Category Archives: Holidays

The Sunday Seven: Episode 15

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Happy Easter from the Holy Land! Jesus Christ is risen today! Rodolfo and I have been very blessed this week to celebrate Triduum and Easter in the places where it all happened. We attended Holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday) Mass at the Holy Sepulchre (the most famous church in Jerusalem, the large Crusader-era church that contains the entire hill of Calvary and Jesus’ empty tomb), followed by a walk to the Cenacle, the “upper room” where the Last Supper actually happened. Then, in the evening of Holy Thursday, we attended a Holy Hour in Gethsemane, the garden where Jesus prayed so hard that he sweated blood. Then we, along with hundreds of other pilgrims, walked in a candlelight procession from Gethsemane through the Kidron Valley to the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, the church that commemorates Peter’s three denials of Jesus before the rooster’s crow. In the catacombs of this church is the first century jail where Jesus was imprisoned on that night, as well as the ruins of the house of the high priest Caiphas and a set of first century steps that Jesus almost certainly walked up on his way to the jail. Then we attended Good Friday service at the Holy Sepulchre and then walked and prayed the Stations of the Cross along the actual Via Dolorosa. Then, this morning, we attended Easter Sunday Mass again at the Holy Sepulchre. It’s so amazing to not only be able to celebrate these events in the correct places, but also the correct days. Every single event was completely packed to the brim with people. In some cases, it was so full and so chaotic that it was hard to follow or even hear the Mass. Today was especially chaotic because it’s Palm Sunday for the Eastern Orthodox denominations, and several large processions of Armenian, Coptic and Greek Orthodox pilgrims arrived at the Holy Sepulchre in the midst of our Easter Mass. Also, because of the politics of the church and the way that it’s shared among six Christian denominations that are constantly at odds with one another, every Catholic Mass we attended at the Holy Sepulchre was held first thing in the morning; 7:30 am, 8 am… including the Mass of the Lord’s Last Supper! At 8 am! Perhaps instead they should call it the Mass of the Lord’s Breakfast! Photos to follow later this week.

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Backing up for a moment to Palm Sunday last week… Rodolfo and I were interviewed while participating in the procession and featured in this video about the procession by the Franciscan Media Center!

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Also, this week is Passover (Pesach, in Hebrew) for our Jewish friends, and Rodolfo and I were exceedingly blessed to be invited to a real Passover Seder meal at the home of one of Rodolfo’s Jewish work friends!

The whole point of a Passover Seder is for the benefit of the children; Jews are required to teach their children about their ancestors’ escape from Egypt in the time of Moses, and how the Lord miraculously delivered them from slavery with miracles like plagues on the Egyptians and the parting of the Red Sea for their escape. There are six special foods that are eaten in a certain order as part of the ritual meal that aid in the telling of the story: two types of bitter herbs (romaine lettuce or horseradish), charoset (a sweet apple jam), karpas (celery), a meat shankbone or chicken wing, a hard-boiled egg and matzah (unleavened bread). There is also a bowl of salt water used for dipping for part of the story.

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This particular family that we celebrated with are Persian Jews, with roots in Iran, and their culture has a fun and silly tradition of beating each other with long green onions at a certain point in the story, during the singing of the popular Passover song “Dayenu.” According to David, our friend’s father-in-law and our host for the evening (and the man in the video below), this is both to symbolize the whips of slavery and also to celebrate freedom, because the children, who are always required to treat their elders with respect, are allowed to joyfully beat them with spring onions this one time all year. Their family has many small children, and because of their young age, I’m not sure they got everything out of the seder story that they were supposed to. However, they REALLY liked the part where they get to beat grandpa with an onion! It was hilarious!

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Passover brings a whole new meaning to the concept of spring cleaning. Did you know that, before Passover, Jews have to completely clean their houses to get rid of every single speck of “chametz,” or flour and leaven, in the house? Kosher laws prohibit having any leaven in the house during Passover. Our whole neighborhood was in a cleaning frenzy all last week. In fact, the week before Passover can be an incredibly stressful time for Jews that need to do a lot of cooking and cleaning. And even though they really are only required to get rid of the crumbs in the house, many Jews use this time to clean the whole house, donate things to charity and give the whole house a good spring cleaning. Read more.

