Christmas in the Holy Land

December 29, 2020 by

I spent last Christmas in the Holy Land, returning in January 2020 – just three months before the pandemic which has so drastically changed all of our lives. Perhaps that is why I’ve thought so much especially in the last weeks about where I was last Christmas, because if I had planned the trip for this year it would not have been possible to go. Tourism as we knew it doesn’t exist now, and it may be years before it returns to “normal,” but I have been sustained throughout this year of isolation and fear by memories of all those places we visited. Jesus really did come to this earth, and I have touched the place where he was born. He really did walk the earth and speak to crowds, he really did heal the sick, and most importantly, he really did die on a cross and then rise again. And he did it in a time and world that was also torn by violence and bloodshed and disease.

Having visited the Holy Land, Christmas will never be the same for me. On Christmas Eve morning last year I stood in the pit where Jesus was held the night before his crucifixion. In the cell is a binder on a stand containing the eighty-eighth psalm in all the languages of the world. In part it reads:

I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am like a man without strength.
I am set apart with the dead,
like the slain who lie in the grave,
whom you remember no more,
who are cut off from your care.
You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. . .

It was deeply moving to be there just before the day marking Jesus’ birth, and then to spend the evening of Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. The walk into the city took us through the Bethlehem checkpoint, past scores of soldiers in the streets. I wrote in my journal at the time that I couldn’t help thinking how nothing has changed: Bethlehem was occupied by the Romans at the time of Jesus’ birth. Now it is occupied by the Israelis, and the suffering continues.

We visited many of the holy sites, some well-known, others not. One of my favorite of the lesser known places is in the Galilee. It is the Eremos Cave, a small cave located just above the Sea of Galilee near the Church of the Primacy of Peter, and is believed to be one of the places to which Jesus withdrew for prayer and communion with his Father. The thing I loved so much about it was how natural it was. A bench, well-worn now, lines the back of the cave, but other than that it remains as it was thousands of years ago when Jesus rested there. I could just imagine him awakening to the sun rising over the Sea of Galilee and flooding the grotto with light and warmth. There is a peace and stillness there which must have done much to strengthen and encourage him in his ministry.

Another place that touched me in an unexpected way was the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Arriving early gave us a quiet moment in the church before the rush of tourists, and I was not prepared for the affect it would have on me. I have a bit of an aversion to the commercialization of many of the holy sites in Israel, but as I stood in the silence of the church built over the remains of Mary’s home, I was strangely moved. Here on this spot Mary spoke the words I have contemplated many times: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38 KJV).

I have often thought about what this moment must have been like for Mary. By all accounts she was very young at the time of the angel’s visit, and it must have been frightening to her to be the chosen vessel, the one who would become the mother of God made man. And I have always been amazed and awed by her willingness to be used even in a way that could have brought shame and humiliation on her.

IEmbed2The “Encounter” by Daniel Cariola. Photograph by Vivian Warren.

There were many women in the life of Jesus whose love and devotion to him seemingly exceeded that of their male counterparts. Their faith, trust, and belief in him and his healing power and love are worthy of note and have been preserved by Scripture. Several years ago friends of mine visited a church in Magdala on the Sea of Galilee, and brought home a photo of a mural which I have treasured ever since. It is painted on the wall of the Encounter Chapel, and depicts the encounter between Jesus and the hemorrhaging woman (Mark 5:25–34). I have always found this story striking, particularly the woman’s absolute belief that even if she didn’t speak to Jesus, even if he didn’t know she was there, all she had to do was touch the hem of his robe and she would be healed. The artist has captured this story in a powerful way, and when I finally stood in front of the painting, which takes up most of the wall, I looked in awe. Do I have that kind of faith?

Over the past months I have thought back over the days I spent in the Holy Land and the lessons to be learned from each of them. The Judean wilderness where Jesus was tempted left me speechless. In the past when I read the Bible I had pictured the wilderness as a stretch of rolling sand dunes. In reality the Judean wilderness is a landscape of rugged hillsides of rock, barren and wild, stretching mile upon mile into the distance. The area we went to is “the valley of the shadow of death” referred to in the twenty-third psalm, and is on the route between Jerusalem and Jericho. It is also the backdrop of the parable of the Good Samaritan. We walked along a trail towards Jericho and gathered on an outcropping of rock to read the account of Jesus’ temptation.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”.

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”

Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him. (Matt. 4:1–11)

IEmbedJudean Wilderness near St. George’s Monastery, Israel. Photograph by Vivian Warren.

Perhaps this year has been a desert for you, too. A desert with no end in sight, a desert where a loved one – or perhaps more than one – lies buried. A desert where you have been tempted in new or unexpected ways. But standing in the Judean wilderness as I did, with nothing but rock and stone as far as the eye could see, and knowing that Jesus was once there too, seeing the same thing, gives me the assurance that he is also present in each of our deserts. And therein lies the comfort. No matter the temptation, no matter the hardship we are facing, if we hold on in faith angels will also minister to us, as they did Jesus. We may not see them, but they are there.

As we enter a new year our hearts may be filled with fear or trepidation, but we can hold on to the knowledge that Jesus was alive, like us. He was here on earth in the midst of suffering, like us. But unlike us, he knows everything, has conquered everything, and he holds each of us in the hollow of his ever-loving hands.


About the author

Vivian Warren

Vivian Warren

Vivian Warren lives at Maple Ridge, where she cares for the elderly and works in the community kitchen.

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