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1st Sunday of Lent B

Did you hear that Pope Francis wants to change the words to the Our Father?  I first saw it on Facebook and I thought… well you know… fake news.  Buy as I saw it from more reputable sources, I thought it was worth looking into.  Of course, you cannot change the words of Jesus, so we are really talking about the translation of those words.  And the line he has focused on is one that has troubled me for a long time.  “And lead us not into temptation.”  Have you ever thought, “I have enough going on in my life without YOU leading me into temptation?”  And I think if God were to lead you into temptation, can you really get out of it?  As the Pope says, a Father would not do that to his children.  He prefers what the French Bishops have already adopted and is current in Spanish.  “Do not let us fall into temptation.”

I appreciate that way of phrasing it.  I am glad we are taking the onus and the ownership of temptation away from God.  Not just the Our Father but our everyday language betrays our sense of God’s responsibility.  How many times have you said, “God, how did I end up in such a mess?” It is not that God is incapable of bearing the blame or our anger.  In our most searing pain, we have no choice but voice our anger to God.  It is ok.  God has the biggest shoulders.  But the problem comes when we do it too often, we make our greatest champion our enemy.  If God is the source of our pain, we will not turn to Him as our comfort.  If God is the problem, we will not think of God as the solution.

The weekend’s spare depiction of the temptation of Christ leads me to think of the very nature of temptation.  If we examine it honestly, we know it is not God’s fault.  We know that as long as there is something we think we deserve; as long as there is someone whom we might take advantage of; as long as there is someone ranked ahead of us, we will be tempted.  After all, the quickest way to the top might be by climbing over someone’s back and the shortest route to the finish line is a short cut.

And that is what temptations are – shortcuts.  Since Adam and Eve wanted knowledge without earning it, the story has been the same.  We would rather not do the hard work of healing relationships; we choose to cheat or cut a corner, convincing ourselves that no one is really being hurt; we exploit the weaker one.  We harm our body to satisfy our needs for a short time.

And how are we to resist these temptations? The other temptation of Christ gives us an answer.  It occurs in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before he was to die on the cross.  Here Satan plays a more subtle role. After following the Father’s command unwaveringly throughout his life, Jesus suggests his own short cut.  “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me” He does not want the suffering and the humiliation of the cross. It lasts but a moment as he continues, “Still, not my will but yours be done.”  Jesus takes on the cross, he suffers and he dies.  And we can know without a moment’s hesitation that we are loved, precious and saved.  What other path could have made it  that clear?

Jesus tells us to “Take up our cross daily” because temptations come to us every day.  If we share in the burden of the cross, if we make our goal to sacrifice, to be selfless and to love the best we can, then we will have given the liberation of true care.  We will truly be disciples of Christ.

In our own lives, let us mirror the choice of Jesus and say yes to the long way of love and sacrifice.  Let us reconcile and heal broken relationships; let us be an ally to those who are weak; let us patiently listen and serve.   You will probably not get to the finish line first.  But what is the point of “winning” if at the finish of the race the race, all that you can show for your efforts are those whom you have hurt, ignored or taken advantage of laid strewn behind you?  What would be the point if you got there all by yourself?  Instead take the time and the effort to be a repairer of the breach, a peacemaker, a lover.  Let us come to that finish line as a family, a community.    Take up your cross to resist temptation.  Then you will earn the crown of salvation with integrity, in communion with God and neighbor and in love.  That is the definition of success.  “Father, do not let us fall into temptation.”


We began our last day of touring at the Mount of Olives. Beyond its stunning view of the holy city, the second highest mountain of the city located east of its walls, has been the base for pilgrims, processions and conquerors for centuries. In the life of Jesus, it was precisely all those things, although his conquering was through sacrifice, not arms.
For once we traveled down a hill after nearly a week of straight ascent. Yet, while less arduous, this proved tricky over the pavement slickened by a steady drizzle. From the top of this mountain, probably roughly along the path we walked, Jesus made his palm strewn entrance into Jerusalem aboard a mule, a messianic sign. To this day, pilgrims and locals commemorate this march on Palm Sunday down the slope of the mountain. From the top of the Mount of Olives, Jesus ascended into heaven. But our goal was the bottom – the Garden of Gethsemane and the beautiful Church of All Nations. We wound down the steep drive passing a large Jewish cemetery. This is a cherished place to be buried for it faces the now sealed Golden Gate through which many Jews believe the Messiah will enter and usher in the Apocalypse. To be buried in the Mount of Olives is to have a front row seat for the end of times and to be first to be raised from the dead. All three major monotheistic beliefs have an investment in the last days coming from Jerusalem. Muslims associate it with the Apocalypse due to Mohammed’s night journey and there is a corresponding Muslim cemetery just outside the walls of the city and Christians founded an ancient cemetery to the north awaiting the second coming.
