The Basilica of the Nativity.
Joanne Rae Ramirez
Bethlehem on my mind
PEOPLE - Joanne Rae M. Ramirez (The Philippine Star) - December 24, 2019 - 12:00am

Santa Claus, Christmas trees, Simbang Gabi, noche buena — are time-honored figures, beliefs and traditions that we cherish during the Christmas season. The trimmings are cultural traditions that complement religious rituals, and the gaiety, to my mind, is part of the celebration of the joy of family and friends. Christmas is a celebration of life, made more meaningful to Christians because over 2,000 years ago, a baby was born in a manger in a stable in Bethlehem, a baby whose one ordained mission was to save the world.

Christmas is not an excuse to celebrate. It is a reason to celebrate. It celebrates not only God’s faithfulness to man, but also the obedience of a woman who said “yes” to be the mother of Jesus and the man who stood by their side always. It was her “yes” that changed the world. Christmas celebrates the ties that bind us to our God, to each other, and to the values spawned when God chose for His Son to be born in the humblest of places.

Faith is what gives meaning to our celebration of Christmas. So that even when one turns off the Christmas lights, the glow remains. “Christmas is joy,” says Pope Francis, “religious joy, an inner joy of light and peace.”

***

The spot where Jesus was born is marked by a star inside the 6th-century Basilica of the Nativity

Bethlehem is a Palestinian town south of Jerusalem in the West Bank. The biblical birthplace of Jesus, it’s a major Christian pilgrimage destination. In Hebrew, Bethlehem means “House of Bread,” and the spot where Jesus was born is marked by a star inside the 6th-century Basilica of the Nativity, which shares Manger Square with the 15th-century Church of St. Catherine.

The star is not on the main altar, but inside a cavernous basement that is known as the “chapel of the manger.” Beneath an altar near the tiny chapel is a silver star that marks the spot where Christ was born. The emotion inside this tiny chapel is virtually palpable, I kid thee not. One of the members of our pilgrim group, Romy Limuaco, broke down in tears as he was reading a passage on Christ’s birth from the Bible a meter away from where it actually took place.

“Manger Square,” the sprawling stone square in front of the Basilica, is all alit at night, and is the focal point of Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem. Actually, every night feels like Christmas Eve on Manger Square, which is always bedecked in light.

I have squealed like a child reborn in Winter Wonderland in Finland, and in my own home I still delight in opening gifts on Christmas Day. But there is nothing quite like seeing Manger Square and the Basilica of the Nativity when the stars are out at night, under the same sky where a star led the Magi to the baby Jesus.

Body and soul genuflect in homage when visiting the altar where Christ is believed to have been born, enveloped by the majesty of being in the presence of the King of Kings.

We also walked the fields the shepherds traversed to get to the cave where the Messiah lay in a manger, and I found it to be a walk of faith as well, for you think of all the times your faith and your feet led you to what is true and right.

We also visited a cave similar to the cave where Christ was born, and it was truly humbling. We learned from our guide that what warmed the cave was actually the breath of the animals huddled inside the cave. The shepherds would stay in the mouth of the cave, because the warmth from within was enough to blanket them as well. Made me think of the most unlikely sources of warmth in our lives, they who keep our caves warm and our faith burning.

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The Shepherd’s Field Church, where the angels are believed to have announced the birth of Christ to shepherds.

It is still one of my most precious gifts in life that I have been to Bethlehem. The field where Christ was born is a mountaintop of faith. The first time I visited Bethlehem was during a pilgrimage organized by Catholic Travel Inc. in the year 2000. I remember the moment our bus entered the quaint little town, and we were welcomed by the sight of firefly lights strung over the streets. They looked like stars. The pilgrims in our bus started singing, “O come let us adore Him” and “Oh, little town of Bethlehem…”

It wasn’t Christmas, but I was suffused by emotion.

The second time I visited was during a pilgrimage in February this year, almost 20 years after the first. Also organized by Catholic Travel Inc., the pilgrimage was like a booster shot for my faith.

The altar of Shepherd’s Field Church in Bethlehem.

***

Christmas Day, with its flurry of parties and reunions, last-minute shopping and wrapping of gifts, should never overwhelm us. It should never be described as “toxic,”  “toxic” referencing a schedule that hardly allows one to breathe.

It is a day to cherish a promise from Above. Why not celebrate?

Merry Christmas! *

BETHLEHEM
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