“This is the place.” Usually marked with a star of inlaid stonework, ornate and gilded with gold, and surrounded by the fragrance of frankincense. It is holy ground, terra sancta. This is where important things took place and someone marked it. Though the only proof is “according to tradition” still the pilgrims flock here, and they line up to stretch out their own palm and touch the star. I know because I am also here, and I don’t want to miss the blessing. I am in a crush of pilgrims who want to be graced by the same holy visitation. God has been in this place. It happened here. Honest.
We had a mass in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Though it is only October, we sang Christmas songs and at the end we said Merry Christ-Mass, because it was a celebration of Christ, God with us, Emmanuel, the mixed up mystery of human beings and God made incarnate among us.
The dissonance was not missed on anyone. The snow and other accoutrements that show up on Christmas cards and idealized images, was absent. There was a lot of traffic, horn honking, and people bustling about. Even the priests and custodians of the holy site were annoyed because we were late and they wanted to go home to dinner. So, apparently nothing has changed in Bethlehem, there was still no room at the inn and the world spins on its axis just like any other day.
We are in a place where they sell us dirt from the ground and water from the tap, and we buy it and take it home. Holy water for anointing. Holy Ground from the places where the Messiah Son of God walked among us. We are built of the same humble clay, and 60% water, tangible and able to feel heat warmth, love, hate, pain.
The sacraments they say, are the invisible graces made tangible, the fallible made magic in the moment by our sharing and our remembrance. It was oddly comforting to be here from the other side of the world and to say the same liturgy in concert as it is said everywhere, location notwithstanding.
The incarnation was made real among us, by our songs, sang corporately, and as individuals who took something away from this visit to the holy places.
Jacob, when he dreamed of angels, built an altar of stones, saying “surely God has been in this place”. It is innate in the human imagination to commemorate a location, a meeting spot and a touchstone for the future. We will come back and remember what happened here.
Yes, it happened in this place, honest. And here, and here, and here and here, in the heart of every believer who embodies the scattered mission of the Church, the corporate body of Christ. Word incarnate, everywhere and nowhere, written in places and on the human heart.
This is the place, here and here and here. This is also the place. Hand over heart. Honest.