Amidst all those dead eagerly awaiting the Messiah, is the church of Dominus Flevit, The Lord Wept, commemorating Jesus cry for Jerusalem in Matthew 23:37-39, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but you were unwilling! Behold, your house will be abandoned, desolate.” Already anticipating his ultimate rejection, Jesus laments Jerusalem’s failure to embrace him as Messiah. From the vantage point, the city looks just large enough to enfold in one’s arms or as a hen gathers her young under her wings. The prophecy would be fulfilled in 70AD with the Roman conquest and the destruction of the Temple.
Among the most moving sites in all my pilgrimage was our visit to the Garden of Gethsemane. It is among the least disputed of the sites of Jesus’ life, probably because it was a well-known spot by all in the city. Resting at the base of the Mount of Olives where it meets the Kidron Valley, the garden is different from every other site we visited for it is not enclosed by a church, making it look much like the place where Jesus agonized and was betrayed. The authenticity comes from the olive trees, the so called silent witnesses of these tragic events. They are witness for they were surely there on that fateful Spring night. Olive trees do not die. Their roots are capable of continual regeneration and these are among the most ancient in the land dating to over 2000 or even 3000 years old. I made sure to touch the tree that saw the agony. (I also made sure to quietly sing the Garden of Gethsemane song from Jesus Christ Superstar, my favorite from the rock opera.) The garden itself possesses the solemnity appropriate to the moment it memorializes where Jesus sweat appeared as blood so deep were the throes of hurt of a man who truly loved us and his life, yet recognized his need to surrender it. I remembered all the agonies of those I know and asked for the prayer of Jesus to the Father include those intentions as well. We celebrated mass at the beautiful Church of all Nations where poignant mosaics portrayed the astounding events of the Mount of Olives from the heartbreaking to the (literally) uplifting.
After lunch we followed the path of Jesus’ last night before his crucifixion by heading west to Mount Zion, once inside the city walls and not just beyond its southern gates. The agony of the night before the crucifixion deepens into darkness. We first came to the Abbey of the Dormition of Mary where legend has it that she was taken from a deep sleep and assumed into heaven. The island of Ephesus also makes a claim for this honor. But even the Assumption does not dilute Mary’s other experience on this mountain, the pain of a mother watching her son’s demise as depicted in the sacred art of the church.
The most disappointing site of the trip was also found on Mount Zion – the cenacle, the famed upper room where Jesus instituted the Eucharist among his disciples and where the fear filled apostles were touched by the Holy Spirit as tongues of fire at Pentecost. It is certainly not for a lack of love of these events that I felt let down, but there was a strangeness to this place. Controlled by the Israeli government, it is of questionable authenticity, crowded, and since worship is prohibited there, no place to pray. But more than that, I had now become accustomed to feeling the power of these places and I truly believe (although this risks exposing too much pride) that if what was to have happened there happened there, I would have known it. However, as they say in the Holy Land, “here or near here,” these momentous events occurred. What I did honor were the historic meetings of the Greek Patriarchs and Popes that have occurred fifty years apart where the bridges of reconciliation of a thousand year schism where built. Let us pray that we may be reconciled.
And just down the hill from the Cenacle is the very powerful St. Peter in Gallincantu. The rooster atop the cross quickly identifies it as the spot where Peter denied Jesus three times outside the court of the high priest Caiaphas. Stunning art portrays a halo-less Peter denying the Lord and a devastated Peter crying over his betrayal, his tears having restored his halo.
Large cisterns and rooms indicate this is the house of the high priest and the archaeology itself is moving. Beneath the church are two levels leading to a pit that originally had been a cistern but then used as a cell for prisoners who ran afoul of the Temple authorities. It makes sense this is where Jesus stayed after his trial before the Jewish high court, the Sanhedrin, and before being taken to Pilate for final judgment. A small hole was carved from the stone so the prisoner might be hoisted by rope into a pit of despair. We often relate to the passion as physical without remembering the psychological torment Jesus experienced during a night alone in a pit with friends having abandoned him. The agony that began in the garden lasted all through the night.