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Rodolfo and I are going to the Galilee for a day or two this week to help on an archaeological dig! I have mentioned that we attend church at a hotel in Jerusalem. They are building a similar hotel-church in the Galilee, in Migdal, or Magdala, the hometown of Mary Magdalene of the gospels. While surveying the area and digging the foundations for the hotel, they happened upon an amazing discovery: a beautifully preserved first century synagogue buried in centuries of rubble! This synagogue was, without a doubt, one of the places that Jesus taught throughout the Galilee during his life. The synagogue will be incorporated into the pilgrims’ center, which is now under construction, but there is still much work to be done in digging out the synagogue and cataloging the many coins, pottery shards and artifacts found in the rubble. Learn more about the Magdala Project, including how you can support it, here.

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All next week I will be in Bethlehem at an icon school! I will be learning how to “write,” or paint, icons at a weeklong immersion workshop at a Greek Catholic monastery. Rodolfo and I really love icons and, in fact, we collect them. We have two large ones, a Pantocrator that Rodolfo’s parents commissioned during their own pilgrimage to the Holy Land 20 years ago and gave to us as a wedding gift, and an antique feast day calendar of the month of August (our anniversary month) that we bought here in Jerusalem as our Christmas gift to one another. Also, this week we visited an art exhibition of icons done in aquarelle watercolors by a Russian iconographer named Irena Yureevna Rofa. The technique seems quite difficult; there is no white pigment and so the artist has to work with the white of the paper to get white shades in the artwork. The technique I will be learning is more traditional, with natural pigments and egg tempura on wood. Learn more about the icon school.

Since I will be in Bethlehem next week, the Sunday Seven will return two weeks from now. Have a wonderful week and Happy Easter!

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Filed under Catholic Life, Charities, Culture Shock, Holidays, Holy Sepulchre, Quick Takes, Walking Where Jesus Walked

The Sunday Seven: Episode 14

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Happy Palm Sunday! Today, Rodolfo and I went on a walking pilgrimage from the far side of the Mount of Olives into the Old City along the path on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, waving palm branches and singing Hosannah.

The weather was beautiful and there were thousands upon thousands of Christian pilgrims from all over the world walking with us. There were even Palestinian Christians visiting from many far-flung sequestered parts of the West Bank. They had been given special permission to visit just for the day. Many of these Christians had not been allowed to enter Jerusalem for more than ten years. We are so excited to be celebrating Holy Week in the Holy Land this year! This is a lifelong dream for us! Please send us your prayer requests and petitions and we’ll be praying for you!

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Also, Happy April Fools Day! I tried this trick of sewing a banana to pre-slice it (without peeling it) and gave it to Rodolfo. He eats a banana pretty much every morning, but this morning he decided not to and took it with him to work instead to eat later. And apparently, he had already seen this trick somewhere before and just thought I was being super nice for going to the trouble of pre-slicing his banana for him! So not much of an April Fools trick, but I still got some wife points and it was still fun! If you try it, I suggest using a double thread. On some slices, I tried using single thread to save time, and it started slicing the peel around the pilot hole instead.

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In terms of holidays on the Jewish side of things, later this week begins the holiday of Pesach, or Passover, a celebration of the time that God saved the Israelite slaves in Egypt. As it tells in the book of Exodus, God sent ten plagues to the people of Egypt, and the final one was a visit from the Angel of Death for every firstborn unless very specific rules were followed regarding sacrificing a lamb and marking the doorjamb with its blood. Of course, only the Jews completed this action, and as a result, all the firstborn Egyptian children died. The pharaoh’s son was among those who died, and this so moved pharaoh that he decided to let the Israelite slaves go free.

You may remember this scene from the 1998 Dreamworks film The Prince of Egypt. It is, of course, an animated and artistic interpretation, but it tells the story rather well.

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Also this week, Rodolfo and I were incredibly blessed to be allowed to tag along with a group of girls visiting the Holy Land from the Overbrook Academy for girls in Rhode Island. Most of the girls are from Latin America and are spending a year in the U.S. at this prestigious Catholic school to learn English. We went with the girls on a very special nighttime visit to the Church of All Nations in Gethsemane. We had the whole church to ourselves for a Holy Hour of Adoration, a special hour of silence and prayer that Catholics often observe in response to Jesus’ words in this exact spot on the night of his betrayal: “Could you not watch one hour with me?” (Matthew 26:40). Then we were permitted to walk in the actual olive grove, which is kept fenced off to most visitors to protect the ancient trees, which are at least a millennium old and are quite likely trees from the exact same roots that once heard the voice of Jesus. It was so amazing; so peaceful and quiet. In the dark, you could almost see Jesus crying and praying and sweating blood on that night two thousand years ago. It was a night we will never forget.

