Once each year, Christians around the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas Day and the resurrection of Jesus on Easter.
However, “every day is Christmas, and every day is Easter” in the Holy Land shrines, according to Monsignor John Myler, of St. Peter Cathedral in Belleville.
In celebration of his 35th anniversary as a priest, Myler traveled to Israel on a pilgrimage for the second time in his life.
“A pilgrimage is for centuries and centuries, a religious travel to the holy spots, to the holy shrines,” he explained. “The Holy Land pilgrimage in a sense begins in Bethlehem and ends in Jerusalem.”
The town of Bethlehem is no longer “little,” Myler said, as it was at the time of Jesus’ birth.
He described it as a “sprawling city now,” that is beautiful with its striking white features. “It’s just an amazing place,” he said.
“In 100 A.D. already, they were talking about a certain cave where Jesus Christ had been; by 200 A.D. they are erecting a chapel over the place,” he said. “Here it is 2,000 years later in Bethlehem, there is this Basilica of the Nativity. It’s a huge church built over the spots; it’s been there for centuries and centuries.”
In order to get into the Basilica, you have to bow due to the entrance door being just four feet tall. It was constructed in such a way, Myler said, so no conqueror could ride his horse in.
“Even to this day, you must stoop, you must bow down low in order to get into the Basilica of the Nativity,” he said.
Myler vividly recalled a “very ancient 14-pointed star” in the marble of the ground in the chapel of the Basilica of the Nativity. The inscription around the star reads “Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est” in Latin, which means “Here of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ was born.”
“A trip to the Holy Lands appropriately begins at Bethlehem; no matter what day of the year it is, whether it’s November or December or June or July ... in the Basilica of the Nativity you hear sung ‘Angels We have Heard on High’. ...We hear the Christmas carols, the Christmas hymns. In Bethlehem, everyday it’s Christmas Day.”
Myler chose to say Mass very near there in the Chapel of the Shepherds’ Field. “The wheat grows still out in these fields,” he said. “The word Bethlehem means the house of bread. It was a small town back then known for its baking. Still to this day, the different breads in the Holy Lands are delicious, especially in Bethlehem.”
In order to have Mass in each of the holy shrines, Myler made arrangements in advance. For others, Myler said the shrines are “accessible to all Pilgrims.”
However, you don’t have to go to the Holy Land to walk in the steps of Jesus, according to Myler.
“We do want to walk in the steps of Jesus Christ, but you can walk in the steps of Jesus Christ at home,” he said. “You can walk in the steps of Jesus Christ down the street; you can walk in the steps of Jesus Christ in the cities. You can walk in the steps of Jesus Christ encountering the poor, the sick, those that are in trouble ... because of what happened in the Holy Land the whole Earth can become the Holy Land.”
During his 12-day journey at the end of November, Myler had Mass each morning at a place of significance in the Holy Land, including at Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus, the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River and the Mount of the Beatitudes.
“All these places that we read about in the Gospels,” he said. “Where the pilgrims have been going for nearly 2,000 years as they say to walk in the steps of Jesus Christ.”
It’s a place that offers you the opportunity to reflect on Christ’s life and then to reflect on your own.
Monsignor John Myler of St. Peter Cathedral
When he was in Bethlehem, Myler said he thought of all the Christmas midnight Masses that he has celebrated over 35 years.
Likewise, while at the River Jordan where Christ was baptized, he fondly remembered the babies and adults “you baptized over the course of 35 years.”
“It’s a place that offers you the opportunity to reflect on Christ’s life and then to reflect on your own,” he said.
Myler described Jerusalem as a vast, international city with millions of people. “When you get to Jerusalem, it’s not the beginning of Christ’s life that becomes the focus,” he said. “It’s the suffering and the death and the resurrection of Christ that becomes the focus in the city of Jerusalem.”
Myler had the “rare honor” of celebrating Mass in the small, sacred chapel at the Tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre called the Edicule.
The tiny chapel is only five feet by seven feet. “It has been by tradition the place where Christ was buried and rose from the dead,” Myler said. “I was fortunate enough to celebrate Mass in this little chapel of this great church.
In the same way you hear the Christmas carols being sung in Bethlehem, you hear the Easter hallelujah in that small chapel, according to Myler.
“It’s always Easter in Jerusalem,” he said.
Myler said he “felt completely safe” throughout his time in the Holy Land. However, the unrest in Jerusalem has increased recently after President Donald Trump declared Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“It may not be as safe this month as it was last month for politic reasons (sic) that I don’t judge,” he said. “The Holy Land is more and more a place of violence and hatred and division.”
At the birthplace of Christ and the birthplace of Christianity, Christians are nearly absent, according to Myler. “Fifty years ago, perhaps 40 percent of the population was Christian; now it’s more like 1 percent,” he said. “And that’s due to the conflict. There’s a lack of economic opportunity; there’s the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Many, many Christians have emigrated from the Holy Land.
“It’s ironic that the birthplace of Christ is losing its Christians,” Myler said.
Near the time of Myler’s journey to the Holy Land, National Geographic published an article Nov. 27 that confirmed a tomb was located under the marble that dated back to Roman times at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
“Sure enough this beautiful little building is built on top of a tomb ... a place where for nearly 2,000 years Christians have said this is the place where Christ was buried and rose from the dead.
“In some ways, it’s the most important spot on the Earth,” Myler said.