Merry Christmas! Yes, I know it is November 18. And I am not succumbing to the secular practice of celebrating Christmas weeks and weeks before the 25th of December. But today, we celebrated Mass and prayed in Bethlehem. And as St. John Paul II said when he visited here in the year 2000, every day is Christmas in Bethlehem. Our Mass was in the Chapel of St. Jerome which is built in part of the same system of caves where Mary gave birth. Literally just feet away from where we celebrated Mass is the fourteen-pointed star that marks the site where Jesus was born. We had prayed at that star before going to the Chapel for Mass. As we sang Christmas carols – O Little Town of Bethlehem and Angels We Have Heard On High – we could imagine that this was the very place where Mary held the baby Jesus, where the shepherds came to pay homage, where God was born as a human being. The readings and prayers were from Christmas Midnight Mass, and I don’t think any of us will ever celebrate Christmas again without remembering this Mass in a cave in November.

After lunch, we visited the Shepherd’s Field, where we sang Silent Night in a small chapel which has amazing acoustics. The rest of our afternoon was spent visiting Ein Karem, the place where Mary visited Elizabeth and proclaimed the Magnificat, and Abu Gosh, which tradition identifies as biblical Emmaus, the destination of the two disciples who encountered Jesus on the road after his resurrection. It’s a bit overwhelming to take this all in – just from 11 am until 5 pm we visited the sites of the birth of Jesus, a resurrection appearance, and the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth where John the Baptist was born and Mary visited. All in all, today we visited the locations where five different mysteries of the rosary happened!

Going back to the beginning of the day, we started on Mount Zion and the Church of the Dormition of Mary and the Upper Room. Both places were supposed to be open at 8 am, but the doors to both places were locked when we arrived shortly after 8. So we talked about the Scripture and history of what happened in these places and then began to pray the rosary – the Glorious mysteries, which recount some of these events. Just when we had finished the first decade of the rosary, the Church of the Dormition opened – Mary was waiting for us to pray before visiting her church! All in all, things worked out well, despite the delayed openings that began our day.

Our group is all doing well and very much enjoying our pilgrimage. We continue to come to know God and Scripture in new ways and continually pray for all who are following our journey. Apparently there was some violence and deaths at a synagogue in Jerusalem earlier today. We were not near where that occurred and everyone is safe. Our tour company takes great care of us and ensures safety wherever we go. Along the way we continue to pray for the peace of Jerusalem.