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During the Holy Hour at Gethsemane, the girls’ group sang this beautiful hymn called Father, I Have Sinned by Fr. Dan Schutte, S.J., a Jesuit. I had never heard this song before, but I am familiar with Fr. Dan Schutte’s work. He is the composer of one of my favorite hymns, Here I Am, Lord. (Listen here.) This song it was so beautiful, especially sung by these sweet young ladies with their beautiful accents. Since everyone is weighing in this week on the best songs to listen to during Lent and Holy Week (see here and here for some suggestions), I am throwing my two cents in. Here is a beautiful rendition. Enjoy! (And remember that, according to St. Augustine, those who sing pray twice!)

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You may have seen this story about what has become the grassroots Israel Loves Iran campaign. In response to the heart-chilling murmurings about the possibility of Israel bombing Iran soon, Ronny Edry, a Tel Aviv-based graphic designer, together with his wife and daughter, launched a Facebook campaign featuring posters with their photos and the slogan: “IRANIANS: We will never bomb your country. We ♥ you.” Within hours, hundreds of people both in Iran and Israel were lobbing messages back and forth on Facebook, posting copycat posters and basically engaging in a love-fest that crossed borders, ideologies, religious lines, and what are assumed to be insurmountable cultural differences.

I nearly cried when I first saw this. Although this man and his beautiful daughter, so young and so serious, are actually in no position to promise this beautiful message of peace, it shows you that not everyone wants war. It is more of a message that if it happens, it’s not because all of Israel wants it or because all of “us” hate all of “you.” It is a message that not everyone fits into the categories drawn of them by the media, by society, by the world as a whole.

Also, there are two really interesting threads binding these messages that I find absolutely fascinating. The first is that these messages were shared on Facebook, one of the only ways a person in Israel could ever hope to connect to a person in Iran. It is impossible to send mail to Iran (and a number of other Middle Eastern countries) from Israel, and vice versa. It is impossible to call Iran from an Israeli phone, and vice versa. It is impossible for an Israeli to ever visit Iran, and vice versa. And yet, this message was able to reach potentially all of Iran (or at least all of the Persians on Facebook) because of social media. Also, I find it fascinating that all the messages are being transmitted in English, the new world lingua franca. It’s really the only way for a Hebrew-speaking Israeli populace to send a message of peace to a Farsi-speaking Iran, and vice versa.

We must keep praying for peace in the Middle East and for the safety and unity of all God’s children throughout the world. It may never happen. But when you see something like this, it kind of brings back your faith in the possibility of peace in the Middle East. In fact, it sort of brings back your faith in humankind, doesn’t it?

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On the subject of “Shabbat,” the Jewish Sabbath, and what is actually involved in being a Shabbat-observant Jew, here is a really interesting article about the implications of being an observant Jew serving in the Army and having to work as a soldier on the Day of Rest. There are a number of loopholes in observing the Sabbath, and one of them is that the Sabbath may (and, in fact, should) be broken in order to preserve life and safety. Though driving is off limits, you are permitted to drive, say, to take your pregnant laboring wife to the hospital. Though all machines are off limits, you are permitted to use your phone to call an ambulance or police in a real emergency. But this “emergency” loophole apparently puts a lot of stress on observant soldiers, who must in turn weigh every single potential action as to whether it is necessary enough or enough of an “emergency”to justify breaking the Sabbath or not. (And since nearly every single 18-year-old Israeli is drafted to a few years of service in the Israeli Defense Forces, this is a real issue here.) So the Zomet Institute, a nonprofit organization that consists of inventors, scientists and Torah scholars working together, has developed a special “Shabbat-kosher” computer keyboard that operates on an “indirect action” loophole (the same loophole that allows observant Jews to use timers to turn their lights on and off at predetermined hours during the Sabbath, when light switches are off limits). If a piece of the keyboard is moved (apparently a small enough motion that it doesn’t break Shabbat), the movement is registered several seconds later when a pulse cycles through the keyboard looking for changes. Also, judging from the photo in the article, the keyboard appears to be made of some sort of cloth, which I guess disqualifies it as an actual machine. (As you can see, I’m a little fuzzy on the details of why this is kosher when it’s, in essence, the same thing, but it’s still fascinating.) I have heard of other projects from this same foundation; for instance, a motorized scooter for the elderly and infirm that runs on similar loopholes and allows these people to maintain their mobility while still keeping the Sabbath. Sounds like a win to me. Read the article about the Shabbat-kosher keyboard. Learn more about Shabbat, and what Christians can learn from the Jewish day of rest, in this piece I wrote for

Have a wonderful week!

