I had the opportunity earlier this year to be part of a pilgrimage group to the Holy Land. It wasn’t my first time in the Holy Land, but every time I visit and see those sites associated with the earthly life of Christ I am moved in a different way.
To visit Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem is, in a sense, to read the Fifth Gospel. It is a beautiful experience to wander along the shore of the Sea of Galilee and know that the land has changed very little from the time that Christ spent the years of his public ministry there proclaiming the Kingdom of God.
As well as a personal pilgrimage, there was another element to our trip. We were there as pilgrims of Christian solidarity to give concrete expression to the closeness we feel with the local Christians – those ‘living stones’ of the Holy Land of which Pope Benedict XVI spoke.
We got to hear about their struggles, their worries and concerns. But also their hopes and aspirations for a peaceful and secure future.
Sometimes when we think of places like Bethlehem our mind can turn too often to sentimentality. The Christmas story is a beautiful story – the greatest story ever told. Who can fail to be moved by the pregnant and vulnerable teenage Jewish girl confiding in her husband-to-be that she has conceived a child by the Holy Spirit? The trusting and patient Joseph setting out to Bethlehem with Mary. The desperate couple unable to find lodgings for the night. The Lord of Lords being born in the humble surroundings of a stable where God contrasts the noisy and ostentatious power of the world with the defenceless power of love in a vulnerable infant.
The Gospel of John tells us, “The Word was made flesh, he lived among us.” Now, in the original Greek in which John’s Gospel was written, the language is even more vivid. It might be better translated as, “God pitched his tent among us”.
The birth of Christ – God’s decisive entry in to human history is a story first and foremost about salvation. God’s love for humanity revealed by becoming one with us. But, as St Augustine wrote: “He who created us without our help will not save us without our consent”.
Christianity is an invitation. And like Mary to the angel, it requires a response from us. God gave Mary the courage to utter her ‘fiat’ – “be it done unto me according to thy word”.
Maybe you know someone who has been away from the faith, or maybe God’s presence has eluded you this past year. Christmas can be a good time to reconnect and rediscover faith.
We could do worse than to make the words of St John Paul II our own: “Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return.
Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life”.