The day began incredibly early – a wake-up call at 4.30am and a departure at 5am so that we could go to Jesus’ birthplace to celebrate mass. Waking up so early honestly felt painful for me and even as we got into Bethlehem and walked to the Basilica of the Nativity, I don’t think I was really feeling anything but physical tiredness. Yet this tiredness slowly gave way to awe as we entered the church, and the Grotto of the Nativity, a small underground space with a 14-pointed silver star under an altar that marks where Jesus was born. As we cramped around the manger to celebrate mass, I was struck by the words I was reading from Isaiah 9:
For a child is born to us, a son is given to us;
Upon his shoulder dominion rests.
They name him Wonder-Counsellor, God-Hero,
Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.
Lea had mentioned how the group on the previous Holy Land trip had to queue for 2 hours just to get a glimpse of the grotto and a mere few seconds to venerate the spot where Jesus was born. And yet here we were, with the great blessing of being able to celebrate mass in this space. And what an immense privilege for me personally to be appointed as a reader for the mass as that allowed me to stand so close to the altar, to experience how cramped the manger was, to understand more deeply the humility of Jesus’ birth.
Thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus.
The journey of reliving Jesus’ birth continued as we visited Shepherds’ Field, where the Angels appeared and announced the Good News to the shepherds who were keeping watch over their flock. In the chapel filled with beautiful murals of that wondrous day, we lifted our voices to God in praise of His glory and that Holy Night. Though imperfect, our voices resounded together, flaws present but also less apparent when we sang as one. What a glorious night that must have been when Christ came to this earth!
Today’s sites also paid tribute to Mother Mary and reminded us of the power of her intercession. We visited the Milk Grotto, the chapel whose name is derived from the belief that Mary’s milk dropped on the floor and turned the cave white. Known for the miracles granted to couples who have difficulty conceiving, we brought there our prayers and intercessions for those dear to us that face this suffering. What pain one must feel to be in this situation, to wait without knowing when – or even if – the desire for a child will be fulfilled. But maybe all we can do is to feel compassion for our loved ones and pray sincerely for them. And maybe this is the simple act of love – we do not understand the depth of your pain but we the community are here with you too, praying for your faith to be strengthened, praying for your hearts to be comforted, praying for your hope to be fulfilled. And so is our mother Mary who suffered in sorrow as she witnessed her son’s torture, who is suffering with you and interceding earnestly on your behalf. We visited the Tomb of the Blessed Mother later in the day, and continued to contemplate her life and love.
What was particularly significant today was visiting the places where Jesus experienced great torture even before his crucifixion. We went to the Grotto of Gethsemane, the place by tradition where Judas betrayed Jesus. What does it mean to love someone so deeply, to put your life on the line for them, only to have them betray you so completely? You understand it all, Jesus. And still You chose to lay Your life for him, and for all of us who crucify You every day. Here we prayed the Divine Mercy together, for this world in which we inhabit is one that needs Your mercy, and our sinfulness can only be saved and redeemed by You.
We visited the Garden of Gethsemane where 2000 years old olive trees still live. Do they survive to remind us of that terrible day when You encountered men’s betrayal in all senses of the word, of that amazing day which will forever speak of Your love?
But perhaps what was one of the most powerful moments of the day was visiting the Church of All Nations. There in the centre of the church lies the Rock of Agony, the spot where Jesus prayed so fervently and experienced so much pain that His sweat was like drops of blood.
Visiting the church in the day, I sat in the pews close to the rock, feeling that this was the place where You Jesus were most human. For You must have felt the weight of the world’s sins and such fear of the impending torture to have even requested to Your Father to take this cup away. You then must surely understand to Your core all our fears, every single one that chokes and suffocates us. I felt greatly Your humanity that afternoon. Yet that night when we returned for the Holy Hour, I felt so strongly my own humanness. So you could not keep watch with me for one hour? No, I couldn’t. How is it that I could have struggled to stay awake for just one hour, wait, even less than an hour? Truly, I experienced what it means that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. I was the disciple who abandoned You in Your pain. It was a reminder of how weak I am, of how weak we all are as humans, that we need God every single day of our lives.
So Day 7 was indeed an eventful day. I think I was exhausted by the end of the day. But indeed there were lots to be grateful, and lots to contemplate. The time at the Rock of Agony may have been a struggle for me to remain awake but for other pilgrims, this was an encounter so powerful, of feeling deeply sorry for one’s sins, of encountering tangibly the presence of Jesus, of even physically feeling His pain. And as I remember how we started and how Marilyn nearly couldn’t join us, I am humbled and in awe – by her faith to want to continue on this journey despite her health, by how the community rallied to support her, and by God’s providence in sustaining her during the day.
All praise and thanks to our Wonder-Counsellor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. Amen.
#LandingsHolyLandPilgrimage2018 #GraceAndGratitude #Landings10thAnniversary