The true meaning of Christmas often gets lost during the holidays. But now is when people need it the most.
I dug back through some pictures I took in 2010 when I visited the Vatican and the great St. Peter’s Square bordered on two sides by semi-circular colonnades. It’s where Christians worldwide for hundreds of years have flocked for mass celebrated in great numbers with the pope.
I walked through the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo’s spectacular work adorns the ceiling. I’ve photographed Michelangelo’s Pietá in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
It was also powerful and moving to tour the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Cathedral of Pisa and learn that some stones from the Roman Empire went into the construction. Churches I have visited in Europe, Russia, United States, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, the Bahamas and Cuba speak to the incredible reach of Christianity during the colonial domination of the world.
But none of the monuments and artistic genius conveyed the meaning of Christmas and the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ, which the faithful celebrate Friday, as much as my travels this year with my partner Bette. We found that feeling in Ephesus, Turkey, and Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In Ephesus, the House of the Virgin Mary is where she was thought to have lived the last days of her life. After Jesus’ crucifixion, Mary went to Turkey with Saint John, as he continued to spread Christianity. In the 4th century a small church was added. We walked in silence with a line of people into the stone structure.
It is an unadorned, solemn place of peace and hope. Both Christians and Muslims visit and pray there.
Inside visitors see crutches and other aids that people have left after they’ve experienced “miracles.” Outside is the constantly flowing “Water of Mary,” a salt water that some say has curative properties.
Three fountains outside the home are believed to provide visitors with health, love and wealth. Visitors eagerly lined up to fill bottles.
There also is the Wall of Wishes. Visitors wrote special messages, prayers and hopes on slips of paper that they placed with thousands of others’ expectations, which they’d like to someday come true.
The Virgin Mary’s home has attracted popes and the faithful worldwide. There is a powerful, unexplainable presence there. I am grateful for having shared a deep, simple sense of awe with people from so many different cultures.
The feeling counters the hatred some express over the flood of refugees fleeing fighting in Syria and Iraq. Also disturbing is the bombing by the U.S. and other countries of Islamic State held areas, the continuing terrorists’ attacks and the despair and hopelessness of gun violence. I focus on Ephesus and the true meaning of Christmas, hoping that peace and love will overpower warfare, strife and the mean divisive rhetoric of wannabe wartime presidents. Indeed, faith from the Madonna and Christ is all that matters now.
Bette and I found the same undeniable feeling this year at Medjugorje. Like Lourdes, France, in 1858 and Fatima, Portugal, in 1917, Medjugorje, starting in 1981, was where the Madonna was first seen by a handful of teenagers on a hillside.
We visited the Stations of the Cross, the Medjugorje Risen Christ Statue, and then trekked a couple of miles with others to the hillside, where the faithful prayed and chanted at simple, open-air shrines. This area and the people seemed to glow with a faith that I wish were everywhere at Christmas.
If only that could radiate worldwide, cleanse us of our fears and calm the dominating darker forces.
That is my Christmas wish for the New Year.