It was late when my plane touched down in Tel Aviv, but after years of anticipation, I had finally made it – I was in the land of Jesus and the Gospels!
It was dark as our bus worked its way through the hill country of Israel on its way to our first stop: Bethlehem. I would have to wait until the morning hours to see the land where we had arrived.
When daylight finally rolled around, a step onto our hotel room’s balcony left my roommate and me in awe. Before us lay the Little Town of Bethlehem, little cream-colored limestone houses lining the hills that swirled around us with patches of green pasture popping up here and there. We were in the birthplace of Jesus, and it looked like it.
My roommate, Angela, and I in Bethlehem.
To begin the day, our group first went to the Shepherds’ Field, the site named for those who the angels first proclaimed the birth of the Savior to on that first Christmas night. As we walked up a path sheltered by surrounding trees, a sudden opening in the foliage revealed a quaint chapel up ahead – a physical marker of the Good News being delivered. We filed inside, comfortably filling all the spaces, and together we sang Gloria in Excelsis Deo, its a cappella notes echoing around us and momentarily allowing us to share in that joyous ancient birth announcement. The silence that followed was heavy with peace and joy; I imagine the same feeling the shepherds themselves were blessed with.
Pilgrims approach and enter the chapel at Shepherds' Field.
Leaving the chapel, we made our way further into the city of Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity – the birthplace of Jesus and the destination of those shepherds. It was here that we got to celebrate our first Mass in the Holy Land, in the cave-chapel of St. Joseph, the altar being mere feet away from the shining silver star that marks the earthly spot where Jesus entered the world.
Pilgrims descend into the Chapel of St. Joseph and celebrate Mass in the cave.
As the Eucharist was being distributed, those in the upper-cave received the Body – shuffling through one another as one-by-one they got to hold the Christ child that was born near this cave 2,000 years ago. Once they were fed, those of us in the lower-cave made our quick journey up the stairs and into the crowd. As I climbed the topmost step, I became a lowly shepherd.
When the angels first appeared to the shepherds that Christmas night, it was dark. But the good news of the Savior’s birth pushed them forward and filled them with hope and excitement. The angels gave them a star, a guiding light to pull them through the world’s blackness. They followed it, approaching it step by step, climbing hills and descending into caves. When they found themselves at the entrance of the “stable,” they also found a crowd. Nestled amongst livestock and sloping cave walls, they worked their way through the congestion – keeping their eyes upon the tiny King, receiving Him into their hearts, and paying him a humble homage. My journey wasn’t much different.
Received into a foreign land full of darkness, I longed for the light. My journey from the field of the shepherds to the Nativity brought me to that sacred cave. A longing pierced my heart, a desire to draw nearer. Upon approaching the world’s greatest Light, I delved into a crowd. A crowd that also came to pay Him homage, a crowd who, just like me, humbly approached Him, and received Him as food into their own bodies and hearts.
Though I arrived in the Holy Land in darkness, the Lord was with me on the journey, keeping my heart open to all the goodness He longs to give me. He opens the doors for me and all pilgrims to more closely and intimately behold His Son. It’s when your eye is focused on the light shining through the darkness that you find a journey filled with immeasurable beauty and crowded with innumerable graces.
Pilgrims gather in front of the Church of the Nativity.