When I went to the Holy Land last summer to take a course called “The Footsteps of Jesus,” I went, being a priest, with some background in the topic. I already knew a good amount about the New Testament, and a moderately decent amount about the historical evidence for the New Testament. I knew about some of the archaeological discoveries of inscriptions, bone boxes, and particular sites that corroborate what we hear in Scripture. And I knew about how good the manuscript evidence is for these texts as opposed to so many other ancient documents, in other words, that far more than we can with ancient books by people like Plato or Euripides, we can be sure the New Testament still says what was written down by the original authors, that nobody changed the text to suit an agenda.
And just to be silly about it, I of course knew that Capernaum and Nazareth and all those places were real towns in a real country. I had enough background, in short, to understand that Christianity depends on history. What Christianity offers is not a set of values or a spiritual philosophy or a special kind of attitude; Christianity offers the news of what God did in a real time and place – followed up by the additional news that because God did what he did then and there, many things have changed forever here and now.
That’s exactly the kind of claim we make when we celebrate Christmas, for example. Claims of that kind, unlike claims about inner attitudes and personal values, require some historical evidence, and we have some historical evidence. I knew all that.
Nevertheless, once I was actually in the country I had been reading about since I became a Christian in my late teens, there was just something about, say, looking out the window of the bus and seeing a road sign that tells you in Arabic, English, and Hebrew that the next turn is for Bethlehem, that really brought home the objective nature of the Gospel Christians proclaim.
Bethlehem is in the West Bank, so to follow that road sign and cross from Israel into the Palestinian territories you have to pass through a checkpoint, which is usually easy for tour buses but for local people not so much, and then drive along the wall of separation, covered with artwork, graffiti, and other commentary on life in an occupied territory. Whatever your political opinions about the Middle East are, it’s likely, at that point, that it will at least cross your mind that Jesus himself grew up in an occupied territory.
As you come into the city, you are almost certainly heading for the big pilgrimage attraction, the Church of the Nativity, the oldest standing church in the Holy Land. It was originally built in the 4th century, over the site of a grotto that had already long been venerated as the site of the birth of Jesus – we have a reference to it from about 155AD. The church has been rebuilt and added on to more than once, but you can still go down into the area that was the grotto, where a star on the floor under the altar marks the stone that is, let’s say, traditionally treated as if it were the place Mary gave birth.
Throngs of tourists and pilgrims visit Bethlehem, so our bus stopped in a major underground garage some distance away, and we walked past 30 or 40 other buses, through a modern mall lined with vendors, then through busy city streets until we came upon the Church of the Nativity on Manger Square. There turned out to be a two-hour wait to get into the grotto where Mary gave birth, so we had to cross the central pilgrimage attraction off the list. We made our way into the main section of the building, but the attendants there seemed to be spending most of their energy yelling at tour groups to move along and banging on things to make their point. It was hard to see or hear, so our professor took us over to visit some of the chapels under St. Catherine’s church next door, where we sat down and sang O Little Town of Bethlehem together while being aggressively glowered at by a group of Spanish pilgrims who thought it was their turn. I tried to get a photo as we squeezed our way out, but it turned out inadvertently funny because the main thing you see is the face of a heavy-set middle-aged Spanish guy giving me the look of death.
When we got back to the bus, I mostly felt as if by visiting Bethlehem, I’d gotten a great reminder of what God became human in Jesus Christ at Christmas to save us from. Now of course you can say, “well you should have gone in low season.” Even in summer, though, we did have good access to most sites, and I’d recommend the experience of making a Holy Land pilgrimage to anybody. As I said, it brought home in a way I hadn’t expected the sheer factuality of the events on which feasts like Christmas and Easter depend. But it also brought something else home. What I realized even more is how tragic it would be for someone to stop at just recognizing the historicity and the factuality of the events. In the case of Jesus Christ, we are selling ourselves short if we look back at the past and say, how interesting that this happened; perhaps one day I will even get to visit the place where it happened.
That’s great for historical figures like Abraham Lincoln or Rosa Parks. Abraham Lincoln is dead. You can read his speeches or research how he governed, but you’ll never be closer to him than taking the tour of his house or visiting the Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield. Rosa Parks is dead. You can admire her courage and study the Montgomery Bus Boycott she inspired, but you’ll never be closer to her than at the Rosa Parks museum in Alabama. If there’s a two hour wait and you can’t get in to see the artifacts, it ruins the experience.
But going to Bethlehem, or the Temple mount, or the towns surrounding the Sea of Galilee, is a totally different kind of thing. Yes, it makes an impact to look at the structure archeologists think was Jesus’ home base, the house of Peter, and to see pavement he almost certainly walked on. It would make an impact to visit, if you can get in, the grotto where we have some confidence he was born. But that’s not the closest we can get to Jesus. In Christianity, you aren’t limited to standing behind a velvet rope under the watchful eye of a guard and looking at an artifact from the past.
What is the closest you can get to Jesus now? It’s not on a Holy Land tour or in a history class. Jesus, the same one who was born in Bethlehem and walked the roads of Judea and was hung on a cross for Love, has been raised from the dead and is alive now. He has offered every human being, through the Sacrament of Baptism, a way to be closer to him than you can to anybody else – to actually be flooded with his life, filled with his Spirit. But Jesus didn’t stop there; he didn’t say, oh, you can encounter me once and then you’re on your own. No, he is so generous that through the Sacrament of Holy Communion Jesus also offers a way to have his life renewed in us, to take it into our beings, week after week after week.
That’s why I don’t really care that we didn’t get into the grotto. I know that I am far closer to Jesus in every Mass than I could ever be on a tour in Bethlehem. Yes, it’s important that he was born, and taught, and healed, and died and rose again; those are historical claims that require historical evidence, and without them we wouldn’t be here tonight, because the whole Christian enterprise would fall apart. But God did all that then, so that you could have access to him now.
Christmas Mass isn’t a tour after which you get back on the bus and go home. Jesus Christ himself is going to be present on that altar right in front of you in about 15 minutes. You can come receive him. If you’re not baptized into his life yet, talk to me and I’ll baptize you. Yes, it’s important that Jesus was born, and taught, and healed, and died and rose again; but he did all that so that you could do this, come to experience him as a living presence in your life who changes what’s possible, who grounds you, who gives you a purpose and a hope. You don’t have to say I wish I could have been there. I wish I could have met him. You are there. You can meet him. Do it now.
O holy Child of Bethlehem!
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us to-day.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
Oh, come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!