My last place of pilgrimage was an appropriate one as I stood outside the portico looking back at the Mount of Olives when a brother priest from the Diocese of Albany walked up the stairs. “Father Matthew Wetzel” I exclaimed and he greeted me as well. I knew that Fr. Matt and I were on pilgrimage at the same time and we had just missed each other on several occasions judging by the registries we signed after mass. It was wonderful to see friends from throughout the diocese in such a holy place. It eased my way back to reality.
Just before that was one last memorable sight. Peering down toward the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations, we saw a path including first century stone steps, the top few of which we sat upon. “Jesus went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to where there was a garden, into which he and his disciples entered.” Surely these must be the steps he trod on his way to the Garden after the last supper and here are the steps he returned just a few hours later in custody. Along this path Jesus gave us the joy of the Eucharist, the tragedy it symbolizes and the hope that sustains us. Jesus came to earth right here so that every place might know the perfect love of God. We literally ended in the footsteps of Jesus.
Some mercifully short reflections…The Hustle: I have never seen a place with so much hustle and bustle as Israel with the possible exception of New York City. From the narrow aisles on the flight, crowded with pious Jews gesticulating their way through prayers, to the young man who saw his luggage emerge from the baggage carousel and ran over me to retrieve it (It is a carousel. It will come around!) to the plethora of trinket sellers and charming street vendors trying to coax us out of our money with products useful and dreadful, everyone is on the hustle. You forgive it because that dollar for a picture with a camel or the souvenir or flute might be all that feeds a family. In the Mid-East they like to say, “Our neighborhood is not like yours.” The very history of the place suggests that survival is a premium value. The Politics: The land is rife in it and it is always complicated. But at times it is disheartening that such people of prayer have not found a way to be reconciled. And in the loss of Christians in both the West Bank and Israel due to staggering amounts of emigration, a valuable balance has been lost. How can two states with such enmity survive side by side given the history of terrorism and violence and extremists on both sides who reject peace? How can there be one state and Israel retain its Jewish nature when half the population is Arab without denying those Arab citizens their political rights? The holy land needs one more miracle. It will begin with the will to make peace the highest priority. The Franciscans: To end on a higher note, thank God for the Franciscans and their 800 years of service in the Holy Land. They do not oversee every Christian site, just almost all of them. Who better for this job than the order founded by the man who joined a crusade and crossed into enemy territory to engage the Sultan for peace? The trust all the varied parties of the Holy Land hold in the Franciscans make possible their service to the pilgrims. At each site, a brown robed Franciscan welcomed us, sets us up for a mass with a missal meant for that particular church (How thrilling to say, “here” and “at this place”) in the liturgical prayers. May God ensure this wonderful ministry will continue until the end of times when certainly a Franciscan will welcome the Lord back home.

Holy Land Part 5
Jerusalem. What word conjures such holiness, division, hope, despair, healing and pain? All that deriving from its history, its politics, current, past and ancient and its religions. Jews have claimed that it is the center of the world. A couple of days of walking through the streets, hearing its sounds and feeling its thick religiosity make that statement hard to argue. It is reflected in all pilgrim experiences in the holy city of extremes.
Jerusalem is a strange place to want which makes it ironic how deeply it has been and is desired. Far from the water or easy access to commerce, this isolated city was chosen for political reasons rather than natural resources. The Jebusite people controlled it until King David conquered the city that had never known Jewish rule. This made it a perfect place to build the new capitol since neither the Southern kingdom from which David came nor the defeated Northern Kingdom could claim it as their own. Its greatest asset is its height. Built on three different hills, it was easily defensible even if terminally vulnerable to sieges.
Our first stop was at the Pool of Bethesda, a deep cistern only recently discovered where Jesus cured a crippled man. We were there because it stood at the head of the Via Delarosa, the Way of Tears, which traces station by station the way of the cross. The first two stations are most likely the most accurately placed until the end of the journey. The Antonia Fortress (named for Mark Anthony) was where Pilate held court during the Passover festival. Here is where Jesus was convicted and received his cross in what is now an appropriately dark and spare church with a window depicting the Lord in shackles. Emerging from that first street, the path deters from the straighter one Jesus most likely took to accommodate the modern lay out of the ancient city. As I progressed along the way, I was struck by two ordinary things that somehow still surprised me. As business people and families came out of their apartments, I recalled this not just a holy path but is now and was then a busy city with people doing their own thing oblivious to our prayers and perhaps oblivious then to the dire situation of the Galilean carrying a cross. Bread was brought from a cart and cars whistled down narrow alleys as we prayed each station.
