Tuesday, April 5
Still suffering from jet lag I hardly slept, but finally drifted off around 4 am and woke too late to attend Lauds with the friars. I managed to get some breakfast then head to the library.
What am I actually doing here? you may ask. Well, you may know that in 2017 I published a book about the Magi–the three wise men. Since then I have been thinking further about the gospel stories on the birth of Jesus–or what the academics call “The Infancy Narratives”. It irks me that these stories are generally dismissed by scholars as being late, fabricated myths constructed in retrospect to make Jesus seem more special. Part of my intent with the Magi book was to show that, if one looks at the cultural and historical elements of the time, then the stories make perfect sense. It is only to modern, “scientific” minds that they seem far fetched.
Part of the story that has been neglected I felt was the role of the Bethlehem Shepherds. They are generally treated as a romantic embellishment to the story–you know–quaint country bumpkins who stumble upon this “Little baby what has been born.” I wondered, if they were so obscure and unimportant why did St Luke include them in the tale? For that matter, why did the angels say the “babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger” would be a “sign” unto them? What was that all about? Furthermore, why did they go into Bethlehem to see the child? The angels said it would be “a Savior, Christ the Lord.” Babies were born every day. Why was this such a big deal? Anyway, having wondered about this I thought it worthwhile using part of my sabbatical to come to Jerusalem and Bethlehem itself to dig a bit more deeply.
Ecole Biblique has a world famous library, so I spend my days at my own designated reading desk digging through books looking for leads. Did I say the shepherds of Bethlehem were overlooked? There seeems to be next to nothing written about them. Scraps of information here and tidbits there…So I’ll spend some more time digging, then on Monday I have been invited by Abouna Rami–the parish priest of Bethlehem to visit Bethlehem and go to the Shepherd’s Field and talk to someone who knows more about it than I do.
This afternoon at 5:00 I went back to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and participated in a life changing experience. Every afternoon the Franciscans–who are everywhere out here–lead a prayer procession around the Church. So off we went, candles and prayer books in hand, marching around the church. Out front was a young African Franciscan with the thurible so there was plenty of holy smoke. There were prayer stations commemorating his trial, his flogging, his being stripped of his garments. Then we went down to the Chapel of St Helena, then even deeper into the caverns below the church to the chamber where Helena discovered the true cross of Christ. Then up we went to the chapel of Christ being nailed to the cross and finally to the place of the crucifixion and the site where the Blessed Mother stood at the foot of the cross.
Protestants might protest, but archeological evidence shows that this really is where it all happened. To stand and pray on the very spot where our Lord was nailed to the cross and crucified is simply amazing and utterly moving. My eyes were not dry. Then we descended to the famous anointing stone where our Lord’s body was prepared for burial, then on to the tomb and finally to the area controlled by our church off to the side of the tomb–the site where Jesus met Mary Magdalene on Easter Day.
This is where we celebrated Mass on Sunday, and once more I felt the power of the presence of the Lord, and after the procession asked one of the Franciscans–a tall fellow from Bosnia–if he would hear my confession. So we moved some benches out of the way, got into the confessional and I made my Lent confession.
Wow! what an amazing and beautiful experience to meet the Lord and receive his pardon and peace at the very location where the Magdalene–who herself was a great sinner forgiven–met her risen Lord!