(Continued from yesterday - Fr. O's adventures in the Holy Land over Christmas Day
There was a large crowd gathered by the gates, hoping to get into the church. Nobody could get in without a ticket (free tickets - necessary for crowd control), and even those of us who had them had difficulty getting in. Fortunately, a local tour guide spoke to the guards in Arabic and explained that we were supposed to be concelebrating tonight, so he finally let us through. We found our way to the sacristy, vested, and were led out to the presbyterium behind the Patriarch's chair. By this time, it was about 10:30, so we still had an hour and a half to go before Mass would begin. While we waited, we listened to scripture readings and psalm responses proclaimed in a variety of languages.
The church was already packed to the walls, and most of the pews had been removed to make room for more people, so most of the congregation was
standing. Brown robed Franciscans buzzed around, ushering people to their places and taking care of last minute preparations. Just when it looked like people were getting restless and tired, a beautiful choir of both adults and children began to sing, and faces lit up. Nothing makes you feel like Christmas more than the joyful voices of children, no matter what part of the world you are in.
When the entrance procession began, it became easy to tell that this was not a hometown crowd, but a congregation of visitors and pilgrims. As the Patriarch and several other bishops came down the aisle, nearly every hand in the congregation raised a digital camera, and flashes popped all over the church. This was a night to be scrapbooked. Not many people get to go to Midnight Mass in Bethlehem. I hope this will make a good memory for everyone, and that they will inspire more people to come to the Holy Land.
We prayed the Office of Readings before Mass. Most of the liturgy this night was conducted in Latin, but our guidebooks had the scripture readings translated into many different languages. The second reading and one of the petitions were the only things in English. I have no idea what the Patriarch's homily was about, because he preached in Arabic and then repeated it in French. I just know it was long - about 20 minutes in each language.
While the patriarch was preaching, the kids in the choir sat on the steps by the presbyterium, and I got a kick out of watching them. They were doing what kids usually do when grown ups are talking about things over their heads: they were poking each other, whispering back and forth, and giggling. They reminded me of my nieces and nephews back at home, who would be gathering at my parents house for dinner and gifts from Santa at right about this time. Since I couldn't understand what was being said anyway, I took some time here to pray for my family and friends at home.
At the end of Mass, all of the clergy processed over the to the Basilica of the Nativity to go down to the Grotto. Perhaps I should have explained this before. The Basilica of the Nativity is not a Roman Cathol
ic Church. It is Greek Orthodox, so we could not celebrate Mass in there. The Roman Catholics have built a church right next door (called St. Catherine), so that is where we celebrated Midnight Mass. But after our Mass, the Greek Orthodox allowed us to go down into the place where Jesus was born: a cave which is underneath the sanctuary of their church. Fortunately, they do not celebrate Christmas until sometime in January, so the church is available for us to do this.
The cave is not very large, and there were well over 100 priests in the procession. I bowed to the shrine marking Jesus' birth place, then bowed to the manger carved out of the wall, and then turned to join the other priests who were cramming into the back of the cave like sardines. The Patriarch was at the end of the line, carrying the statue of the infant Jesus to be enthroned in his birthplace. But I didn't get to see any of that. Before he entered the room, one of the MCs opened a door in the back of the cave and said, "I'm sorry fathers, but there is just no room.
Please come out". By this time, it was about 2:15 a.m., so I wasn't all that disappointed to miss out on the enthronement liturgy. I was pretty exhausted, and looking forward to going to bed. But I was very grateful for at least the opportunity to pray (even briefly) in the Nativity Grotto in the wee hours of Christmas Day. We put our vestments away and made our way through the now quiet, very much littered streets of Bethlehem back to our hotel.
The next morning, we headed back to St. Catherine's for 10 a.m. Mass at the shrine of St. Jerome. He is the patron saint of scripture scholars, so all of us who are studying at the Pontifical Biblical Institute gathered there for Mass with Cardinal Martini, a respected scripture scholar and the retired Archbishop of Milan. When he was translating the Bible into Latin, St. Jerome lived with a small religious community in a system of caves that were very near by the site of the Nativity.
These are right below St. Catherine's church. There were Masses being celebrated all over the place - in many of the caves as well as in the main church - so it felt kind of like being in a liturgical ant farm. But it was a prayerful liturgy in a unique setting with people who share in my mission, so it made for a very pleasant Christmas morning.
After Mass, we took a cab to the border so that we could head for home. Getting back through the border was a much different experience this time. We waited in line for about a half hour. Just before we got up to the checkpoint, a Palestinian man gave some helpful advise. "If you are tourist, just hold your passport where they can see it. Even if metal detector sounds, they will let you through." He kept repeating this over and over, in hopes of making the line move faster. As I looked around the line, it became apparent who was Palestinian and who was not. The tourists all held passports in their hands. The Palestinians had all removed every bit of metal from their bodies - watches, earrings, belt buckles, etc. They are used to being harassed and held at the border, sometimes for hours, even if they are sick and on their way to the hospital. I can't even imagine how difficult life must be for them. I don't think most of the world realizes what they go through every day. This reminds me of why we so desperately need a savior, which is what this day is all about.
All in all, my experience here has been a tremendously enriching one. Living in the Holy Land absolutely transforms one's understanding of the Bible; makes it come alive. I hope that every Christian can come here and be amazed the way I have. Please pray for peace in this troubled land. It is still a very long way off. I don't think I've ever heard any hopeful comments about the progress of peace by any locals. They see the Annapolis meeting as just another show by a lame duck American president who doesn't completely understand what's going on here. I honestly think it will take some sort of miracle to establish lasting and certain peace here. But I also happen to believe in miracles. After all, isn't that what we're celebrating today?