Thank you for your kind words and your gracious welcome here this morning. I know I speak for everyone when I say that it is a joy and a privilege for us to be here as pilgrims in Bethlehem.
We come, first and foremost, as pilgrims – pilgrims of peace and pilgrims of solidarity. And we come to listen and to learn from the experiences of the local people, particularly the small Christian community with whom we know we have such a connection, but to our shame, we also know your community sometimes feels disconnected from their fellow Christians, at times even forgotten.
For many of our pilgrims, this is their first time in Bethlehem. Even though we live thousands of miles away, Bethlehem is dear to our hearts, especially at Christmas time when we love to sing ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’.
In our own native language we have another beautiful carol:
Don oíche úd i mBeithil
beidh tagairt faoi ghréin go brách,
Don oíche úd i mBeithil
gur tháinig an Briathar slan
I sing of a night in Bethlehem
A night as bright as dawn
I sing of that night in Bethlehem
The night the Word was born
The final verse of that Carol associates your town with the gift of peace:
Céad glóir anois don Athair
sa bhFlaitheasa thuas go hard!
Is feasta fós ar sa thalamh
d’fheara dea-mhéin’ siocháin!
And God’s message rings out so clear
Glory now to the Father
In all the heavens high
And peace to His friends on earth below
Is all the angels cry!
The people of Ireland often visit Bethlehem in their thoughts and prayers. We have read many times in the Gospels the story of that first Christmas when the Son of Man had nowhere to lay is head, but found refuge just metres from here in a humble cave.
When we first took up the idea of a ‘Christian Solidarity Pilgrimage’ some people tried to discourage us from visiting Bethlehem, or advised us to come just for a few hours before disappearing again across the checkpoint. That was never an option for us – we wanted to come and spend time with you, to sleep near where the infant Jesus and the Holy Family slept, to meet with you and the people who call this ancient city their home.
Mayor Baboun, as you know, a central aim of our pilgrimage is to express solidarity with the Christians of this land who are the descendants of those who first heard the joy of the Gospel in the song of the Angels, that message of glory to God and peace to people of goodwill which has resounded down through human history for some 2,000 years. As we walk these days among the excavations of ancient foundations from Nazareth to Jericho and Jerusalem, we are conscious that the Christians in this land are the ‘living stones’ who have faithfully borne witness to Christ in handing on the Gospel for more than twenty centuries.
We know too of the struggles that are felt and experienced by the local communities who are weary of conflict, violence and injustice. Through our experiences in Ireland, we know the frustration caused by a seemingly endless cycle of conflict and the ever-present temptation to despair. We want to bring you hope.
We too have had armed soldiers on our streets, heavily fortified checkpoints and security walls which interfere with the normality that ought to be daily family and commercial life. We too have lived with the daily threat of bombs and shootings, and seen how sectarianism, hatred and bigotry can turn neighbours into enemies, neighbourliness into suspicion, culture and even religion into difference and division.
At the same time, through the great blessing of God that is the peace process in Ireland, we also know that resolution and reconciliation are possible and that violence and conflict can be overcome and replaced by peace and security. Never underestimate the transforming power of courageous leadership, supported by international cooperation and solidarity, and nourished by the collective goodwill of ordinary people who say ‘enough is enough’ and who dare to extend the hand of friendship in prophetic ways across the divide.
We do not come to offer simplistic solutions to a complex conflict or with pious platitudes. We come with the only things we have: prayer and solidarity. In this birthplace of the ‘Prince of Peace’ we intensify our plea for mutual understanding and a just and lasting peace for this land which has known too much conflict, too much pain and division.
Here in your city, made holy by the birth of Christ, we have offered the Eucharist for these intentions. We promise you, and the various peoples of this Holy Land that we will continue to pray for peace knowing that, in the words of Pope Saint John Paul II, that “if peace if possible, it is necessary, because it is the deepest hope of every human heart”.
Mayor Baboun, we are conscious that the Christmas story – so central to the life of this city – is not a mere sentimental tale from an innocent ancient time. It is a living story that calls us to action. Here in Bethlehem – in Arabic ‘house of flesh’ and in Hebrew ‘house of bread’ – we pilgrims have been nourished for the next steps on our pilgrim path that is life. The Christmas story continually challenges us to be people of justice and peace.
We have valued our time here and been spiritually-enriched by this land and by this city. We have been blessed to meet local people and hear of their struggles and hopes, including your wonderfully gifted craftspeople who mould such striking images of the Holy Family and the nativity scene. I’ve learned that Bethlehem is twinned with the Italian city of Assisi. We owe the practice of creating nativity scenes to that great apostle of peace. Francis was not as lucky as we are – he never made it to the Holy Land, despite three attempted trips. But his spirit is alive and well through the ministry of his Franciscan friars who have responsibility for many of the holy places that are associated with the earthly life of Christ.
We will leave Bethlehem not only with fond memories and with gratitude for what we have experienced, but also with a sense of mission. I say to my fellow pilgrims: continue to pray for peace. Pray also for a transformation of hearts through the intercession of Saint Francis. And when you return to your homes and communities, your parishes and places of work, tell your friends, family and colleagues that the city of Bethlehem – the city where God chose to decisively intervene in human history and give us a Saviour – is open and welcome and awaiting their presence. And think of some practical action or charitable work by which you can keep alive your link with the people of this town.
Mayor Baboun, thank you and God bless you. You and your people are not forgotten. God bless Bethlehem.
- Archbishop Eamon Martin is the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. Archbishop Martin is leading an eight-day pilgrimage of solidarity to the Holy Land accompanied by 177 pilgrims from all around Ireland.
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