It is an amazing grace that we are celebrating the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem on Divine Mercy Sunday in the Year of Mercy! Pope Francis tells us when we announced the Jubilee Year of Mercy in the Misericordiae Vultus:
“In the fullness of time when everything had been arranged according to his plan of salvation, he sent his only Son into the world, born of the Virgin Mary, to reveal his love for us in a definitive way. Whoever sees Jesus sees the Father. Jesus of Nazareth by his words, his actions and his entire person reveals the mercy of the God.” (Misericordiae Vultus 1)
Divine Mercy is revealed here in a definitive way. Let me focus on three ways:
Mercy was revealed to all humanity: "God entered into our world, not to explain suffering or to take it away, but to fill it with his presence, with his mercy" (Léon Bloy). God came to be with us. That is what Emmanuel means. God is with us. He is not far off, aloof, distant, detached, unconcerned or uninterested. He is present. He is near. He is here!
God came mercifully. He made the first move. He became one of us.
But God invites our response—our mercy to him. He is born vulnerable, totally dependent. He is born fragile, tiny and tender. He reaches up to us from the crib, inviting us to hold him. Why would God come as infant? Because he longs for us to hold him! He does not wish to frighten us. He invites our love, our care, our intimacy and our mercy. By coming as a baby, Jesus experiences the whole of the human experience. He was a baby, a child, a teenager, an adult. There is no point of our development that Jesus did not experience. He can relate to us so that we can relate to him.
He was born to save all of humanity, those born before him and those who would come after. It is my belief God came as soon as he could—as soon as human technology, language, philosophy, transportation was sufficiently developed. Learning about the Roman roads and technology of the first century helped me to appreciate that the incarnation occurred at just the right time. Technology was developed just enough—but not too much—so thankfully there are no Instagram posts of the nativity.
Jesus came in “the fullness of time,” Paul says in his letter to the Galatians. It was the perfect time for all humanity.
To remind us Jesus came for all of humanity—in Matthew’s Gospel we read of the three Magi, or wise men. They came from afar. They were not part of the “original chosen people.” But now through Christ, God’s covenant extends to all of humanity from east to west. No one is excluded. The Magi are depicted in a fresco inside the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the oldest church in Christendom. It was commissioned by Saint Helena, mother of Constantine, in the 4th century. When the Persians conquered this land in the early 7th century, they did not destroy the Basilica of the Nativity. The Persians saw themselves in the story of the incarnation and this church was the only one spared in their wave of destruction.
SECOND: God’s mercy was revealed in a particular way to Mary and Joseph, to the shepherds and even to the animals! Mary and Joseph were provided a place, even though there was no room in the inn. Theirs were the first eyes to behold the son of God. They were the first to adore him. But they were not alone. Who came next? The poor, outcasts, those who were thought of as stinky and unfit: the shepherds.
THIRD: God’s mercy is revealed to you and to me. God came to share in our humanity so that we might share in His divinity. Adam and Eve were impatient. God is not holding anything back from us. In the fullness of time God become human so humans could become divine eternally. Now that’s mercy.
Our first action in Bethlehem was an act of mercy. Although shopping is not a corporal work of mercy, our purchases were supporting the local Christian community.
We started our official Bethlehem tour at Shepherd’s Field. We could imagine how they watched their flocks by night in the valley. Bishop Zubik led us in a rousing version of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” in the cave chapel of Shepherd’s Field.
Cave Chapel at Shepherd's Field
Next our Palestinian guide, Ramsey, took us to the Church of the Nativity. We celebrated the Second Sunday of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday using the prayers for Christmas. Bishop Zubik reminded us in the homily that when we judge others, we build walls. As followers of Christ, we are not to build walls. Rather we are to build bridges. This was a poignant comment, especially since a very large, concrete security wall surrounds Bethlehem, limited to freedom of movement of its residents.
We stood in line along the right side of the nave the Basilica in the Church of the Nativity to take our turn reverence the star where Jesus was born, located in the Greek Orthodox crypt. The Basilica is undergoing significant and much needed renovation. The scaffolding and drapes enfolded us as we stood in a long line for more than an hour. It really was the first time on the pilgrimage that we had a significant wait. Our waiting reminded us that humanity had been waiting for the Messiah for two millennia. This put our 75 minutes in to perspective. We prayed the joyful mysteries of the rosary silently and prepared spiritually to touch the place of Jesus’ birth, where God’s mercy was made manifest.
Waiting in line
Appropriately, there is a Mercy Door in the Church of the Nativity. This door was dedicated as a Jubilee Door by Saint John Paul in the year 2000. How special this was to go through a Mercy Door on Divine Mercy Sunday blessed by John Paul II when he was in Bethlehem in the year 2000. Prayerfully, each pilgrim crossed this threshold of mercy, seeking to draw nearer to God in the place where God drew near to humanity.
Bishop Zubik walks through Holy Door in Church of the Nativity
Birthplace of the Messiah
In Bethlehem a door was opened to the Holy Family, a door was open to provide a place for Jesus to be born. His death would open the door to heaven for all believers. This is mercy: mercy for the homeless Mary and Joseph and mercy for every soul that longs to find a home with God. What does it mean for us to cross the threshold of mercy to experience the Father’s embrace here? Maybe it is baby Jesus who beckons us come, come to my Father and to your Father. He loves us!
It was at the Mercy Door we were met by our lunchtime lecturer: Mr. Zoughbi Zoughbi of Wi’am Peace Center.
Bishop Zubik with Zoughbi Zoughbi
Lunch was a special treat from Bishop Zubik. He provided us a lovely meal at the Three Arches Restaurant in Bethlehem. Falafel (fried chickpea balls), and chicken were the main course. Dessert was a cake Belinda Lewis of Unitours ordered as a surprise for Bishop Zubik’s 19th anniversary of his Episcopal Ordination on April 6. What was truly a surprise was the huge flaming candle a top the cake that lit up the room!
Celebrating the anniversary of Bishop Zubik's ordination
I spied the car Pope Francis used when he was in Bethlehem on display in Manger Square. His visit really gave the residents of Bethlehem hope. Mercy brings hope. Christmas and Easter are our great festivals of hope. It was overwhelming to celebrate them both at the same Mass today on Divine Mercy Sunday.
Mass in Bethlehem