The second surprise is more embarrassing to admit. Did you know that you have to go uphill to Mount Calvary? Of course you did. But to feel it in your feet, your legs and to imagine the burden of a cross and the bleeding of the scourging, makes every step that much more heartbreaking to contemplate. Up, up we went through the city, through the shops (Fifth Station souvenirs!), through a myriad of vendors, recalling the familiar stories but seeing it in brand new ways until we arrive at the holiest place on earth.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is not a quaint or recent chapel. It too has known the scars of the city having been a Temple to the Roman God and destroyed and rebuilt by many a conqueror. Any serious doubts about its authenticity have long been set aside. Its large dome encompasses Christianity’s two holiest places, the site of the crucifixion of Jesus and the tomb from which he rose. It is shared, often contentiously, by five denominations, the Latin Catholics, the Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Coptic and Ethiopian. Entering through its proud wide doors (and just beyond the Israeli police “Holy Sepulcher Division”) we climbed up yet more until we slowed at the chapel of the crucifixion. The line moved haltingly as a dramatic silver lined crucifix dangled over an altar. In a congestion of sacred drama, just before the altar is reached, a slotted stone is glass encased. These are the rocks that supported the cross. Beneath that altar is a stone. As you approach it, you bend down under it and place your arm though a small hole where you can touch the spot upon which the cross stood. Upon which hung our salvation. It is a dizzying and fast experience; emotional and heart pounding. I could not make sense of it until the tomb. But thus it always was.
We took our first steps downward in forever until we came to the slab of stone upon which his body was prepared for burial. Incredibly, it is available for venerating touch. A few yards away is the Christian holy of holies: the tomb of our Lord Jesus Christ.
St. Helen, the first Christian pilgrim to Rome and the mother of the Emperor Constantine, was guided to this place by the small surviving Christian community that had been worshipping and remembering it for three hundred years. She built a surviving obelisk like form over the tomb which itself remains two-thirds buried and is covered over in marble. We stood on a mercifully short line, roughly a fifteen minute wait. This is the province of the Greek Orthodox and a monk strongly regulates access. Within the tomb, and only there, we were told no pictures allowed. The decision seems holy and correct. The small entrance way is beautifully festooned with candles and icons. Three or four people are allowed in at a time, first to a small antechamber and then through an even smaller passage into the room of the tomb. The tiny room is nothing more than a kneeler and the marble top of the tomb. Its power is humbling. Here I literally had a touchstone moment: for all the troubles and suffering and heartache and pain and fear we face, the easiest thing to forget is that we have already won. Easter is forever. Our life and our freedom are guaranteed. So much of our lives are consumed by the struggle. Even the noblest ones for peace and justice cause a strain. And indeed we are called to carry the cross and to walk our Via Delarosa. But the cross always leads to the place of redemption; death always leads to life; tears turn into joy. It would be callous to ignore the needs of others, unChrist-like. It would be insensitive not to be aware of the pain of others and our own lives, inhumane. But it is foolish not to consider that we are not the final arbitrators of love; peace is ours to work for, but it is a gift from God. My touchstone moment as I pressed hard on that monument is not that the struggle is wrong. It is the struggle that imagines the destiny is ours alone that tells a lie. How much greater is the weight when we forget the victory has been won, the price has been paid, the darkness has been defeated and even death has met its match. The temporary amnesia that makes days feel like Good Friday restrict our ability to love; it limits our capacity to carry the burden and endure the struggle. The voice of the Lord said to me, “Be free. Be free. Be free. I have already won.”
How do you follow an experience like that? Jerusalem always has an answer. How about the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest in Islam? Through the streets first constructed in the first century by the Emperor Hadrian, we headed to the Temple Mount. It is at this place that King David first instructed his son Solomon to build a Temple to God. Destroyed by the Babylonians, it was rebuilt under the auspices of the Persian king and reached its greatest splendor at the time of Jesus under King Herod.
Once it was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD as Jesus had predicted, Jews longed to be among even its ruins. All that remained of the massive structure was its Western Wall. For most of 1000 years, Jews pined to return to the site of the glory and as close as possible the spot where the Ark of the Covenant stood which contained the two tablets on which were written the commandments, but the rule of Christians and Muslims prevented them. It was not until the Six Day War of 1967 that the modern state of Israel regained access to the wall and it has become the center of Jewish life in the city. Segregated by male and female, Jews pray fervently by the wall and cram their written intentions in to the small crevices between its massive stones. Its rise of 100 feet speaks to the massive size of the Temple and the devotion of the people speaks to the pull and the power the place still holds. I was honored to approach it, embarrassed as a breeze carried my paper yarmulk off my head as I began to pray and humbled to pray where so many have cried, hoped and celebrated.
