Friday, November 9, 2012

Reflections from the Holy Land

Our First stop today was at the Shepherd's field.  It was warm and sunny as we walked up the path to the Shepherd's field church.  It was lined with brown earth and trees that seemed like fern trees tall and narrow and other trees, maybe olive, stretching out over our path.  The church is shaped like a tent, but the most striking thing on the outside is this absolutely stunning Angel.... and beautiful to see the Angel at the top of the Shepherd's church- harkening... calling out to us... You are so very near to Jesus.  The church was designed by none other than Antonio Barlucci who was a Franciscan Priest.  The character of it was so rich, beautiful, and striking.  We spent some time walking and looking over the hillside at the fields.  I couldn't help but notice at one of the chapels in the shrine their was a crucifix, as their always is for celebrating mass, but I noticed behind the altar and crucifix was a mosaic of the Nativity.  Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.  It occurred to me that Just from the very moment of his birth he would be called and commissioned for his death - those two moments were evident right then and there.  I realized that within this short time of pilgrimage we would encounter and experience all of the paschal mystery: the birth, life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Outside of the chapel there were some paths to walk and some steps cut into the earth.  I followed David Gantz and Marsha down into one of them and it got darker and darker until there was one tunnel that was so small and tight that it didn't seem wise to enter... so I entered.   I used the light from my camera to give me some guidance.  After crawling through the tight part it became comletely dark until there was light at the end of the tunnel.  At that moment it opened up into a round room.  There was an altar made from stone surrounded with stone benches on the ground and there a couple of openings which left brilliant streams of light coming in.  It seemed to me as if this is where the shepherds could have bedded down for the night.  I placed my hands on the altar and Marsha said to David: "I think we should leave him alone for a while."  She was so right... it was like being with my lover... I wanted to be alone just to experience this moment of felt presence, of sacredness, of Christmas Eve.  My hands on the altar and a feeling as if my whole life I was destined to stand right in this place.  

I've always loved the whole nativity story and there was something about the mystery of the Shepherds tending their sheep at night.  

Luke 2;8-18  "There were shepherds in that locality,, living in the fields and keeping night watch by turns over their flocks.  The angel of The Lord appeared to them as the glory of The Lord shone around them, and they were very much afraid.  The angel said to them:  "You have nothing to fear!  I come to proclaim good news to you - tidings of great joy to be shared by the whole people.  This day in David's city a savior has been born to you, the Messiah and Lord.  Let this be a sign to you: in a manger you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes."  

One of the most ancient churches of Christendom is the Church of the Nativity.  I'd remembered hearing about the ancient door that was here that was made low so that people would have to bend down to enter it.  There used to be a huge wide door there and at some point it was made smaller to prevent looting.  The spiritual side of it now though is that you have to bend down to enter the Nativity.  I always remember setting up the Nativity as a child... it was my favorite thing to do to get ready for Christmas.  After unwrapping each of the figures and placing them in the manger I would lay there on the floor, under the Christmas tree for hours and just meditate on the beauty and mystery and wonder of God taking on Human flesh in the form of a little baby.  

I now understand where we get our traditional ornaments from because this church was loaded with ornaments - large glass bulbs hanging from tree like chandeliers with branches of light growing out.  

There was an opportunity to buy and light some candles, which I did for those who had asked.  I also bought some packages, which contained a picture of the icon of the nativity as well as a vile of water from the Jordan and a vile of holy oil from the Grotto of the Nativity.  There were beautiful icons containing my favorite one of the Nativity and as we entered the cave of the nativity there is a silver star on the floor with Latin words meaning "Here the Word was made Flesh."  It is surrounded by oil lamps and candles.  After kissing and venerating the place where was born and the place of the crib.  

This was a place I have always wanted to visit.  Unfortunately with the crowds and our tour guide and our 40 some people  there wasn't much time.  