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Filed under Catholic Life, Creativity, Holidays, Music, Quick Takes, Walking Where Jesus Walked

The Sunday Seven: Episode 13

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I think I have mentioned that we live right in front of a stop of the Jerusalem Light Rail. We can see the tracks from our window. Here is a picture of the tracks on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.

Yep, since the train doesn’t run on the Day of Rest, people park their cars on the tracks! Also, kids play soccer on the tracks, people walk on the tracks, and some non-observant people who drive on Saturdays actually drive on the tracks!

On a related topic, I wrote another post for this week about what Christians can learn from Shabbat-observant Jews. It’s called “I’m Bringing Sabbath Back.” Read the post.

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Also, if you missed it this week, I created a video with some of the best moments from the Purim festival we attended last weekend. Watch closely and you’ll see one of the lovely ladies from Wordless Wednesday nearly take a tumble from her stilts!

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This week’s recipe comes from the new cookbook I mentioned last week: the The New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden. This is our first time trying a recipe from the book and it was amazing! It’s Sheikh el Mahshi Banadoura, or Tomatoes Stuffed with Ground Meat, Raisins and Pine Nuts, from page 319.

1. Chop the onion, the raisins and the parsley. Cut a circle around the stalk end of the tomatoes and cut out a cap from each.

2. Remove the seeds and pulp* with a small spoon.
(*Save the tomato guts in a jar in the refrigerator, because we’re going to use them in next week’s recipe!)

3. Fry the chopped onion in oil until golden. Add the meat, salt and pepper. Stir and mash the meat until it turns gray, then brown.

4. Stir in the raisins (or currants) and the pine nuts (or walnuts), and add cinnamon, allspice, and chopped parsley.

5. Fill the tomatoes with this mixture and cover with their tops. Put them close to each other in an oven-safe dish.

6. Bake in a preheated 350° F oven for about 30 minutes, or until the tomatoes are soft, being careful that they do not fall apart. Serve hot. Serves 4-8. Enjoy!

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A Spanish priest that I sometimes tutor in English has lent me a book by Archbishop Fulton Sheen called The Eternal Galilean. Archbishop Sheen, a religious leader with a refreshingly modern take on the Catholic faith, who was in the public eye as a radio and television personality in the 60s and 70s, is now a Servant of God, which is the first stop on the road to sainthood. The book is beautiful; it tells the story of the life of Christ in a series of essays talking about different aspects of his life: “The Artisan of Nazareth,” “The Light of the World, “The Cross and the Crucifix,” “Eternal Life.” View the book on Amazon. I’m only about halfway through it, but I’m really enjoying it so far. It’s a pretty easy read, with a lot of good things to think about, and the essays are just the right length to sit and read in one sitting. Here’s an interesting bit to ponder, from Chapter V, “The Way, The Truth and The Life:”

“There is a general tendency in our day to frown upon those who believe that Our Blessed Lord is different from other religious leaders and reformers. It is even considered a work of intelligence to rank Him along with the founders of world religions. Hence it is not uncommon to hear one who prides himself on his broad-mindedness — which gives offense to no religion, and a defense of none — fling out a phrase in which Buddha, Confucius, Lao-tsze, Socrates and Christ are all mentioned in one and the same breath; as if Our Lord were just another religious teacher instead of religion itself…Take any of them, Buddha, Confucius, Lao-tsze, Socrates, Mohammed — it makes no difference which… They all said: ‘I will point out the way’; but Our Lord said ‘I am the Way.’”