Above the wall on the Temple Mount, where the heart of the Temple had lain is the Majestic Dome of the Rock. There is but one mystical experience in all the Koran. The Prophet Muhammed dreamed the Angel Gabriel escorted him to the Temple Mount and from there was to be taken up to heaven in a chariot as was the Prophet Elijah. In the sixth century the shrine with the golden dome was built to commemorate the ecstatic travel of the Prophet. To this day, the Dome of the Rock dominates the Jerusalem skyline. A more traditional mosque with a black dome, Al-Asqua takes a prime position to the East and therefore closer to Mecca. The site has restricted visiting hours for non-Muslims and we were not able to walk in the courtyard. But surely there was as fervent prayer beyond the Western Wall among the mosques as there was at the base of the Wall – all praying from a similar tradition. We can only pray that the unity of prayer can overcome the sharp divide of the wall.

A Day by the Galilee
We ended Friday night in Tiberias, a Roman city then and not a New Testament town, but now a thriving tourist destination. Our first glimpse of the Galilee was ringed by lights a night from our hotel room, but its beauty truly transfixed us in a morning of bright sunshine amid temperatures in the lower fifties. The first thing to know about the Sea of Galilee is that is not a Sea, but a lake. Actually, I think it looks stunningly lie Lake George surrounded either by mountains or villages.
Jesus came to this area after the crowd at the synagogue in Nazareth not only rejected him but attempted to thrown him down a “hill” which turns out to be a precipitous cliff of hundreds of feet. He came to the shores of Galilee and began his ministry to the world. It is here that he lived and called his disciples and perhaps even found himself.
We started our day in a perfect place – the Mount of Beatitudes. What else can you say about a lush hill perched above a lake on a clear day and sanctified by such holy words? It is adorned by another beautiful Barluzzi church, a circular masterpiece with an eight sided cupola atop, each with a beatitude written in Latin near its apex. It is perfectly attuned to its peaceful surroundings and a powerful place to pray. We had thirty minutes to explore and pray for which I was grateful, but if we were told we had to stay there all day, that would have been fine too. I must admit when I arrived at the patio on top of the hill and overlooking the water, my thought was “Heck, anyone could give a great sermon here.” It made think of how it must have been received. After all, some of the things in the Sermon on the Mount such as “Blessed are they who mourn,” and “Love your enemy” seem both illogical and unattractive. But on a breezy spring day in that setting, I bet everyone thought this crazy kind of unlimited and dangerous love was just the tonic we need. Beauty has the ability to do that. It opens our hearts and minds not just to more things, but to more positive things. The scope of what is possible and who we are grows wider in the presence of beauty. Then one more beatitude to celebrate this place: “Blessed are those who take in the beauty around them.”
At the base of the hill is Tabgha, the site of the feeding of the five thousand from five loaves and two fish. You realize that no area in the world was as thick with miracles as this small stretch of land of lakeside villages. Even scholars who approach Jesus from a purely historical perspective conclude he must have been a wonderworker give the unanimity of his praise. And no place was more blessed in that way than Jesus’ home base of Capernaum.
This is a relatively new site. The Franciscans (more on them later) had bought the land in the hope of literally unearthing something special in the town that Jesus may have called home for nearly three years. They were well rewarded. Once again, Christian tradition and archeological evidence of ruins and first century pious devotions led to the discovery of St. Peter’s house where a church dedicated to him peers gloriously over the water. In that rock hewn house appears to be a guest room, most likely used by Jesus. Capernaum saw many wonderful sites in the years Jesus lived there – both gentle like the hand holding of Peter’s mother-in-law to cure her of fever and the dramatic like the healing of a paralytic lowered through the roof of that same house. It seems to me this stretch in Capernaum was a decisive period in the life of Jesus for finding success and his voice, honing his mission and then understanding his destiny. When the town folk begin to claim him as their own, when the potential of a comfortable life as beloved rabbi and healer beckoned, he understood the trap. “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.”
We finished the morning celebrating mass at the Church of the Primacy of Peter. His primacy was given over twenty miles away in the region of Caesarea Philippi, but here the resurrected Jesus reaffirmed it after Peter’s heartbreaking denial on the night of the Lord’s arrest in the famous, “Peter, do you love me?” dialogue. The altar is built around the rock called Mensa Christi – the table of Christ. Jesus baked the fish while his disciples were fishing and they noticed him from afar (John 21). Outside you could imagine the disciples out in their boat, slow in their recognition of Jesus and the excitement that caused Peter to jump out of the boat and swim to Jesus.
