I’ve been thinking of this post for two or three weeks — another pilgrimage reflection — a bit of humor. A visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem — the place where ‘the little Lord Jesus lay down His sweet head — away in the manger.” Here our group was divided in half as we awaited our appointed time to enter the Grotto of the Nativity to celebrate Mass. As we waited, our leader, Fr. John Abela, corralled us around like his flock of sheep — come closer. We were in the midst of a great amount of iron scaffolding. The scaffolding surrounded the perimeter of the church interior and reached high into the rafters — the church that sits over the Grotto of our Jesus — the Star of Bethlehem.
Fr. John gestured our gaze up to the ceiling and declared, “You are looking at a miracle!” We were curious. He continued with great drama, “You are looking at a miracle — the roof is being repaired! It has been 70 years under discussions.” What? Really? The Church of the Nativity shares its custody with the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic (Franciscan Friars), and Armenian churches and are under a “status quo” arrangement that requires an equal sharing. It is like walking into a house and each room is decorated by designers of completely different tastes. We await our appointed time for Mass as we only have 20 minutes and must start on time. If we are not on time we will be in the “report” at the end of the week when they review “time.” Really? I found a current article on the topic that is titled “Warring clergy unite to repair leaky roof in Church of the Nativity.” Warring clergy? Really? Not the Franciscans. It is an interesting conundrum — no doubt — but “squabbling over who cleans what?” Apparently cleaning something can be construed as ownership and all things being equal — well — neither of the Christian churches would want the other to claim they alone paid for and repaired the leaky roof. It is so complicated.
I think of Fr. John Abela as I read this article and can almost hear his laugh. Just before Thanksgiving we learned that Fr. Abela had suffered a heart attack in Rome. Just yesterday, we learned that he had untimely (in our eyes) passed away on Sunday, Dec 19th — the Fourth Sunday of Advent. He will be buried in his home country of Malta on Christmas Eve. It amazes me how, even weeks beyond the end of our pilgrimage, the significance of our relationships continues to unfold. We were most blessed and graced to have been Fr. Abela’s last Holy Land pilgrimage group. Sometimes people cross our paths for only a minute, hours, or days and yet they leave an unforgettable mark. I think of the times I moved closer so that I could hear all that Fr. Abela was telling us. His love and knowledge of the Holy Land so apparent. I think of the holy hour he led at the Church of Gethsemane — the thought provoking reflections on the Gospel accounts of the agony in the garden.
Had I known Fr. Abela would soon leave this world, would I have listened even closer? Would I have made sure to take my journal and make notes. I think of the disciples who were sleeping in the garden — specifically asked to remain awake and watch while Jesus prayed. Had they known what was about to unfold, the kiss of betrayal, would they have slumbered any way?
So, Fr. John Abela will be interred on Christmas Eve — the Eve of the Star of Bethlehem. At least the Star of Bethlehem is getting a new roof — and maybe now a Friar to watch over it all.
The below photo was taken in Nazareth on October 27th, 2010. It is iconic of our pilgrimage — Fr. Abela gesturing as he taught us so much. The Holy Family is watching over him.
Check the links below for more information posted on the OFM web site of the OFM Province of Malta
In Bethlehem, we were given a blank postcard and asked to answer this question: “Why was Jesus born for me?” This was not the only postcard assignment we received during this pilgrimage and they are ‘take home’ assignments — no rush to answer now — think for awhile — talk it through with others. But, it must be done and turned in before we depart Israel — at least if you want it mailed to you for Christmas. After a day at the Shepherd’s Field and an evening talking with friends, I went to my room and put these words on the postcard to me. I wanted it to be God’s message to me — what was God asking of me now — “Trust Me More”. It arrived the other day.I didn’t know what was going on at home with my father — he was in the hospital with pneumonia when I wrote this. I didn’t know he would return to the hospital soon after my return. It is so easy to feel alone when family looks to you to make things right again — to restore peace and hope. It is so easy to feel alone but we are not. I wonder about Mary and Joseph — the trials they faced leading up to the birth of God’s Son — Jesus. Was it easy to feel alone while fleeing for safety — no room in an inn — a shepherd’s cave — a manger? It is so easy to feel alone and yet we should not — we are told often to ‘fear not.’ The Angel appeared to the Shepherds in the field and said
“Be not afraid for behold I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!” When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing which has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. ~ Luke 2:10-15 RSV-CE
We are coming upon the last Sunday of Advent — our waiting, our watching for the Star of Bethlehem is drawing to a close. When Jesus comes to you, does he find room in the Inn of your heart? The Good News is upon us. Make haste to Bethlehem! I close my eyes and I am there again.