Our house is filling up with books lent to us by the various Legionaries of Christ that work at our church. I volunteer with a lot of projects there, and this is one of the ways they thank me: by lending us books. Also, our church has a very cool exhibition on the Shroud of Turin, and Rodolfo has taken a very particular interest in the exhibition. One of the fathers encouraged this interest by lending Rodolfo four books on the Shroud’s history in German and Italian (two languages Rodolfo speaks fairly, but not fluently). Another good one, which Rodolfo is working through this Lent, is called The Better Part, by Father John Bartunek, also a Legionary. View the book on Amazon. The priests at our church here are all very intelligent, very well-read, and very international. They each speak several languages and come from all over the world. I think it’s very nice of them to lend us all these books; it’s kind of like they’re inviting us to be a part of their circle, to learn the things they know. But we have a lot of homework and a lot of reading to do!

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Some readers out there will be very excited to hear that we have decided to embark on the Jesus Trail journey this coming weekend! We will be walking from Nazareth to Magdala, around 40 km or 25 miles, in three days with a group of friends from our church, including the priest featured in the video from last time. So it’s not quite the whole thing, but a very good introductory pass. Please pray for us!

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Apparently, spring has sprung in the Holy Land (even though it got cold again after last week’s glorious weather). The way that you can tell that spring has returned, apparently, is because the swifts, large birds with split tails similar to barn swallows, have returned in a large migration from their winter home in Africa. And they have made their nesting home, as they do every year, in between the stones of the Western Wall!  Read an article about this phenomenon.

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I wrote this to all of you in my first post on this blog: “This is my love letter, my epistle, my open book for all of you. I am your eyes, your ears, your nose, your mouth, and your hands and feet on the ground in the Holy Land. Tell me what you want to see, to feel, to hear, to taste, to touch, and to learn, and I will bring it to you here.” So now it’s your turn! Please tell me in the comments or by email what you would like to see, hear or learn more about in the Holy Land and I will try my best to find it for you!

Have a wonderful week!


Filed under Catholic Life, Culture Shock, Holidays, Playing Tourist, Quick Takes, Walking Where Jesus Walked, What's Cookin'?

More Purim Fun (Video)

High stilts, high spirits and high “simcha” (joy and celebration) rule the streets of the Ben Yehuda district in Jerusalem at Purim! Unicorns, wood sprites, elephants and zebras, oh my! See the lovely ten-feet-tall ladies from Wordless Wednesday in living color– and watch one of them nearly take a tumble! Enjoy the beautiful chaos of this happy holiday!

The song is a traditional Purim song: “Mishe Nichnas Adar.” The lyrics literally mean, “In the month of Adar, our joy increases.” (Adar is the Jewish month in which Purim occurs.)

Purim Sameach! Happy Purim from Jerusalem!


Filed under Culture Shock, Holidays

Wordless Wednesday: Ten Feet Tall

(See these ladies in action and more Purim fun in the video!)


Filed under Holidays, Wordless Wednesdays

The Sunday Seven: Episode 12

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People who live in Texas have a saying about the capriciousness of the weather there: “If you don’t like the weather in Texas, just wait a minute.” These people have never been to Jerusalem. This week I was astounded to see that in the space of less than a week, we literally went from snow to absolutely gorgeous, mid-70s, open-all-the-windows-and-put-on-your-capri-pants weather. So I guess the saying around here should be: “If you don’t like the weather in Jerusalem, just wait a second.” I only hope it lasts!

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Earlier this week, Rodolfo and I went to Bethlehem for an afternoon. It’s actually very close to where we live, and so we tried taking an Arab bus that you can catch in East Jerusalem, which was surprisingly easy. It’s one of my favorite places in the area. In Bethlehem, it’s always Christmas! It’s already March, but we saw Polish pilgrims in the grotto singing “Silent Night” and Americans having Mass in the Catholic side singing “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

The church in Bethlehem is also the oldest continuously operating church in the world, parts of which date back to 327 AD. Here we are standing in the front doorway, known as the Door of Humility, because you have to stoop to enter through it. This part of the door dates to the Ottoman era, and is nestled inside a former gothic-arch shaped door from the Crusader era, which is in turn nestled inside a much larger Byzantine-era doorway. The doors were made progressively smaller to prevent mounted horsemen from entering and to make it harder to loot the church. (A more complete view of the concentric doors can be seen in this photo on Wikipedia.)

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Also this week in Jerusalem, we celebrated a Jewish festival known as Purim, which celebrates the story of Esther from the Bible. The king of Persia, Ahasuerus, took the most beautiful woman in the land, Esther, to be his wife, not knowing that she was a Jew. Then the king’s advisor, Haman, hatched a plot to kill the Jews, because they refused to bow to him. The Jews of Persia were saved from certain destruction when the queen bravely approached the king, confessed to her heritage and begged the case for her people. Outraged on her behalf, the king demanded the advisor be killed instead.

