking a relaxing stroll in the sunshine. I took the opportunity to pray a Chaplet of Divine Mercy for all of the bad things Christians and Muslims have done to each other over the centuries, hoping for a brighter future.

We left the Dome of the Rock, and after a brief stop for a cappuccino, headed up toward the Latin Patriarchate; the seat of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land. On our way there, we were most surprised to run into a drum and bagpipe corps of Catholic Scouts. Just imagine - about 200 Arab boys and girls dressed in their scout uniforms (along with capes bearing the Jerusalem Cross), playing bagpipes and snare drums. And they were really good, too! That definitely put a smile on our faces.

When we got to the Latin Patriarchate, we knocked on the door and asked to see the church, since none of us had ever seen it before. We weren't sure what kind of response we would get on Christmas Eve, but a very kind elderly priest not only gave us a tour of the church, but also showed us around the patriarchate building and took us up to the roof for another great view of the city, and then got some chocolate for us on the way back down. One of my friends remarked that one of his goals in life was to become a well adjusted old man that always leaves people smiling, like that guy just did. Sounds like a pretty good goal to me.

Since we had been to the holiest Muslim and Jewish places earlier in the day, we decided to go for the "Holy Hat Trick" and visit the most important Christian shrine in the world: the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I wanted to see if they had decorated it for Christmas, but as I expected, they had not. In fact, they are not allowed. The Holy Sepulcher church is divided between the Roman Catholics and several Eastern Orthodox churches (mainly the Greeks and Armenians), and the only way they can coexist in peace is to never do anything out of the ordinary. That means that none of them are allowed to decorate their part of the church for celebrations; they must stricktly adhere to the "status quo" (the way they have done things for as long as they can remember), or else there would be some major fights breaking out. That's a sobering thought for Christmas Eve. Jesus has come into the world, but there is still an awful lot of squabbling among Christians.

At lunch time, I discovered that there was a small group planning to walk to Bethlehem that night. It's only about six miles or so, and the weather forecast looked pretty good, so that sounded like a plan to me. But a six mile walk followed by Midnight Mass would definitely require a siesta, so I took care of that first.

I met my walking group at Jaffa Gate at about 5:30. The group was mostly French, with a few Americans, a Portuguese, and an Australian also in the mix. And get this: one of the Americans was a woman who was 9 months pregnant - due that very day, in fact! Pretty tough girl. Her doctor told her that it would be OK to walk. If she started having contractions, she should just head to the hospital in Bethlehem instead of the church.

The walk was beautiful - pleasantly cool with a nearly full moon and no clouds in the sky. The bustling city around us made it difficult to imagine what it would have been like 2,000 years ago, but every once in a while, I would catch sight of an open patch of rocky, grassy field, and my mind tried to recreate the scene. As we drew near to Bethlehem, Christmas lights began to adorn the highway, and it seemed more like a scene from home.

Bethlehem today is part of the Palestinian Territory, so Israel has built a very large dividing wall at the border with a security checkpoint. Other than the imposing height (about 15 feet) and the barbed wire and bulletproof turrets at the top, the wall looks almost pleasant from the Israeli side. There are large, brightly colored banners from the tourism department, claiming "Peace and Love, Jerusalem - Bethlehem". We approached the wall and easily sailed through the checkpoint. One member of our group who lives around here commented that they must be letting everyone through easily tonight to make all of the visiting pilgrims think that the border is rather free and open - it's usually not so easy.

The Palestinian side of the wall looks much different than the Israeli side. It is loaded with the graffiti and political lampooning of an oppressed people. Messages like "To exist is to resist" and "Stop the apartheid" are spray painted next to a mural of a lion devouring a peace dove, or a Christmas tree hemmed in by a tall concrete fence. Life is very difficult for the Palestinians of Bethlehem, and especially so for the Christians. They are a distinct minority, in an already oppressed region.

We were greeted on the other side of the checkpoint by about 20 cab drivers, each vying for our attention, "You want to go to church? Is long walk - 10 kilometers! I take you, only 3 shekels each." To their dismay, we told them that we wanted to walk. "No! Is very long walk - 15 kilometers! I take you! Only 2 shekels each!" It was only about 2 km away. We walked it for no shekels each.

Downtown Bethlehem was all decorated up for the season with cheesy Christmas lights strung up all over the place. Above one of the shops on the main street, someone was blasting campy Christmas music from a speaker that sounded as if it were about to explode. The smells of Falafel and Shawarma coming from local diners reminded me that I had not yet had dinner. The main street was clogged with traffic, as pilgrims and visitors streamed in for Bethlehem's big night. The only thing that dampened the festive spirit a bit was the fact that there were soldiers with automatic weapons stationed about every 100 feet, all along the sidewalk. They did not look at all agitated, and merely stood at their posts without incident, but the mixture of battle fatigues, automatic weapons, and Christmas did not sit well with me.

After we checked into our hotel, we made our way down to Manger Square; the plaza in front of the Basilica of the Nativity. The place was packed with thousands of people, and there was a band playing on a stage set up across the street from the Basilica. Most of these folks were here for the party; the church can only fit probably 1,000 people or so. We weaved our way through the crowd, and stopped in at St. George's Restaurant for a quick shish kebab before heading to the church.



Rob said...

-That means that none of them are allowed to decorate their part of the church for celebrations; they must stricktly adhere to the "status quo" (the way they have done things for as long as they can remember), or else there would be some major fights breaking out. That's a sobering thought for Christmas Eve. Jesus has come into the world, but there is still an awful lot of squabbling among Christians.-

Squabbling? Numerous branches of Christianity have made sacrifices and committed to a "status quo" which a them to live together without killing one another.

Sounds like Christian peace and an example worth following.

Fr. V said...

Rob -

Thought that was a good enough statment to use in a homily this morning - then ironically Habemus Papem sent this:


Rob said...

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