By Anastacio Ponce
(Editor’s note: Seminarian Anastacio Ponce of the Davenport Diocese is studying Sacred Scripture for 10 weeks in the Holy Land. He is a third-year theology student at Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Ill.)
We began our second week in the Holy Land, 28 seminarians in the third year of theological studies and a few instructors. We are far away from home, but we are happy to be in the Holy Land, where our Lord Jesus was born.
Traveling on the plane to our destination seemed to take forever, perhaps because we were leaving so much behind, such as friends and family back in the United States. Though the tiredness was evident in many of us, once we touched down in Tel Aviv, with announcement of an 83º F temperature there was much rejoicing. After a quick trip through customs and a short ride on the bus we finally made it to our destination where we celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving, had a great meal and slowly unpacked for the night.
Nowadays, the sense of journey is with us, the journey towards Jerusalem, to the Heavenly City, to the heart of Christianity. What a privilege, what an adventure, what a pilgrimage! I have no doubt this pilgrimage is an opportunity to grow deeper in my relationship with the Lord! What a blessing to be in Bethlehem and later in Jerusalem. Every day I thank God for permitting us to be present in the birthplace of Jesus Christ, and I ask him to send forth his Spirit upon us so that we can take this experience to our dioceses.
This month we will be in Bethlehem, so, we have been visiting the Basilica of the Nativity to venerate the place of Jesus’ birth. Walking through Bethlehem stimulates all the senses — it’s as if the entire city somehow becomes a sacramental of Jesus’ birth. To get to the basilica, we passed through markets and shops. People are very friendly and kind to us; they offer us tea and café free as a welcome and a tradition. The sounds of a village alive and busy call to mind Mary and Joseph walking these same streets looking for shelter, lodging. Even the scents of Bethlehem tell a certain story, as the warm, dusty air carries with it a mixture of Mediterranean herbs and spices being sold in the street. All these sensations subtly beckon one to the manger.
The basilica is in some ways the center of the world. For two millennia we have marked time from this event, naming our years in relation to it. Groups of pilgrims hail from every corner of the globe. Today we saw Russian, Indonesian, Nigerian, Chinese and American pilgrims. I am sure that every known language on earth has been spoken inside those hallowed walls, and there is an organization intrinsic to the place on the brink of chaos that somehow knits us all together as brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus. What a gift it is to be here.
The afternoon saw our groups all over the city. Many returned to the basilica, others found the Milk Grotto. Some trekked to the Old City on foot, getting to know local Christians, stopping in some of the shops and sampling local foods and desserts. The day was full, but restful, giving us some time to adjust and ease into our month here in Bethlehem. It is quite moving to see so many pilgrims making their way to Bethlehem to venerate the place of Christ’s birth. Time was also spent drinking tea with a shop owner as we heard stories of life in Bethlehem. The day warmed up to the mid-70s as we are enjoying the unusually warm weather for this time of the year.
We have encountered the Lord in Bethlehem. Now, like St. Andrew, we are asking him where he stays as he whispers into our hearts, “Come and see” (John 1:38-39). We look forward to visiting the different holy sites and letting our lives be converted more closely to that of our Lord’s life who has called us to this place to follow him.
Last week we had the opportunity as a group to celebrate Mass in the St. Jerome Chapel. It is located in the grotto under the Basilica of the Nativity. This is the place where St. Jerome, priest and doctor of the Church, lived in Bethlehem and translated the Sacred Scriptures. The grotto is quite a unique place, quiet and a good place to take time to pray. The cave keeps an ancient look even though it was renewed in 1964.
These days, in comparison with other days, the weather has been chilly, with some winds and rain. On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, our pilgrims paused for a day of prayer to thank God for the grace of preserving Mary from original sin and giving her to us as the pattern and anticipation of our own redemption. The day of prayer was a beautiful opportunity to pay more attention to the ways in which the Lord is already at work in our pilgrimage and preparing all of us for the great mystery of Christmas.