Flashback: It's less than two months before Christmas, I'm 50 feet away from the birthplace of Christ, and I'm in danger of being shoved aside by middle-aged women in the tour behind me.
Sadly, this is one aspect of the pilgrimage experience.
My tour of the Holy Land in November has its parallels in the Christian experience of Christmas in America. It has the same pitfalls for believers, too, and the same opportunities to rise above the distractions to absorb the true message of Christmas.
In November, my wife and I took a long-awaited trip to Jordan, Israel, and Turkey to see the sites of the Greatest Story Ever Told. We had planned this trip for more than a year, along with dozens of people from our parish and diocese. Our pastor (who has since moved up into a leadership position in our diocese) lived for a time in the area and has long experience in leading pilgrimages. Part of that effort is reminding the pilgrims that they aren't tourists.
That is more difficult than you'd think, especially when your group is competing for space with others who would just as soon win that competition.
It's not just the crowds, though the competition to gain entry to the holy sites can be fierce and exhausting. It took our group more than two hours to finally gain entry to the place below the altar at the Church of the Nativity where tradition holds that Christ was born. These tours come with a number of distractions: street vendors who make their living off of the generosity (and sometimes the naïveté) of tourists and pilgrims; the poverty and political conflicts that surround the area; travel arrangements and difficulties, including an unfortunate case of theft; the tourist impulse to filter everything through a camera lens, which was my own issue. I took some 2,400 pictures.
With all of those distractions, it's certainly easy to lose the concept of pilgrimage and the message of the Biblical journey to the joys and travails of tourism. What kept us focused on the former over the latter? Prayer, certainly, and the efforts of our priest in conducting daily Masses to bring us back to our mission. But the greatest effort was to continually remind ourselves of the message of Scripture and its meaning for our lives.
It's easy to see the similarities between that tension and the sometimes-panicked efforts to provide the proper celebration of Christmas that we all endure at this time of year. Did we buy enough presents for the granddaughters? Will we get the Christmas cards out the door on time? Do we have enough food for dinner, and will we get the house cleaned before the guests arrive? Is there enough time to run to the store for one last gift?
These are tourist questions for the holy season, though. For Christians, they are the travel arrangement issues on the way to the pilgrimage, to the central message of Christmas. Ironically, the truth at the heart of Christmas is this: We are not sufficient in ourselves. Christ came to our world to save us because all of our plans, wealth, and worries could not possibly bring us to salvation. We are not called to merely tour the season and pick up trinkets, or to take photographs along the way. We are called to recognize that truth, which makes all those plans ridiculous, and marvel at God's sacrificial love for us. We can find hope and joy in that revelation regardless of where we stood in line to finally open ourselves to it.
That doesn't mean that we shouldn't enjoy ourselves along the way on our pilgrimage. In fact, we are called to joyous celebration with all because of it, regardless of whether they believe or not. Prepare the feast, exchange the gifts, and enjoy the time with family and friends. Forgive those who want to shove you aside and help them celebrate, too. Because of the true meaning of Christmas, we can take joy in our journey, rather than just be tourists competing for a glimpse of something otherwise incomprehensible.