I was blessed to celebrate the mass in Bethlehem, though we did not get to celebrate it in the main chapel we did so in the side chapel... I realized it didn't matter to me because Jesus would be born into my own hands on this altar in Bethlehem.  What a privilege to be a priest and to be able to do this for those on pilgrimage with me.  What I found most powerful was while praying the mass for Christmas during the day... it stressed and bolded over and over again any time the Roman Missal referred to the place it said: "HERE Christ was born... It was HERE where man was reconciled to God..."  It made me realize that all of this happened right here.  what a dream come true.  I touched my finger into the oil lamps taking some of the oil and blessing the pilgrims that were near me.  

We went to the church of the Dormition of Mary and then  

We also stopped in the “Upper Room”  Which wasn’t much, but there was a beautiful metal sculpture of an olive tree which John Paul II gave as a gift after he celebrated mass there. 

Besides the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu which marks the spot of Peter's denial is the Cistern where Jesus was held prisoner overnight after he was accused.  Looking from above down into the pit you can see nothing but darkness and some streams of light.  As you descend down the stairs and finally into the bottom of the pit I had the feeling of being completely trapped.  You would expect this to cause some anxiety, but I had a deep experience of peace.  This peace came with  the reading of the Psalm.  If Jesus were alone in this Pit where I now stand, then he can relate to being trapped, helpless, stuck, and helpless to get out.  Abandoned by friends, disappointed, left alone, but embraced by the earth and by the love of our Father.  

Psalm 88 reads: 

LORD, the God of my salvation, I call out by day;
at night I cry aloud in your presence
Let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.
[m]For my soul is filled with troubles;
my life draws near to Sheol. 
I am reckoned with those who go down to the pit;
I am like a warrior without strength.
My couch is among the dead,
like the slain who lie in the grave.
You plunge me into the bottom of the pit,
into the darkness of the abyss.

Your wrath lies heavy upon me;
all your waves crash over me.

Because of you my acquaintances shun me;
you make me loathsome to them;
Caged in, I cannot escape;
my eyes grow dim from trouble.
All day I call on you, LORD;
I stretch out my hands to you.
[n]Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades arise and praise you
Is your mercy proclaimed in the grave,
your faithfulness among those who have perished?[o]
Are your marvels declared in the darkness,
your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?
But I cry out to you, LORD;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Why do you reject my soul, LORD,
and hide your face from me?
I have been mortally afflicted since youth;
I have borne your terrors and I am made numb.
All day they surge round like a flood;
from every side they encircle me.
Because of you friend and neighbor shun me;
My only friend is darkness.  

I realized that Jesus has experienced being in the pit.  how many times have I felt helpless, frustrated, unable to get out of a pit, depressed, isolated, lonely, abandoned by friends, disappointed, strapped in my own anger, obsessing because I can't change what other people have done or what I have done to get me in the pit.   an relate to the screaming out for help, trying to climb the walls, exerting all of my energy, and by myself not being able to get out.  Exhausting all of my creative options, trying to climb, to pry, to break, and all in vain.  Upset that no one has come to help.  Caged in and Thinking only the worst of what will come.   The darkness the silence can be deafening... until... until there is that moment of surrender.  Maybe it comes after exhaustion, maybe after hitting rock bottom, maybe after just getting it all out and trying all means possible before realizing... I of my own accord cannot get myself out of this pit.  But then comes the moment of awareness.  God is with me... all is well... Just as Jesus was not alone in his pit, you and I are not alone in ours.  

This experience of being in the pit, I thought would bring sadness and despair, but in fact it brought great hope, consolation, and a felt closeness of the presence of God.  

Sometimes it seems that when we hit our low, when we have cried out all of our tears, raged out all of our anger, frustrated all of our means, we find that we can and must surrender to the will of God... It is no longer up to me, there's nothing more I can do... but be with God in the darkness, emptiness, and silence.  And in that comes a sense of great peace, freedom, and release from captivity.  