The Purim celebration begins with a reading of this story, and when the name of Haman is mentioned, everyone makes so much noise that the name can’t be heard. They blow whistles, shake rattles and noisemakers, and stomp their feet. (Some even write Haman’s name on the bottoms of their shoes and stomp their feet until the name is gone!)

Jews celebrate this day by dressing in costume to honor of the fact that the way that God works is often hidden from our sight. Women wear crowns and tiaras in honor of the brave Queen Esther and children dress in costumes to rival American Halloween. It’s also a bit of a celebration to herald the start of spring; in the city center, there were street performers dressed as flowers and wood sprites, as well as people on stilts, puppet shows and face painting. We even got into the spirit with Venetian Carnival masks! If you want to have some Purim fun at home, try making a mask like in this project from Mark Montano.

There is a traditional song for Purim that sums the story up quite nicely. You can listen to the English version on Sing Up. Be sure to read the lyrics! It’s an anglicization of the Hebrew song, so some of the rhymes are a little silly, but it gives a very good picture of the Hebrew song and the story behind the holiday. The “Let’s hear the rattles: Rash, rash, rash!” is a reference to the reading of the story when everyone makes noise at the mention of Haman’s name. Learn more about Purim, including why it’s celebrated on different days in the U.S. and Jerusalem, at Wikipedia.

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One of our Jewish friends in Jerusalem told us soon after arriving that nearly every Jewish holiday can be summed up with this sentiment: “Someone tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!” No Jewish holiday is complete without an accompanying traditional food. Here we present the typical Purim food, a sweet triangular pastry filled with fruit, poppyseed or chocolate filling, known as Hamantashen, Haman’s pockets or Haman’s ears, named after the villain of the Purim story. To learn more about these delicious cookies, visit Wikipedia, or try making some yourself with these recipes from Martha Stewart.

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This week I bought a copy of The New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden from a used bookstore in Jerusalem. It looks like a great cookbook! There unfortunately isn’t much in the way of Israeli food in the book, because Roden also wrote a cookbook called The Book of Jewish Food that probably covers this base. But the book contains a variety of delicious looking recipes from Morocco, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Many of the spices and tastes are similar to the cuisine of Palestine and Israel, and we’re looking forward to trying them. We will attempt our first recipe from the book this week! But rest assured, the recipe we try will not be the one on page 107, for Mokh Makly… Fried Breaded Brains. (According to the book, lamb and cow brains are considered a great delicacy in the Middle East, and in some areas, eating brains is believed to make you smarter.) View the cookbook on Amazon.

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In preparing for the recipe we’re going to make from the new cookbook this week, I went to the Shuk Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem’s open-air market, to buy some ground allspice, a strongly piquant savory spice somewhere between cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. When I arrived to the place where we usually buy spices, the English-speaking owner wasn’t there, but two of his younger relatives were. I asked the young man at the counter if they had allspice and I quickly regretted not looking up the word in Hebrew beforehand when I realized the young man spoke very limited English. Allspice, allspice, he muttered, then went and found a girl who works there who speaks a little more English. “Hebrew-hebrew-hebrew allspice?” he asked her. “Old Spice?” the girl repeated incredulously. “This is a food store,” she said to me. “You know that Old Spice is a deodorant, not a food?” she asked me. Yes, thank you, I know…

Finally someone in the shop rescued me from my misery by using a smartphone with a Hebrew-English dictionary to look up the meaning of allspice in Hebrew. Apparently the name in Hebrew is פלפל אנגלי, or pelpel angli, which literally means “English pepper.” I thought this was a little strange, since I knew the spice definitely didn’t come from England, but when I got home and started to talk to Rodolfo about the spice, I realized that in Spanish the spice is known as, literally, “Jamaican pepper.” Jamaican, English… yeah, that’s kind of the same. But they’re both wrong. Apparently the spice is native to southern Mexico and Central America. Learn more about allspice on Wikipedia.

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Catholic news service Zenit had a very interesting interview this week with an American Jew who came to Israel at the age of 15, befriended a Russian Orthodox abbess, and ended up converting to the Catholic faith. What’s more… he is now a priest! He serves as the patriarchal vicar of Hebrew Catholics living in the Holy Land. Read the article on Zenit.

