This year, I took a trip that I thought I might never actually experience — a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. My wife and I decided to do this more than a year before we left, prioritizing it over a few maintenance items for the house, and stuck with it even with a serious health issue in our family. The timing ended up being fortuitous; our pastor, who had lived in the area for a time and who led this pilgrimage, got promoted to an important post within our diocese, so we had two weeks to spend with him before saying our goodbyes (at least in the pastor sense) after eleven years.

To call the experience life-changing would be to sell it short. I rarely find a day now when my thoughts don’t return to our pilgrimage, watching the Gospel come to life in a much more substantive manner, and relating it to my own life. That was especially true in my preparations for Christmas this year, made less joyous by the death in our family and the narrowed time frame for our activities. All of this, but especially the tension we felt on our journey between being pilgrims and tourists in the Holy Land led me to see the Christmas bustle and commercial character of this season in the West as a particular challenge for believers — a personal more than a cultural challenge, as I explain in my column for The Week:

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.

It’s also worth remembering those Christians whose challenge this season is a lot more than just resisting a cultural tilt toward materialism over the gift of our Lord. Nina Shea reminds us of our sisters and brothers who face annihilation or religious cleansing in the Middle East (via Kirsten Powers):

The Islamist religious-cleansing campaign is now acute in Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, countries that are home to three of the four Mideastern Christian communities of significant size. New data released by the United Nations Committee for Refugees estimates that 850,000 Christians have fled Iraq since 2003, meaning that as few as 250,000 might remain. Syrian Christians have well-founded fears that this is now their fate, too. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of oppressed Egyptian Copts are hedging their bets and buying houses in Georgia, Cyprus, and the United States.

The voices of the persecuted are searing. In addition to relating the horrors they face, they frequently raise another problem, their abandonment by the West. “We feel forgotten and isolated. We sometimes wonder, if they kill us all, what would be the reaction of Christians in the West? Would they do something then?” Archbishop Sako asks.

Congress’s impassioned champion of religious freedom, Representative Frank Wolf of Virginia, speaks frequently about his own frustration that Western leaders are silent about this immense human-rights crisis. “We’re seeing the destruction of Syrian Christianity. The road to Damascus, the very road where Paul found Jesus, may be the one that passes close by Maaloula,” he emphasized in a recent conversation with me. He was referring to the historic Christian town recently laid siege by jihadists and from where a dozen Orthodox nuns were taken hostage this month. …

In a major address in November, Cardinal Timothy Dolan focused on persecuted Christians. He called for prayer and urged his listeners to “insist that our country’s leaders make the protection of at-risk Christians abroad a foreign-policy priority for the United States.”

Few have heeded his call. Representative Wolf’s bill for the creation of the office of a special envoy for religious minorities languishes in the Senate for a third year. Many more American voices — religious and political — are needed to raise awareness of this religious-freedom crisis of historic magnitude.

AFP offers an update on the refugees of Maaloula, on which Lee Stranahan has reported at length:

The residents of Maalula are among the millions of Syrians displaced by a war that shows no sign of ending, and what should be a joyful holiday season is instead the latest painful reminder of all that has been lost.

“The most beautiful gift I could possibly receive for Christmas would be to return to Maalula,” whispered Hneineh Taalab, who fled in early September after jihadist fighters entered the town and is now sheltering at a Damascus convent.

Taalab said jihadists from Al-Nusra Front, a rebel group linked to Al-Qaeda, murdered her 20-year-old son Sarkis Zakhem when they took over Maalula on September 8, after four days of fighting troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

“Al-Nusra also killed my brother and my cousin because they refused to convert to Islam.”

The army briefly retook Maalula from rebels, but the troops were again expelled earlier this month as the Al-Nusra Front and other rebels swept into the mostly deserted town.

We need to pray for these Christians and then speak out on their behalf. Let that be our prayer for this Christmas, and then be sure to read up on the problem with John Allen’s The Global War on Christians (which explains that the problem isn’t limited to the Middle East and Islamists), and Lee Stranahan’s efforts to report on the issue.

Let’s close on a happier note. The front-page picture from this post was taken by me, one of the 2400+ shots I took on the trip (which was a challenge to the pilgrimage experience itself), and unfortunately the best I took of the grotto in the Church of the Nativity. The 14-point star marks the spot where tradition holds that Christ came among us to save us from our fallen state, the gift of the God who seeks us out as much (and more) than we seek Him. It’s the place where our rescue began, and the church above it is haunting and beautiful. I have assembled a few pictures I took and developed from my pilgrimage, and my Christmas wish is that it brings joy to our readers — and perhaps extends a bit of the pilgrimage experience as well.

Merry Christmas, everyone.