Jerusalem -- Many of the most contentious controversies of the hour are only made worse by Christians not acting like Christians, people not being who they say they are. It's an issue of identity and of integrity.
Which is why I abandoned the United States this February. I walked away from the run-up to Super Tuesday, the fight to combat the White House health care agenda, and anything else that falls in between to travel to the Holy Land for a good old-fashioned Christian pilgrimage.
A change of scenery; a refresher course; a close encounter of a historic and deeply religious kind; a transformation: These are just some of the goals of a journey to a place where the stones themselves tell the story of a man who lived and died and had an impact on this earth like no other.
One of the many memorable moments of this week involved the sound of a prolonged Muslim call to prayer nearly drowning out our priest celebrating Mass in Bethany. It's actually a lovely sound. Muslims pray five times a day; engaging in an honest-to-goodness communication with and reflection on God several times a day wouldn't be a bad idea for any of us.
But the morning of a lifetime, worth every dollar and every mile traveled, consisted of standing before the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem and kneeling at the spot where he is believed to have been born in Bethlehem. The overwhelming message for a Christian pilgrim? If we believe this Christianity stuff to be true, we must do something different or we are all frauds. If we believe Christ is the savior of the world, offering us a celestial Jerusalem, what the heck are we doing killing time by getting worked up about passing controversies or complaining about the faults of others? That's hardly Christlike.
Christianity is a lot of different things to a lot of different people. You have your fair share of divisions among those who identify themselves as Catholics in one way or another. Politics have often been the cause of those divisions, the problems of the world creating problems in the world of the spirit.
In Mary of Nazareth and Christ himself we see the power of "yes," of embracing human life, embracing purpose and vocation, even when it may not be the road we'd map out for ourselves. If we're believers, we're not following man. While we may have some lovely models -- saintly models -- some of our hopes have been dashed by those who pretended they ever were more than fallen men, with the same temptations and failings as all of us.
"The Word was made flesh," St. John writes in the Gospels. That idea been used and misused, as religion can be. Rather than an occasion to justify our decisions or hardened opinions, Christ should be a constant challenge to be honest about just what it is that we believe and know we ought to do.
And that requires us to exercise conscience -- and that, in turn, requires the freedom to do so.
In his 2009 visit to Israel, Pope Benedict XVI said: "When the religious dimension of the human person is denied or marginalized, the very foundation for a proper understanding of inalienable human rights is placed in jeopardy."
The Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes and the life, death and resurrection of Christ bring with them messages of freedom and grace, of liberation from what burdens our hearts. Rather than be something restricted for Sundays, religion should be celebrated and embraced at the core of daily life. When our founders established our nation, they understood that religious faith was good. Now imagine if we truly lived that idea.
This Lent, you don't have to be Christian to figure out what is it that's motivating you when you get up in the morning. What is the work for? What is your life for? What are you for?
That this land that tells the story of the greatest peace would have precious little of it -- as you're reminded when you wait on line at the security checkpoints, the wall dividing Israel and the West Bank, which includes Bethlehem, or the Palestinian policy office in the Church of the Nativity -- couldn't more vividly remind us of life's challenges. The key is to live in the world and its daily requirements but also to rise above them. To "hear what the Lord God has to say, a voice that speaks of peace, peace for his people and his friends, and those who turn to him in their hearts" (Psalms 85:8). How might that be, for a change?