In the evening we visited the Wailing Wall.  The whole area of the western wall is considered to be a Holy Place.  The Jews face the West to pray and so this is the furthest west they can go to what was the Holy of Holies.  I was fortunate enough to have a Yarmulke that Ryan Mann gave me from some Jewish celebration he had attended.  I've had this for years and was so excited to finally use it.  I removed my sandals so that I could reverence this sacred place and approached the wall.  I have been most humbled by all the prayers that were given to me to take and place in the wall.  I had over 40 pages printed out from Facebook, messages, emails and a whole other bunch of hand written notes and letters from friends, family, and parishioners.  As I read through these prayers on the way and took them to heart I realized the heavy burden that so many of you carry... I felt greatly privileged and honored to be your priest, to carry your prayers to God, and place them into the side of this most holy and sacred wall.  As I pressed the pages in and felt the crack of the wall it was as if I was placing your prayers, your cries, your needs, and desires into the very side of Christ. St. Luke insists that after the Ascension, the first Christians "were continually in the temple praising God."  John goes on to say that Jesus becomes the "New Temple" and spoke of the "Temple of His Body."  St. Paul compares the "body is a temple of the Holy Spirit... therefore glorify God with your bodies."  

Part of the tradition of the Wailing Wall was for a sense of grieving not only personal sin, but our sin against the Jewish people.  Fr. Tosco always helped me to realize in our Scripture class that we are Jewish... the Jewish people are our ancestors in the faith.  You may have noticed that in the liturgy we now pray for the Jewish people (instead of blaming them for the killing of Jesus):  "Let us pray for the Jewish people, the first to hear the Word of God, that they may continue to grow in love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant.  Almighty and eternal God, long ago you gave your promise to Abraham and his posterity.  Listen to your Church as we pray.  May the people you first chose to be your own be blessed with the fullness of redemption.  We ask this through Abraham's son and yours, Jesus our Messiah and Lord.  Amen.  

As I placed your prayer petitions in the wall I prayed for all of you, your intentions, and also asked God for forgiveness for anyone that I have ever hurt in any way. 

8 October 2012 

Angel above the doorway to the Basilica at the Shepherds Field.  

The Altar in a cave at the Shepherds Field.

Ornamental Lantern in the Church of the Nativity.  

The star marking the place where Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  

Celebrating Christmas Mass in Bethlehem.  

The Dormition of Mary.  

The "Pit" / "Cistern" where Jesus was held overnight before the Crucifixion.  

Placing your prayer intentions into the "Western Wall"  

"The Western Wall" or "Wailing Wall"


  1. A magnificent reflection. So much to contemplate and appreciate.

  2. A masterful and inspiring reflection. So much to contemplate!

  3. Thanks for your photos and commentary. You are bringing back memories of my visits, and helping me see some things in a new light.

  4. Thanks Fr. MIke! What a great commentary. are you going up to galilee? Phil G

  5. Thank you Father for sharing so much of your experience and your feelings. While reading I had such a warmth come over me and you brought tears to my eyes. I can feel what you experienced through your words, in my own way. God Bless you for sharing something so beautiful that most of us may never be able to experience in our life time! I have never desired to run after or be near to someone famous, BUT I understand when you said: What I found most powerful was while praying the mass for Christmas during the day... it stressed and bolded over and over again any time the Roman Missal referred to the place it said: "HERE Christ was born... It was HERE where man was reconciled to God..." It made me realize that all of this happened right here. what a dream come true. I touched my finger into the oil lamps taking some of the oil and blessing the pilgrims that were near me.
    I will run after Jesus and day!

  6. Tears streamed down my face when you described placing the petitions (my petition) into the wailing wall. God truly brought you to us for a reason. Thank you!

  7. Fr Mike
    Thank you for being the priest that you are
    You truly inspire me to be a better Catholic

  8. Thanks for the pics and commentary , keep them coming, my parents also enjoyed them god bless
    Kathy flynn


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