If there are any Simcha Fisher fans out there, you know that she is an American Hebrew Catholic. Learn more about that here. If you’ve never heard of Simcha Fisher, you should get to know her on her blog, I Have to Sit Down.

Have a wonderful week!


Filed under Culture Shock, Holidays, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Playing Tourist, Quick Takes, Shopping at the Shuk, What's Cookin'?

Ash Wednesday: Close Enough to See the Cross Necklace

I have some exciting news! I’ve been added to the team as a contributor at! Today marks my debut post, about Ash Wednesday and Catholic life in the Holy Land. You can read the post below, or find it in its original location here.

ashwedMy name is Jessa, and I live in the city where Jesus died. It’s also the city where Jesus rose from the dead, and every day hundreds of pilgrims travel long distances from all over the world to visit the site where this happened, and to contemplate this grand and beautiful mystery of our faith. For me, it’s just a twenty-minute light rail ride to the Old City of Jerusalem.

And today, Ash Wednesday, Catholics all over the world begin our forty-day journey to Easter, the day we celebrate this mystery. Also, today is possibly the only day anyone in this country will know for sure that I’m Catholic.

When my husband and I first arrived in Jerusalem a few months ago, our landlord, a well-meaning secular Jew (that is, a person who identifies as Jewish through family history but is non-practicing), gave us a tour of the surrounding neighborhood and lauded its many qualities. “It’s a good neighborhood,” he said. “It’s full of secular people like you and me.”

I’m not at all what I would consider a secular person. Every week I have to clean the tops of my shoes after wearing them to kneel in church. I pray before meals, and in fact, many of my days are a long string of prayers to a God I consider a close friend. With my Protestant background, I can quote a relevant scripture whenever it’s called for. Every morning, I take my temperature instead of the pill. My husband and I recently renewed our wedding vows for the fourth time in three years of marriage because we have this faith-nerd habit of attending marriage retreats on a regular basis. And last month, we spent an imprudent percentage of our disposable income on a beautiful nineteenth century icon with numerous saints and a tiny tableau of the Transfiguration on it. And I was as giddy as I would be if I had purchased a pair of really cool shoes instead. (Better, in fact, because I don’t have to clean the top of the icon after kneeling.)

No, I’m not a secular person.

But I live in a city where most people can be matched to their religious affiliation from a distance of 100 yards or more. Most people, but not me.

Jerusalem sits right on top of an invisible border between two countries, or a country within a country. It is a two-mans land, or no-mans land, however you’d like to see it. The change from one country to another is almost imperceptible, but in the space of a few short blocks, you look up and all the Hebrew has been replaced with Arabic, all the sheitels have been replaced with hijabs… and you’re in Palestine.

Wait, what’s a sheitel, you ask? What’s a hijab? Certain types of faithful in Jerusalem dress in certain ways. Observant Jewish women must  wear skirts, pantyhose, and shirts that reach at least to their elbows and collarbones. Married women cover their hair, either with a hat or scarf or a special wig called a sheitel. There are also ultra-Orthodox haredi Jews who never wear colors, are almost always dressed in black and white, and always have a distinctive business-attire look about them. In contrast, the way that Muslim women dress varies greatly on their country of origin, their status in life and their age. Some wear body-skimming floor-length coats that hide everything, while others consider long pants and long sleeves modest enough. But almost all grown women have one thing in common: the iconic head-and-neck covering, called a hijab.

But what about Christians? Can you identify a Christian as soon as you see one? Sure, a habited nun or a white-collared priest or a Franciscan in his distinctive brown robe can be spotted from far away. But what about the rest of us, the lay people (or the consecrated people without distinctive clothing)? A crucifix here, or a saint’s medal there. Here in Jerusalem, many Christians wear a beautiful distinctive cross with arms of equal length and four small crosses in the angles: The Jerusalem Cross. These small outward signs are beautiful, but they can only go so far. However, we might have something better.

The Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) and Jewish sacred teachings in the Talmud, and the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, contain various laws for looking and behaving a certain way. But as Christians, we believe that “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor 3:17). As Christian women, we are free to dress as we like (though many of us choose to dress modestly in order to honor and respect our gender and ourselves). We are free to leave our hair uncovered (with the exception of women in some Orthodox Christian denominations, and even some Catholics who choose to cover their heads in church). But, to the outside world, including my landlord, our freedom might leave us looking, at first glance, just like all the “secular people,” who have a different kind of freedom. While the Muslim and Jewish holy books will tell you to keep your arms covered, ours instead tells us how to act toward one another. In fact, Jesus says in the Gospel according to St. John, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). We are not meant to be seen from a long way away. We are meant to interact, to mingle, to get close enough to love.