In the afternoon, we traveled to the newly excavated site of Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene. The Legionaires of Christ bought and worked on this site just a few years ago and have found compelling and treasured artifacts, including one of only seven first century synagogues discovered in Israel. It was a well to do town. Fish from the Galilee were so renowned that they were shipped to Rome and Magdala seems to have been a fish processing center. The homes are large leading to the speculation that Mary was among the wealthy female disciples of the region that funded Christ’s mission. So let’s say it all toogether: MARY MAGDALENE WAS NOT A PROSTITUTE. The Legionaires of Christ have built a beautiful church dedicated to the women of Christ’s life and a wonderful church with a boat shaped altar and the staff of the mast standing as the cross. It looks like it is about to set sail on the Galilee.
And that is what we did next: we went out on the boat in the quiet of the Galilee. Jesus did a few famous things on the Sea of Galilee. He calmed a storm which countless rain delays at ballgames prove I cannot. He walked on the water which I did not want to risk, allowing for my insufficient sleep. He caused a great catch of fish which I thought a long shot for me. And he slept on the boat and I thought here is my true opportunity to be Christ like on the Galilee. I almost get there, but was awakened by the beginning of our prayer.
From the boat we had a panoramic view of our day with holy sites dotting the shore: the Mount of Beatitudes, Tabgha, the Primacy of Peter and Capernaum. The perspective showed how word must have spread. From miles along the coast, you could see if hundreds or thousands of people were milling around, or listening to someone a hill. You would be intrigued; what is happening? Can I make it there? It is hard to find a better spot for growing a faith. Let us pray we can find that ideal place in our lives.

Ein Karem
Our day began in Ein Karem, the hometown of John the Baptist which makes it the center of all the events surrounding his birth and Mary’s visit to his mother Elizabeth. The church of John the Baptist is another simple church which takes claim to the title by being located in the Judean hills as the Gospel states and by tradition. As Catholics we count on tradition a great deal and the holy land is actually affirming of this as time and again the traditional sites are verified by archaeology. The church focuses on the miraculous events of John’s birth to elderly and supposedly barren parents and John’s father Zachariah who thinks the angel is crazed who told him of the remarkable child to be born and is silenced until in obedience he insists the child’s name shall be John, upsetting traditional naming customs. Then his tongue is loosened and he proclaims the Benedictus – “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel who has come to his people and has set us free.” Each morning this prayer I say this prayer as part of the Liturgy of the Hours. I confess to the low mumbling of it for it suffers for its everyday roteness. The paintings, the presence has made the prayer spring to life again for me.
We were sad to learn that the Visitation did not occur in the home of Elizabeth and Zachariah, but instead up a steep mountain to another church. As we climbed up the over 100 steps, I asked aloud why Mary had done this to us. It was explained that Zachariah like many priests had two houses and to keep ritually pure, he separated himself from his wife. But walking comes with pilgrimage and if John was born in the Judean hill country, then the walking must be uphill. The church of the Visitation was worth the hike. A gem of a chapel designed by Italian architect and third order Franciscan Antonio Barluzzi, it elegantly tells the story of the encounter of the two women and is a true celebration of womanhood. It was an honor to say mass there and hear the wonderful words so deeply held in our hearts such as “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” And of course the Magnificat, “My soul proclaims the glory of the Lord.” I pray this each day as well, and it is reiterated multiple times during the Advent season, but I never tire of it. It is the song of the coming revolution Mary is carrying within her. “He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.” What a thrill to say mass there along with Fr. Tim and feel the empowered by two wonderful female sacraments of grace.
So much of the ancient and modern story of Israel is geography. As we set out on our two hour journey to Nazareth we broke free of the sharp hills of Judea in the South and entered into the wide open plains of the North which included the Plains of Meggido where Armageddon is to occur. This reflects a disastrous loss of ancient Israel. Looking for miles on those lush plains from either side of the road, one could easily imagine a setting for two great armies to clash.
Our destination was Nazareth, Jesus’ home for thirty years. My emotion took me by surprise. A modern church built after Pope Paul VI recommended it after his famous visit here in 1964, it encompasses the childhood home of the Virgin Mary. Skeptics slow down. There was likely only 50 houses in the town back then and sure enough excavations revealed 1st century AD and BC houses and pottery recovered from the first century AD to that says “Ave Maria.” A beautiful façade welcomed us with the story of the Annunciation and over the door the words, “Factum est,” or “May it be done” – Mary ringing assent to God’s astonishing plan. A wide platform forms a ring above a lower level where the cave house of Mary is venerated. A small group of pilgrims kneeled in awe before an altar with a stone inscription. I chill shivered my spine as I knelt before the powerful words “Verbum caro hic factum est” or “The word became flesh here.”
