A Christmas memory
Note: This blog was written by Sister Carolyn Kessler
In 1967-68, I was a Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Rome, Italy, and our former Sister of Providence, Sister Mary Rosalie Moore (RIP), was a Fulbright Scholar in France the same year. So, we arranged to spend Christmas together.
We met in the Rome airport and flew to Istanbul where the pilot made three attempts to land in a snowstorm before giving up and landing eventually in Ankara. From there, we took an overnight train in the midst of the Muslim observance of Ramadan back to Istanbul where we spent a few days enjoying some of the beauty of the city. However, it was more than a little disconcerting to be in a place that had not even one hint of Christmas decorations. It was our first experience in a Muslim country.
On Christmas Eve, we flew Turkish airlines to Tel Aviv, flying over Cyprus that from our altitude looked like a giant Christmas tree lit up in red, white and green. I still have a very vivid picture in my memory.
We landed in Tel Aviv just at the beginning of Hannukah! We quickly learned that homecoming Jewish friends and families were met with extraordinary warmth, surrounded by large circles of welcoming families and friends singing and dancing a folk song.
In the midst of what can only be called a very dynamic, raucous, chaotic setting, two Jesuit priests approached us, explaining that they had brought a group of students from Gonzaga University to visit the Holy Land. They were going on to Jerusalem that night and asked if we were as well and, if so, they had extra room on their bus. We were going to Jerusalem to stay at a basilica on the Via Dolorosa owned and staffed by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion, with whom I was living in Rome on the grounds of their motherhouse. A French community, they were founded to foster Christian-Jewish relations.
Our destination was part of the Old City of Jerusalem, which had just been claimed by Israel as a result of the six-day war in June 1967. We were among the first to be celebrating Christmas in this very sacred space as a result of the opening of the Old City. When our hosts saw where we were staying, one of the Jesuits offered to come to say Mass early Christmas morning with the two of us. The basilica is built over the stones where it is believed that Christ was brought before Pilate. We knelt on stones that showed the markings of the games played by Roman soldiers occupying this area. That Christmas Mass, with just three of us down on stones where Christ had once stood, with a Roman aqueduct behind us, remains one of the most beautiful memories of my life.
We also went to the church in Bethlehem built over the site that tradition holds marks the place where Jesus was born. We found ourselves alone in the church. Open only for six months to Christians like us, the church was in considerable disrepair and not yet found by the hosts of tourists who go there today. In the peace and quiet that we experienced there, kneeling at this place where the Son of God entered this world as the Son of Mary and Joseph, was almost overwhelming.
I took back with me a small wooden hand-carved nativity set I had acquired on the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem. Christmas 2017 will be the 50th Christmas that I will display it where I live.
Our Christmas ended with joining the people of Athens, Greece, in their great celebration of the Feast of Epiphany.