Visits to Holy Land adds meaning to Christmas

By EDRIE ROYALS,

The 2017 season of advent is over. Christians have celebrated the birth of Jesus by remembering and reliving through holy scripture the events of His entrance into our world and by praising God for His greatest gift.

During this sacred time, my thoughts often returned to a 2016 Holy Land pilgrimage I was privileged to make. I remembered the people who lived the Christmas story and the places where the events occurred.

I recalled the visit to Nazareth where we went to The Basilica of the Annunciation built to honor the place where the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would be with child and give birth to a son, she would name him Jesus, and He would be called the Son of God (Luke 1:26-38). Below the basilica were ruins believed to be the childhood home of Mary. According to tradition, this lower place of worship was the actual site of Mary's encounter with Gabriel. It was there she believed and accepted what the angel told her. It was there she said, "I am the Lord's servant ... May it be to me as you have said." (1:38). It was there she became the first disciple, the first to believe in her son. Written in Latin on the base of the altar were the words, "Here the Word was made flesh."

Mary believed and was obedient. She said "yes."

A short walk away and a part of the basilica complex was Saint Joseph Church. It, too, was built above ruins thought to be either the childhood home and workshop of Joseph or the home of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. I remember two poignant pieces of art in that holy place: one was a painting of Jesus as a young boy making a wooden cross with Mary and Joseph watching and the other was a stained glass window of Jesus and Mary tending to Joseph on his death bed.

When Joseph learned that Mary, to whom he was betrothed, was with child, he planned to divorce her quietly. An angel appeared to him in a dream and explained that Mary's conception was from the Holy Spirit, that she would give birth to a son, and that he would name him Jesus because he would be the one to save people from their sins. Joseph did what the angel commanded and took Mary as his wife (Matthew 1:18-24). Although we know little about Joseph, we do know that God gave him a unique place in our Christian heritage by choosing him to be the earthly father of Jesus.

Joseph believed and was obedient. He said "yes."

We spent the last four days of our pilgrimage in Jerusalem where we travelled symbolically in time from the birth of Jesus in nearby Bethlehem to his death on Calvary. We began with a visit to Shepherd's Field in Beit Sahour, a Palestinian town believed to be the place where shepherds who were tending their flocks received a visit from an angel telling them of the Savior's birth in Bethlehem. The angel also told them they would find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. The shepherds went to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus (Luke 2:8-16).

The shepherds believed and were obedient.

 

The Shepherds’ Field of today had excavated ruins and, in the distance, some multistoried apartment or condo buildings. Was this the place where the sheep grazed more than two thousand years ago on the night Jesus was born? If not, it was surely nearby. We celebrated mass here in an underground cave which had been made into a small chapel. It was unadorned except for a painting behind the altar depicting an angel appearing to three shepherds and an olive wood nativity scene on a stone ledge. Our guide noted that shepherds may have lived in the cave. I wondered, "Was this their cave?"

Our next stop was the Church of the Nativity in nearby Bethlehem. We entered the side of a building through what is called the Door of Humility, which seemed to be no more than four feet high and required everyone except children to bend over (bow) to enter. Steps led downward into a grotto to the place believed to be the site of Jesus's birth. There was a silver star embedded in the slightly raised marble floor marking the birth place. A few inches above the star were numerous gold and silver low hanging candle-lit lanterns casting a soft glow. A beautiful red and gold brocade fabric framed and defined the space. A few steps away was the manger site surrounded by white and gold silk brocade, also adorned with low hanging silver lanterns holding burning candles. I knelt and touched the places where Mary gave birth to Jesus and God became man and where she placed Him in a manger.

Mary believed and said yes. She became the Mother of Jesus. Joseph believed and said yes. He became the earthly father of Jesus. The shepherds believed, and they found Jesus.

Walking in the steps of those who lived that first Christmas touched my soul. Their lives and their land remain in my heart. Simple unquestioning faith. Simple unquestioning obedience.

Edrie George Royals is a Northsider.

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