Holy Land Pilgrimage

Not stories, but events

February 6, 2018

Outside the grotto where Jesus’ birthplace is located under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Did it really happen here?

This thought has been rattling around in my mind every time we have visited one of the numerous Holy Sites associated with Scripture. We are told “This is the exact spot where Jesus was born!” or “This is the spot where Mary met Elizabeth for the Visitation!” or “This is the cave where John the Baptist was born!”

And as amazing as it was to visit, pray, and reflect at these various places, I have to admit that at first, my consistent thought was, “Did it really happen here?” and my consistent answer was, “I doubt it…” How do we know that this Church of the Nativity is built over the cave where Mary and Joseph took refuge, even if mentions of it do date back to the time of Justin Martyr? How do we know that this village of Ein Karim is indeed where Zechariah and Elizabeth lived at the time of John’s birth and is not just a local tradition invented to boost tourism?

The birthplace of St. John the Baptist in Ein Karem.

In the midst of my millennial cynicism, I was struck with a thought: it doesn’t matter.

So what if this fourteen-pointed silver star doesn’t mark the exact spot where Jesus was born? So what if we have no way of knowing if this particular cave outside of Bethlehem is actually where the Angel appeared to the shepherds to announce the birth of Christ? What I came to realize is that the churches built to commemorate these sites do more than just simply mark the place where they supposedly happened – they mark the events themselves.

One of our favorite guides here in the Holy Land has constantly emphasized in his explanations that the things of scripture are not stories, but events — “A story is Harry Potter,” he says, “But the scriptures are events

The author at Mary’s Spring in Ein Karem.

The point is not that these events happened here, but that they happened – Jesus was really born in Bethlehem, Mary really did visit Elizabeth, the shepherds were visited by an angel. It happened in history, in a location on earth very near to this one if not precisely here. The whole doctrine of the Incarnation is that God became man – the timeless Divinity entered into time-centered history, and walked with human feet upon this earth.

As I continue to journey through the life of Jesus during this pilgrimage, I can see that God is calling me to not be distracted by the distance of time and the effects that has upon fact and tradition. Rather, He is calling me to enter into His life on earth, to reflect on both its reality and its sublime mystery.

By Paul Grandi (Diocese of Tucson)
Photos by Declan McNicholas (Diocese of Gary) and Peter Pedrasa (Diocese of Tucson)

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