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Holy Land pilgrimage 2019: an ideal preparation for Advent

By Bishop Paul McAleenan

‘O little town of Bethlehem’, we sing. ‘O little town’? Bethlehem today is a very large town. I travelled through it in the last week of November along with 44 others on the annual diocesan pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It is a very busy town. Of course it was busy on the night that Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem. It was so crowded in fact, that they had to find their own accommodation, not in one of the fine hotels which are still full of visitors and pilgrims but in a stable in a field.

Today all roads lead to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, an opportunity to kneel as the Magi did, at the spot where Jesus was born.

Close by there is another cave, one in which St Jerome lived for 38 years translating the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin. As we prayed there I thought of those words, ‘The God who Speaks’, the subtitle for this ‘Year of the Word’, which in England and Wales we began to celebrate on the First Sunday of Advent, to commemorate the 1600th anniversary of St Jerome’s death.

God spoke volumes through a new born child who could not speak. He speaks continually and is best heard in silence. This year we apply our minds to the Scriptures, in these words God’s voice is heard.

A little further away from these holy sites there is another feature, a wall. Built in recent years, it surrounds Bethlehem, cutting it off from Jerusalem. We went to see it. ‘Go as pilgrims, not as tourists’, our spiritual director told us. We were as silent there as we were at the manger, each with our own thoughts.

The Sunday following our return from the Holy Land, the season of Advent began. Those of us privileged to travel had experienced an ideal preparation. We are now familiar with the name places and events we hear in the readings at Mass and carol services: Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, the Judean wilderness where John the Baptist lived and preached.

Many other visits to places associated with the earthly life of Jesus were included in our itinerary. In these weeks however we are all drawn to Bethlehem, to the Holy Night, remembering God’s plan to communicate to all mankind by sending his Son to live with us.

I remember the star on the floor of the church where it is said that Jesus, the Prince of Peace was born. I remember the initiatives which are supporting the local Christian community. I remember the devotion of pilgrims striving to be close to Christ. I remember the nearby wall covered with images, paintings and messages revealing the ongoing deep longing for peace felt by the people of Bethlehem and so many in our world today. Shalom.