I have dipped my toes in the chaos of the Christmas-before-Advent scene. I’ve been to the mall once. I’ve landed on radio stations that play Christmas music around the clock – and quickly popped in my Rosary CD to escape the noise. I’ve seen enough of commercialized Christmas even though I have actively avoided it this year.
Advent is the only antidote.
But Advent only comes to those who know how to get quiet. It hides from those who have to hurry. It will never be found in the crowded places and packed spaces of shopping aisles and city crosswalks.
Advent waits to be invited to your December. It will not show up on its own. It is a polite guest. It will not crash your party.
Christmas-without-Advent is a fake. An imposter. We all know it.
The Christmas we all need, the one we long for, the one we can imagine so clearly . . . it only comes to those who walk alongside Mary. In the quiet. Away from the crowds. Where Sacred Scripture comes alive and holiness is real.
It’s no mirage – this Advent journey. It’s not an optional side excursion on the way to Christmas. It’s necessary. It’s the way to Christmas. The only road to Bethlehem.
I was blessed to travel to the Holy Land twice in 2014. In fact, I am writing to you now from Bethlehem. I stood there today, at Shepherds Field, and the idea of the crowded mall seemed so silly, so completely out of step with Advent. I knelt to pray where Christ was born, and the idea of jacking up the credit card to buy a few more presents seemed almost unholy, almost contradictory.
The two don’t go together. Not when you are here. Not when you are removed from the bright lights and staged windows of Main Street America.
Today, I imagined a pregnant young woman and her beloved husband as they journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, over the rugged terrain that I have walked with my own feet, in my own Timberland boots, as my filled water bottle sloshed against my backpack, and I lifted my camera to capture the real Nazareth, the real Ein Kerem (Zechariah & Elizabeth’s home), the real Bethlehem. And I cannot think of anything but the plan of salvation that brought God into our world. The part of me that can be so easily abducted and thrown into the chaos of commercialized Christmas is gone.
But this kind of contemplation does not require an international pilgrimage – although it certainly gave me a new perspective. One can find this path – from Nazareth to Bethlehem – by doing some deliberate things.
This pilgrimage begins with receiving God, your very own personal Annunciation-moment. Christ coming to you in the Eucharist and you being sent to go forth once you have received Him. The pilgrimage is a journey with Mary from Nazareth. It happens when we take Christ with us, and we share Him with family and friends, as Mary did at Ein Kerem in the hills of Judea at the Visitation. The Lord grows within us as we feed and nourish our life in the Spirit. We do this by reading, by praying, by remembering the poor, by listening to Advent songs (and waiting for Christmas songs), by eating as a family around the table with the Advent Wreath as a centerpiece, by saying a prayer for those who send us cards rather than tossing the cards mindlessly in a basket.
This pilgrimage does not require money, or imitation snow, or double-sided wrapping paper. It only requires an undivided heart. We journey with Israel to the coming Messiah. When we set our eyes on Mary and run ahead to take hold of her mantle, we remember. That is the journey that leads to Christ.
Yes, you can make this pilgrimage through the sacramental & liturgical life of the Church. But if you are able to do it, go to the Holy Land. Some day. Some way. Go.
And kneel there, where you can imagine it all, where the real Advent cannot be usurped.
Nazareth. Ein Kerem. Bethlehem. These are real places. And the Franciscans are here, waiting for you to come and experience it all for yourself. Pilgrimage. It’s part of our faith tradition, whether it is a quiet pilgrimage of the heart or a pilgrimage that takes us to the other side of the world.
We are a pilgrimage people. And we are on a mission to discover Jesus Christ and to share Him with everyone we meet.
Blessed & holy Advent to you and your family, from Bethlehem of Judea.