My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
What does Christmas mean to you? Did it start with shopping on Black Friday, or Cyber Monday, or even sooner? Are there long lists of gifts to buy? Does this season involve spending lots of time putting up Christmas decorations? Is there a stream of holiday parties to attend? Do you send many greeting cards, either by postal service or email or both?
Christmas means many or all of the above for most of us. But the most important question about the meaning of Christmas is this: Will you attend Mass on Christmas? Because that is the essence of Christmas: Christ’s Mass.
Christ was born on this earth over two thousand years ago. We believe that Christ will come again at a time we do not know. But Christ also comes each and every time we receive holy Communion, for he is truly present in the Eucharist. Christmas takes on its fullest meaning when we celebrate Christ’s Mass: Jesus present to us, coming into our hearts, not just symbolically, not just as a memory, but in reality, here and now, in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.
This leads to another question: Who is Jesus for you? Is Jesus a monumental figure out of history who intrigues us in the way that great persons from history like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill draw us to learn more about them? Is Jesus someone who inspires us in the way that holy saints like St. Francis of Assisi, St. Clare, St. Teresa of Calcutta, and St. John Paul II do?
Perhaps all of the above, yet there is so much more to be found if we take the time to look and reflect on the life of Jesus Christ.
Earlier this month, 32 people accompanied me on a two-week pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Rome, during which we had ample time to reflect on the question of who Jesus is in our lives. Our pilgrimage group, which consisted mostly of parishioners from our diocese, also included my sister, Ramona, and two of my cousins.
We left Springfield by bus to O’Hare Airport on Monday, Dec. 2, arriving the following day in Israel. Our time in the Holy Land was a graced-filled time of tracing the lines of Our Lord’s life on earth, starting with the Archangel Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary at Nazareth that she would be the Mother of Our Savior. We visited the place where Jesus was born in Bethlehem and we celebrated Mass at Shepherds’ Field, where the angel appeared to the shepherds and told them not to be afraid, but to be joyful, for a Savior had been born for them (Luke 1:1-14).
The married couples in our pilgrimage group renewed their marriage vows in the town of Cana, where Jesus and his mother attended the wedding at which Jesus turned water into wine. This is also where Scripture records the last words spoken by Mary in the Bible: “Do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5). The “He” of course is Jesus: Mary tells us that if we are obedient to her Son, he will fulfill our deepest needs.
We also stopped at the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and where we all renewed our baptismal promises.
We spent a lot of time in the region of Galilee, where Jesus called his first Disciples and performed many miracles.
We celebrated Mass at the church built over the site where St. Peter’s home was located in Capernaum, and we visited the town of Tabgha, where Jesus performed the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. A highlight of our time in the town of Tiberias was going out on a boat on the Sea of Galilee. The calmness of the water was a reminder of the peace and tranquility that Christ brings to our lives.
We also went to the top of Mount Tabor, where Jesus was transfigured. Seeing Jesus in his heavenly glory, St. Peter proclaimed, “Lord, it is good for us to be here” (Matthew 17:4). Indeed, Jesus gave this glimpse of his glory to show his Disciples the reward that awaits all the saints in the glory of heaven.
Before attaining to this glory, Jesus tells us that we must share in his suffering. We traced the steps of his passion from his entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, to the place of his Last Supper, to the Garden of Gethsemane, and to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built at the site of Our Lord’s crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection from the dead. One of the most powerful experiences for me personally in Jerusalem was carrying the Blessed Sacrament in procession through the Garden of
Olives, where I felt one with Jesus in his
The second week of our pilgrimage was spent in Rome. The practical reason for our going to Rome at this time was that the bishops of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana were scheduled to meet with Pope Francis as part of our ad limina visit. The full name of this visit in Latin is ad limina apostolorum, which literally means, “to the thresholds of the apostles.” Here, the word “threshold” refers to their tombs, since our graves are the thresholds for our passage from this life to the next. The visit ad limina apostolorum also includes celebrating Mass at the tombs of St. Peter in the Basilica of St. Peter and of St. Paul in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, respectively.
The week in Rome was a time of many meetings for me and my brother bishops, as we met with officials of several departments of the Roman Curia, who carry out the work of the Holy Father at the Vatican. The most significant meeting, of course, was with the Holy Father. Pope Francis was very generous with his time, spending two and a half hours in a free and open conversation with the 27 bishops present from our region.
While my brother bishops and I were attending these meetings, our pilgrimage group was visiting the major basilicas and several other churches in Rome, the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel, as well as other major sites from classical Rome, such as the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. Our pilgrim group was able to participate in Masses celebrated by me at the altar of St. John Paul II in St. Peter’s Basilica, with Pope Francis on the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and with Cardinal Cupich and the bishops of our region at the Church of St. Bartholomew on the Island of the Tiber River.
The connection between the Holy Land and Rome was to follow the progression and growth of the Catholic Church from her origins to the present-day reality. Thus, we come full circle to the true meaning of Christmas: the presence of Jesus Christ in our lives as Lord and Savior through the ministry of the church for those who put their trust and faith in him.
May God give us this grace. Amen.