At Mass, one of my favorite parts are the priest’s words at the end of the Our Father. I pray them interiorly as he speaks –
Deliver us, Lord, from every evil, and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. – Liturgy of the Eucharist
The above is from another post I made over two years ago entitled ‘Protect Us From All Anxiety‘. It has gotten enough traffic to make it in my top 15 of visited articles. A lot of searching on the word ‘anxiety.’ In that post, I shared “I worry that my anxiety reveals that I do not trust God enough with my life.”
In preparation of my recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I anticipated that God would have a message for me. By the last day or two of the pilgrimage, I heard loud and clear that God was saying “Trust Me More.” This message was loudest in the place where Jesus surely was in the greatest of his own anxiety – the Garden of Gethsemane. It is the place where Jesus placed His trust in his own Father. We heard the Gospel accounts of Jesus and his agony in the garden. “Stay Awake!” — we are reminded. “Can’t you stay awake with me for even one hour?”
God has a purpose for us all and it is not always the easy way. God showed me in hindsight how the Holy Spirit had been working throughout each day of this journey. By the last day of pilgrimage and the first few days back home, I could only be amazed at where the hand of God had been directing my experiences. It has given me the strength to endure greater difficulties that transpired after I’d been home a couple of weeks – the hospitalizations of my father – both while I was in Israel and again after I was home. To have a parent look at you in the ER with fear in their eyes. My own fear. Mostly it has encouraged me to tell my family to trust God more. “Wake up!” God is good. God loves you.
I think the words “waiting in joyful hope” are the words I claim for this Advent. I wait in the joyful hope of the prayers I offer for my loved ones.
A little over ten years ago I made my first Holy Land Pilgrimage. I concluded that it would be a once in a life time trip. Never say never. The opportunity presented itself to go on another pilgrimage in late October with the priests of my parish and a few parishioners. We were joined by other family and friends that wove itself into the group with six degrees of separation — practically everyone knew someone through some association. The trip was led by Franciscan Pilgrimages. The chance to travel among the companionship of friends and many other Franciscans was an easy sell for me.
What has not come easy is documenting my impressions in written form. Not only did I fail to take a writing journal, I managed to misplace my writing pen for a day. Last night I reread the excerpts from the journal of my first pilgrimage — the excerpts I posted here during Lent 2009. This trip was different — the Toys R’Us and McDonald’s were no surprise. I knew some of what to expect and yet some things had changed in ten years time. This time I was more inner reflective and less outwardly emotional. Things that moved me easily to tears ten years ago have aged and matured to a depth beyond tears. I watch — I listen — I absorb everything — I’m not distracted by the act of immediately committing my thoughts to paper. I’m still working on those thoughts — I did make random notes of things I don’t want to forget. I’m more conscious of the social and political issues. There was no wall around the occupied territory ten years ago. The calls to prayer from the minarets — I don’t remember from before.
Location — Location — Location
Franciscans in the Holy Land have it — location. Our journey began in Nazareth, where we stayed at their Casa Nova Nazareth — directly across the street from the Church of the Annunciation. A location that was just a brief stop on a day trip ten years ago became the view I saw outside my bedroom window for three nights stay. Our third night gave an opportunity to attend a holy hour at the Grotto of Mary. In Bethlehem we were to stay at their Casa Nova Manger Square — next to the Church of the Nativity. A last minute change had us at a nearby hotel instead. But, we had lunch at the Casa Nova Manger Square and spent quality time there. In Jerusalem, we stayed at their Casa Nova that is just a short walk from one of the entrances to the Holy Sepulcher Church.
I enjoyed the ‘urban-ess’ of this trip — much more time walking among the streets of the cities where we lodged.
It was difficult to return to work the first few days — wondering how my 9 to 5 in a cubicle was contributing to World Peace.
More thoughts another day.