Have you ever wondered what is more important, Christmas or the Annunciation? Probably not for Christmas has taken such a large part of our consciousness and time. But if we celebrate the marvel of God being born into such vulnerability and smallness, imagine God beginning as a zygote, cells forming over nine months, parts of the Son of God still in development. Such is the subtle and amazing formation of our salvation. It began in Nazareth with an astounding divine plan; it began with a faithful yes from a girl of outsized faith; it generated, from the smallest start possible, life and light.
Of course, Nazareth is not just where Jesus was born but where he lived and worked and grew for thirty or so years. So up the block so to speak is the lovely church of St. Joseph and his home. Its simplicity is a testament to the simplicity with which they lived. Still to see they have discovered a workshop and rooms in which he lived underscores the humanity of the Christ. We know it and I preach it and we see it throughout his ministry. But it is really present in the town where for most of his life, no one outside his family believed he was anything other than completely human, even normal person, except for great piety and learning. If you want to understand how much we fail to see Jesus as a man of a place and time, a man of work, picture his hands. Are they beautiful and soft? Or are they calloused as man who had worked as a builder and carpenter for most of his life? In Nazareth we meet the Jesus who was not yet known as the Christ.

The Holy Land is another world and Bethlehem is another country. I do not want to go on about the politics of the country, but there is always an admixture of holiness, history and politics in everything here. To travel the few miles between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the territory captured in the 1967 Six Day War, one must go through a checkpoint. Getting into Bethlehem is easy for us; leaving it to go to Jerusalem is almost impossible for its citizens. The security Wall built in the last ten years (called by our Palestinian Christian guide Rula, the Wall of Separation) is beautifully painted with depictions of hope including contributions from the renowned modern artist Banksy and one of a triumphant Muhammed Ali.
You wind up the main street of town, Manger Street, and at the top of the hill stands proudly the Church of the Nativity. It is not massive as are the great cathedrals of Europe or even the United States. Its noble simplicity seems to state that its power does not derive from the building, but what is celebrated here. The primary entrance is through the door of humility. I was prepared for this tiny door but still my stooped back brushed across the lintel as my shoulders barely managed to slide through its width. As with many things religious, what began as a necessity has morphed into a symbol. The door which was designed to keep out large animals such as camels in the Middle Ages (conquerors torn down and rebuilt the great sites many times since Constantine’s mother St. Helen first had them built in the fourth century) is now a sign of the humility of God daring to become as vulnerable as an infant. Shared by five different Christian communities, each quartered in their own section and praying in carefully choreographed intervals so as not to provoke a religious civil war, they have thankfully all agreed to a badly needed restoration, funded in large part by the governing Palestinian authority.
We arrived at mass through an ancient maze of stairs and other small doorways in the cave of St. Jerome, who translated the bible into Latin while living as a hermit for 30 years in Bethlehem. It struck me that such a holy a spot, where one of the founding great minds of the western church produced one of the most important books in history, were anywhere else, it would be due a massive shrine. Here it is a footnote, but a moving one, as Fr. Tim said mass just feet away from the birthplace of Christ.
From there we went around again to the original church and waited for a thankfully short time to climb down the stairs to venerate the birthplace of Jesus. A beautiful and startling happy icon of Mary with her son smiled at us as we prepared to descend to the birthplace of the Lord. All the holy places here are down old steps as each city and especially the churches have been razed and raised many times. A small fourteen pointed star represents the spot where the Lord was born. A few steps away, in another crowded cave, was the chapel of the manger. It makes a sense you might never have anticipated without being there. As Fr. Tim pointed out, it is not just where Jesus was born, but where God entered the world. The simply miraculous, a mother giving birth and the outlandishly, impossible, God becoming human, is the form of our salvation.
Jericho and the Jordan River
Perhaps only in the Holy Land can you experience two world “mosts” within half an hour. We visited the world’s oldest city, Jericho and the lowest place on earth at the head of the Dead Sea. Jericho’s green lushness made it an oasis in the desert for longer than there has been a historical record. It still teems and must have in Jesus’ time as well. Certainly, then a two thousand year old sycamore tree could have been the one chosen by the diminutive Zacchaeus. As they said, it is a sycamore and it is still around, so it could have been. Yet, the impressive sycamore still works better as a symbol anyway. For I am here still trying to see Jesus. What has been challenging due to time and space is now just a factor of time and the space lends a certain perspective which was all Zacchaeus was after anyway. The trick though remains, not to just see Jesus but to surrender to him as Zacchaeus does by giving half his belongings to the poor and promising to never defraud again as a tax collector. Salvation came to his house in the person of Jesus. It comes to our house by straining to see him in all that we do.
