Merry Christmas! How amazing it was to spend this Advent on the holy sites of Elijah, John the Baptist, Zachariah and Elizabeth...and even St. Nicholas!
We began our Advent in the sleepy valley where several churches commemorate the Visitation and the birth of John the Baptist. The village, named Ain Karem (spring of the vineyard), lies down the hill from the sprawl of West Jerusalem. One of the holy sites is a hermitage of sorts, a small monastery tucked into the nature on steep mountain slopes, with a gurgling spring in the middle of the old courtyard. It was here that our community first lived in the Holy Land in 1975. What a gift to meditate on Mary's song and John leaping in Elizabeth's womb right where it happened!
The monastery has several caves with icons lining the walls, and deeper into the mountain are excavations of Byzantine icons of John the Baptist. A path leads above the monastery to the tombs of Elizabeth and Zachariah (photo above). The room below is the dining room, covered wall-to-wall with icons.
After Mass, we went to light candles with our Jewish friend Shlomo in Jerusalem, since the First Sunday of Advent was also the First Day of Hannukah! All the Israeli culture around us was alive with joyful and colorful celebration. We lit Hannukah menorah candles each of the eight evenings to celebrate the Maccabee purification of the Temple and the miracle of the candles.
Shlomo (Solomon) is a native of the unique neighborhood of the Ultra-Orthodox Jews. This are the type of Jews who typically stay as far as they can from anything un-kosher, anything modern, and anyone who is not practicing the law as radically as they are. Shlomo is still a very Orthodox Jew, however he left this strict community. He is so full of enthusiasm and spontaneity with us, and loves to talk to us about Jewish customs, and sometimes even ask us about our Christian faith.
We joined Shlomo and his brother's family to light candles at their mother's apartment. Then they offered us drinks and the customary latkes (potato pancakes) and Hannukah donuts. We kept gravitating back to her tiny veranda to watch the neighbors in the the apartments across the way as one-by-one they pulled in their lines of laundry, set up their candles, and begin chanting their prayers.
Shlomo then took us for a tour of the neighborhood. Each apartment's window had candles burning in it. People were out and about singing and playing music.
Later in the week, forty Jewish friends came over to help us light candles in our Beatitudes dining room, after joining us for the candle-lighting of our Advent wreath at Vespers. Then we all did some Israeli dances, despite some cramping due to the jelly donuts.
This was a sort of Hannukah pilgrimage for them, since the town of Emmaus was founded by the Maccabees (cf the Battle of Emmaus, 166 BC, 1 Maccabees chapter 4). The Crusaders also built a chapel here in honor of the Maccabees martyrs, who are still venerated today on the calendar of the Catholic Archdiocese of Jerusalem.
We carry each of you in our hearts tonight. After welcoming friends for our 10pm Mass at Emmaus, we'll follow the Star to the Shepherd's Field to pray in the caves and listen for the Angels' song. Then we'll walk up to that glistening little city on a hill, take some silent time of adoration in the Grotto (photo below from our Mass there two weeks ago), and then celebrate Mass at 3:30am in the adjacent grotto where St. Jerome lived. We’ll pray in a special way for all of you family, friends, and benefactors who supported and prayed for our Fall Immersion, which will conclude on Dec. 26.
Pray for us, and for the children of Bethlehem (photo below). We hope you like the look of our new website. Again, we would love a Christmas donation or a small monthly commitment. Click here. Christ is born, glorify Him!