Joanne is a volunteer from London at the Saxum Visitor Center.
For the small group of us who made our journey down to Bethlehem to celebrate the midnight Mass of Christmas in the place where Baby Jesus was born, ‘miracle’ is the only word I can find that could even begin to describe our experience that night.
Having arrived in Bethlehem at around 10:30pm, we made our way through the Basilica of the Nativity until we reached a small line of people eagerly awaiting their turn to enter down the steps of the grotto and venerate the place where tradition says our Saviour was born. The feeling that I couldn’t shake was that we were travelling to the cave to witness the birth of Baby Jesus just like the Shepherds and the Wise Men did over 2000 years ago. I had only visited Bethlehem once before, and when I came we had been unable to enter the grotto, so this for me was a special moment.
When my turn finally came to enter inside, I immediately felt a strong gush of heat – since it was a cave after all, with no ventilation other than the entrance and exit. Although it wasn’t the most comfortable environment, it helped us in a way to enter more into the scene of Nativity, since the Holy Family would have no doubt had to cope with many discomforts during that first Christmas. I made my way to the spot underneath the altar to kiss the place of the birth, and then I quickly sat down a few metres away to join a large group of people praying before the beginning of the Mass. The prayers and singing were in Arabic so unfortunately I could not join in, but it created a wonderful atmosphere to pray in and to reflect on where we were.
By the time it got to 11:15pm, I could feel my eyes drooping more and more, and before long I realised I was falling asleep – of all moments and of all places! I guess it had been a long day, and as much I had every desire to stay awake, sitting on the floor in that intense heat I found myself unable to keep my eyes open. I finally awoke at around 11:45pm to sound of very beautiful hymns in Arabic. Now I felt perfectly awake, and even more excited knowing that the Mass was to begin soon.
We were expecting the Mass to be in Arabic, however it soon became clear that it would be in Italian since the Custos was coming to celebrate the first Mass. When we all stood up we crammed as close as possible to the front – everyone wanting to get a good view of the altar. Gladly I had been told to expect to have people stuck very close to me, so it wasn’t too much of a shock to have very little room to move around! The Mass was short, since we didn’t sing so many carols and there was no homily. However, this did not prevent us from entering into the mystery of the Nativity. In fact, I think not one person inside the grotto could have wished to change a thing.
The opportunity to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the place where He was born was nothing short of a miracle. With this came the realisation that in this moment only one thing was necessary: to pray, and then to pray some more! …for all the intentions in the hearts of everyone present. After the Mass it’s safe to say we were a bit in shock as to what we had just witnessed. But we left with a great sense of peace, and joy, that we had been lucky enough to have had such an experience.
If you ever have the chance to visit the Holy Land at Christmas time, this is the place to be on Christmas Eve. Next year I’ll probably be spending Christmas with my family in London, having completely different celebrations to those of 2018. Yet I am sure that, regardless of where we find ourselves at Christmas, the only thing that matters is to await the birth of Baby Jesus with as much joy as if we were really present in Bethlehem all those years ago.