But the true blessing of the afternoon came at the Jordan River. Here too the story cannot be told without politics. Until a couple of years ago, the site most likely the one John used for his baptizing ministry was inaccessible as it formed the tense border with Jordan. But in a rare sign of Middle Eastern hope, Jordan and Israel have combined to make the baptismal spot open again.
If the Jordan River was mighty and wide when Michael rowed the boat ashore, it is not now. As the river completes its long journey from the north of the country and just before it empties into the Dead Sea, the river is narrow and muddy. It truly may have been wider before water diversion programs made green a barren land, but now it is barely more than ten yards wide.
The thin reeds and the bristled beauty made it easy to picture this being the wilderness haunts of John the Baptist. Judea, southern Israel is indeed tough country bringing added meaning to the mission of the Baptist to create a broad valley out of a rugged land. Jesus was attracted to this ministry and submitted, against his cousin John’s will, to baptism in the Jordan. This baptism did not make Jesus holier, it made the water holier. It is the water in which we have all been baptized. On a cloudy dank day, a thin light patch recalled the voice that came from heaven. “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” The water still speaks as we are baptized into the life of the man of peace and hope. The Jordan river is part of all of us.
As we renewed our baptismal vows, a male Jordanian soldier watched lazily from the baptismal site on his side of the river. (It is generally agreed that John baptized on the east bank but it is of little difference now.) Then as we left, we saw two young female Israeli army officers laughing while machine guns jauntily tangled by their side. We still have not listened to him.
Dinner with a Palestinian Christian Family
That night we went back to that other country, an Arab city next to Bethlehem and were entertained by a family of Palestinian Christians – a wise cracking couple making bad jokes about marriage, an engaging sixteen year old daughter, a 12 year old Boy who spent the entire dinner in his room playing video games and a cute, mischievous six year old son. (Sound familiar?) Palestinian Christians which once made up 10% of all Palestinian people now barely represent 1%.
We had a lovely jovial time. We talked politics because it is inescapable. Johnny said that his life is dictated by politics and more than just his restricted movement. He temporarily lost a customer for his kitchen modeling business when the United States recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and its intention to move its embassy because the fear of violence made him insecure. He explained that he does not watch politics, he lives it. We parted as friends but as we passed by the checkpoint again, it burned inside me that we could visit him, but he may never visit us.

I have always wanted to go to two places in the world. Africa and the Holy Land. By the grace of God, I now will have been blessed to do both. This primal yearning is as mysterious as any of ours but I imagine it is because life originated from Africa and new life flowed from the Holy Land.  Africa was the dawn of creation and the Holy Land the dawn of our salvation.In a sense then we all share in both places.

I am stunned that for at least one week I will call home where Jesus did. And as much as nearly everything has changed in two thousand years, they have not moved the Sea of Galilee and the sun still rises and sets as He saw it. Olive trees can live two thousand years; which young tree witnessed that young man walked by. And the holy sites we will visit not only echo the words spoken and the miracles and the compassion of God-with-us, they have been made somehow even holier for the prayers and adoration that have occurred there since Jesus and his friends first changed water into wine, or multiplied loaves and fish, or cured a leper, or spoke of whom God surprisingly has blessed. Or died for all of us. Or rose from the dead.
I joked this morning that mass schedule for the week was Rosa Road on Monday, Union Street on Tuesday, Bethlehem on Thursday, Galilee on Friday, the church of the Holy Sepulcher on Saturday and the Garden of Gethsemane on Sunday. But today’s readings really fit my day. Incredibly enough, we heard of David triumphantly and joyously bringing the ark into Jerusalem for the first time. And in the Gospel , as Jesus’ family insisted on speaking with him while he was with others, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” On Sunday I said that all I have preached about for twenty years has been “there.” Now I will be able to say it happened “Here.” But perhaps the true excitement is that which happened where I will be a pilgrim made every place “here” for his presence is never foreign and his closeness is universal. This journey is about the place that made us family.
Thank you for all of your prayers and your prayer I carry with me. Each day promised to be very busy, but I will do my best to keep you up to date on the blog.