Monsignor Nolan with Fr. Andre Weller at Midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Christmas eve. (photo: Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
Each Christmas, Christians come from around the world to celebrate the birth of the Savior in Bethlehem. Crowding into Manger Square, they enter the Church of the Nativity only by special invitation. They bend low as they pass through the door designed to keep Crusaders from entering on horseback.
The scene is almost chaotic, but a reverent spirit animates the crowd. After all, this is a celebration, and their spirits run high. The solemn rituals surrounding the observance suggest timelessness, but the human element puts things in the here and now. It befits Christmas, when God became human.
So Joseph set out from the town of Nazareth in Galilee and traveled up to Judea, to the town of David called Bethlehem, since he was of Davids house and line, in order to be registered together with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to a son, her first-born. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn.
For 25 years I have been in Bethlehem for Christmas, and this year I plan to go again. I go as a pilgrim, to offer Christmas Mass for you and your intentions. It is CNEWAs Christmas gift to you and an expression of our thanks.
At the same time, while in the Holy Land I have been able to be with Gods people blind and deaf children, lonely old men and women, refugees in the camps.
Bethlehem these days is not the village of the Christmas cards, with shepherds on a hillside listening to angels sing of peace. On the outskirts of Bethlehem there is a refugee camp, a stark symbol of a cruel and bitter reality. Guns, barbed wire, people longing to go home
Read Saint Lukes account of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Christmas eve, in Manger Square with the big brass band blaring in the background, with the refugee camp only a mile or two away, and you know as a priest why you didnt stay home.
You are there as a priest to do what He would do to bring God to people, and to help people find their way to God.
You are in Bethlehem, at the Midnight Mass, to change bread and wine into the Body and Blood of the Child in swaddling clothes for whom there happened to be no room in the inn.
Christmas in Bethlehem is more than a remembrance of the turning point in history. It is a celebration of the continuing presence of Christ in our world. For the ever-living Jesus is here, and this we celebrate. Rejoice this season, and all seasons, in the knowledge of this truth!
Monsignor Nolan is secretary general of Catholic Near East Welfare Association and president of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.