JIM CREES: On a night like this ...
Editor’s note: After running a column last week describing one of my family’s Christmas celebrations in Israel, a number of readers asked me to repeat a column I wrote last year on the same topic. I do so while wishing all of our readers a very happy and meaningful holiday season.
Having lived in Israel for 25 years, I also had the unique opportunity, (read: Blessing), of spending 25 Christmas holiday seasons in the Land where it all began.
Christmastime in the Holy Land is very, very special.
On the one hand, it certainly isn’t as commercially developed as it is in the U.S.
One the other hand, however, Israel is Israel, and most of the stories recorded in the Bible took place in this Land.
From our back porch in the BethShan Valley, we could see the lights of Nazareth - the childhood hometown of Jesus - flickering off in the distance.
Each year, on Christmas Eve, my Dearly Beloved and I attended midnight services at one church or the other.
Most often, we attended services either at the Scottish Church in Tiberius, or at the Franciscan Church of St. Peter on the Galilee.
These services were nothing like the services broadcast worldwide from Bethlehem. There were very few people in attendance, sometimes only a dozen or so.
It was very quiet. Very soft. Very similar to what one could imagine while singing “Oh, Holy Night.”
One year remains always fresh and very special in my memory.
Dina was very pregnant with our daughter, but still wanted to attend services knowing how important this was to me. I was a long way away from home, and I’ve always loved the Christmas holiday season.
We traveled from our home in the valley to the Church of St. Peter on the Galilee, alongside the Sea of Galilee.
This church is actually a small chapel, probably well smaller than most living rooms in the U.S.
The chapel is located in what was once a portion of the outer wall of the Crusader fortress of Tiberius dating to the 11th century.
The massive stone walls of the chapel are four or five feet thick, with tiny slit windows offering precious little light during the day. The windows are actually Crusader-era archers’ firing ports a few inches wide on the outside but expanding to three or four feet wide on the inside, allowing archers to pick off invaders while giving attackers only a poor target.
The altar of the church is set in the back wall of this ancient and historic structure. There were maybe ten rows of pews, on both sides of the room with room for four or five people in each pew.
Behind the altar is a tiny choir area with place for the few Franciscans monks who take part in the service.
This special Christmas Eve, we arrived to find a dozen or so people waiting for services, a number of whom were personnel from U.N. forces in the Golan Heights.
The Franciscan priest and brothers filed in and before the Mass began, the priest turned to those gathered.
“I know most of you probably aren’t Catholics, and you’re here because you couldn’t get to Bethlehem,” he said with a smile.
“So ...I’m going to take it real slow tonight and explain everything I do sot that you can better understand the Mass and why this night is so special.”
The priest was a huge guy. “Hulking” would be a good word to describe him. Turns out he played on the defensive line for the University of Ohio before heading off in the direction his life took him.
The Mass began in this wonderful, dim, ever-so-inspiring setting.
As the service moved forward, the priest took the time to explain anything he did that he thought those sitting in the pews might not understand. It made the service so very personal.
As noted, Dina was very, very pregnant, and the ups and downs of the service, combined with the late hour were getting to her.
I encouraged her to just stay seated, but she figured she could handle things.
Then came a point in the Mass when the priest censes the altar.
Fragrant incense is sprinkled over a hot coal in a decorative metal instrument called a thurible, or a censer. I don’t know what is used in the U.S. but in the Holy Land they use frankincense - a pretty powerful, and wonderfully pungent flaky incense.
A cloud of heady smoke filled the small chapel - and was even more pronounced considering the size of the room.
Dina became positively woozy, and plopped down into the pew.
I asked if she was OK - if we needed to head outside.
She insisted on staying.
The Mass continued.
It was beautiful. The priest carried out his duties. The monks in the ‘choir’ offering responses and helping out when needed.
Then the priest prepared to cense the Nativity crèche situated beneath and to the front of the altar.
The censer was again prepared, but just before sprinkling the incense on the hot coal, the priest turned to one of the monks and whispered something.
With military precision, eight of them turned and filed down the side aisles of the small chapel each taking a position along the outer wall.
Not being Catholic, I assumed this was all part of the litergical proceedings. The brothers stood silently in their brown robes, eyes closed in prayer.
The priest dropped flakes of incense on the burning coal, and immediately a second cloud of fragrant smoke rose up and filled the chapel.
At that same instant, each of the monks reached through the archer’s slip windows with a metal rod, pushed the skinny glass panes open, and began fanning with their hymnals like crazy men.
These seemingly reserved and taciturn monks, whipped their hymnals up and down with astonishing energy creating a fanned breeze that sucked the incense, or at least a good part of the smoke, out of the chapel clearing the air.
When they were done, they closed the window slits and solemnly filed back to their seats in the choir.
Extinguishing the censer, the priest looked down on my wife with an absolutely angelic smile and told the audience:
“Pregnant ladies need a little extra care on a night such as this ... especially as we remember the gift of Our Lady.”
And the Mass continued on.
It was an astonishingly kind and caring thing to do by a good man ever so mindful of those around him on a very special night of the year.
It was one of the many very special Christmases we shared in the Holy Land.