Christmas in the Holy Land

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Though the author did not travel with his tour, Clarifying Catholicism is proud to recommend Steve Ray as a premier guide and Biblical scholar of the Holy Land. His work and schedule can be found here.

Last December, between the Iranian threat of a third world war and the beginnings of the COVID-19 crisis, I received an opportunity to visit the origins of my faith in the Holy Land. While there are significant tensions and controversies surrounding Israel right now, it is definitely worth visiting to walk where Jesus walked and founded His Church. 

Aside from the 11-hour flight from D.C. to Tel Aviv, stepping into Israel for the first time – even at a crowded airport filled with people who spoke a different language – was a fun experience. After the first night, we departed from the bustling city and headed north to begin our journey. Our first stop was south of Haifa at a Givat Haviva school, an educational center that works to amend relations between Jews and Arabs. One of our first lessons was the history of Jewish-Arab relations since the establishment of Israel. 

Nazareth, the childhood home of Jesus, was our next destination in the northern district. First, we visited Mount Precipice – believed by some to be the site of Jesus’ rejection in Luke 4. Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Mass there in 2009. Its trails lead to the top of a mountain filled with plaques commemorating Biblical scenes and themes. 

The major destination inside the city of Nazareth is the Basilica of the Annunciation, traditionally (in Catholicism) believed to be the home of Mary and the site of the Annunciation. The lower church – the Grotto of the Annunciation – is believed to have been Mary’s childhood home, while the upper church is filled with mosaics that show Our Lady’s likeness portrayed by many different cultures. The courtyard is similarly rich with such icons and mosaics. This is one of the best sites for Catholics visiting Israel.

2020, for me, began close to the border of Lebanon and Syria. Even before the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, which occured two days later, it was still a tense environment given the hostile relations between Israel and Syria. Our morning primarily focused on modern Israeli military history and Biblical history. 

Up in the clouds of Mount Hermon, the views were great. The mountain overlooks the border, and Damascus is slightly visible. Extremely important for Catholics is the site where Jesus founded His Church with St. Peter, as described in Matthew 16. Archeology has uncovered shrines to old pagan gods, long abandoned, but there is no church or shrine in the area. It is the northernmost point of Jesus Christ’s ministry in the Holy Land.

The afternoon was mainly spent in Jish, closer to Lebanon, where we visited a Maronite Catholic Church. What is noticeable about most churches in the Holy Land, whether Catholic or Orthodox, is their use of iconography. The vivid art surrounding the altar, rich with iconography and eastern stained glass, as well as the Maronite Cross, was certainly remarkable. 

The Sea of Galilee was our next stop. Tabgha and Capernaum are two crucial pilgrimage sites for Christians. The former was visited by Pope St. John Paul II in 2000, and it is considered as the location where the multiplication of loaves and fishes, described in Mark, occurred. It is also an unbelievably pleasant environment. Adjacent to the coast is the Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter, a Catholic church believed to be built on the site of the fourth appearance of Jesus Christ following His Resurrection. It is a major archeological site of importance for Christians; some of the first churches were uncovered there, and it is fascinating to see underground churches designed to worship while avoiding persecution. Various monasteries and shrines continue to operate there. 

Jerusalem is unquestionably the most important city that Catholics can visit. Little explanation is necessary; the ministry of Jesus Christ took place throughout Judea, but His Passion and our salvation comes from the holy city of Jerusalem. Unfortunately, Jerusalem is not the easiest city to navigate or access for Christians; Muslim authorities have reduced Christian and Jewish access and control of parts like the Temple Mount. The most important places of Christian pilgrimage are the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. 

The Passion narrative is traced to the Garden of Gethsemane, on the foot of the Mount of Olives, where the Agony in the Garden occurred. The site is an extremely common place for Christian pilgrimage. The Roman Catholic Church of All Nations is adjacent to the Garden; it is one of the darkest and most sorrowful and passionate churches in the world, fitting in well with its location. The Mount of Olives is very important in the Old Testament, and in the Gospels, Jesus’s ascension into heaven occurred there. 

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is traditionally marked as the site of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and burial. The first churches there date back to the 4th century. It has a troubled history between earthquakes, fires, and political disputes between the Crusaders and Ottomans, but it is a large church today that is divided into different sections controlled by Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox churches. A massive church too complex and laden with sacred art to adequately describe in one paragraph, it is important to visit and pray at the very spot where Jesus Christ died for our salvation. 

South of Jerusalem in the West Bank is Bethlehem. It should be of no surprise that this is a major destination for Christian pilgrims, and visiting on Christmas Eve was quite the experience. While we did not have much free time that day, we saw the beginning of a Greek Orthodox Christmas Eve liturgy. Like the Sepulchre, the Church of the Nativity is primarily administered by the Greek Orthodox church, though the Armenian Apostolic church and the Latin Catholic Church have some authority over it as well. Like the Sepulchre, the church is filled with stunning sacred art, notably the iconostasis common in all eastern churches.

Further in the West Bank adjacent to the Dead Sea – the lowest point on earth – is Qumran National Park, which is gorgeous for hiking in (January was a good time for this compared to the middle of the summer). It is also notable for the Dead Sea Scrolls, important in Biblical scholarship.

Getting into Israel and traveling into the West Bank is complicated, since the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations is uncertain. Traveling alone is more difficult and can even be dangerous. However, it is definitely worth visiting to discover our Catholic heritage in the very places where Jesus walked and saved the world. While my reflection focused on the Catholic shrines, there is great diversity in Israel’s Christians; it may be one of the first times in my life I was exposed to eastern Christianity. While the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic (Orthodox) churches are prominent, there are numerous Eastern Catholic churches that we can visit for Divine Liturgy and Eastern Catholics outnumber Latin Catholics in the country. The MENA Christian population has diminished in the last century, but the remaining population in Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt are devout and protecting their heritage. 

When I visited the Holy Land, I was still a catechumen who was more interested in Eastern Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholicism though still converting through the Latin Rite. While I am no longer a catechumen and continue practicing in the Latin Church, my visit to Israel was instrumental in my understanding of the faith and exposition to a very different culture. It didn’t exactly kickstart my weak faith at the time, but it helped me along the way. Aside from learning more about Christian heritage, I learned about Jewish culture and Arab-Jewish relations. Therefore, I would recommend that those who can safely travel to Israel do so at least once in their lives. There are numerous Catholic organizations that sponsor such pilgrimages, and they can legitimately change your faith for the better. 

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