I came across this news piece posted for Christmas Eve. I thought today at Mass, while singing “O’ Little Town of Bethlehem”, that once you have been to Bethlehem the song gets a new depth of meaning. Check out this video to get a taste of what it is like to visit today — a message of peace and unity. They are enjoying more Christmas pilgrims than usual which is good for them.
Here is another video by the same news source that discusses some of the tourism economics of Bethlehem. During my pilgrimage, they were celebrating the 10th Annual Olive Harvest Festival and were promoting locally grown fair trade. My motivation in buying my shawl there was to support local handmade goods.
While in Bethlehem, I wandered by shops on a small street that runs off of Manger Square. I wanted something locally handmade — something I could wear. This handmade cross-stitched shawl became “the” purchase of my pilgrimage — something that ties me to the people. I pray for the hands that made it.
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
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.