In fact, perhaps one of the things so politically dividing Jerusalem today is the fact that you can place any given person into their group before even talking to them. As a result, most people only stick with people from their own group. We Christians are the free agents.

Here in Jerusalem, people see me from a distance and immediately identify me with the group I most look like: the secular Jews. But all over the world, we Christians face the same challenge: to stand out from the secular world with the love we show for others. To get close enough to others to live by example. To get close enough to show love, instead of staying far enough away to show a head covering. To be close enough for them to see the cross necklace and realize where your love comes from.

…But all the same, maybe sometimes you do just want to wear a less subtle sign that says, “I’m Catholic.”

So we give thanks for Ash Wednesday. The day that we smear the mineral residue of incinerated palm fronds on our heads as a symbol of how the death and resurrection of Christ will bring us new life. Forget the wig or the scarf. You don’t get any more “in your face” (literally) with your faith than walking around all day with a big black smudge on your head. The ashes are a choice, not a requirement. We are not required to go to church today, and if you do, you’re not required to accept the ashes. But even though it’s not a Holy Day of Obligation, it’s one of the most widely attended holy days for Catholics worldwide, and I’ve often thought that this external sign is why. When you leave church today, you are marked with a sign of your Catholic faith. People can, for once, identify you from a long way away. Do you act differently with that sign on your face? Do you think twice before an unkind word or action? Do you feel more Catholic when people know that you’re Catholic?

Maybe today, someone will ask you a question about that spot on your head and you’ll get the chance to tell our story. Maybe the ashes are the catalyst to turn a life lived in love into a life spreading the Gospel. But the rest of the year, you will be called to show your faith differently, through love alone.

The rest of the year, I may be mistaken for a secular Jew, or a Russian immigrant, or a new Israeli. The rest of the year, I may just be a kind face, or a kind word accompanied by a glimpse of a Jerusalem cross. The rest of the year, I’ll just be the only blonde girl in the Muslim Quarter, or the only girl in pants on the train.

But today, I’m the Catholic.

Watch for me.

This post originally appeared on


Filed under Catholic Life, Holidays

The Sunday Seven: Episode 8

— 1 —

Rodolfo and I went on a tour of the Western Wall excavation tunnel this week. (Read more on Wikipedia.) A definite must-see for any visitors to Jerusalem! Basically, the part of the Western Wall that is outside, where Jews come to pray, is just a very small portion of a huge retaining wall that stretches into the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, under modern structures and homes. The wall was built in the time of Herod the Great (around 19 BC) around the Temple Mount, basically, to turn a large, uneven hill into a huge flat platform. Since Jews are no longer able to visit the Temple Mount, which now holds the Dome of the Rock and is considered a Muslim holy place, they stand outside of it to pray.

One particular interesting sight on the tour is the Western Stone, one single huge stone in the wall that weighs over 200 tons and is one of the largest single blocks ever lifted by human construction.

Also, every stone in the wall has a beautifully carved beveled border. You can see these on the exposed part of the wall where people pray, but it is particularly easy to see in the newly excavated part.

Also interesting is that there is a part of the wall that is actually bedrock that has been carved to look like these huge bricks. Very interesting, and a feat of ancient engineering!


— 2 —

After the Western Wall tunnels, we took a little time to explore the City of David in nearby East Jerusalem. This is basically an archeological park that contains excavations of a settlement believed to date to the time of the biblical King David. You can still see the individual rooms of the buildings.

You can also see ancient burial caves (now empty) just outside the ancient city…

And very cool views of East Jerusalem, the Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives (to the left)…


— 3 —

To those of you in the U.S., have a Happy Valentine’s Day this week! The Israeli equivalent of Valentine’s Day, called Tu B’Av,  is usually celebrated around the month of August (on August 3 this year), so Valentine’s Day is not widely celebrated here, and we’ll probably be the only dorks in the whole country acting lovey dovey this Tuesday. The rest of the country will wait until Tu B’Av, a minor Jewish holiday that was once important for matchmaking and is now a popular day for weddings, proposals and romantic evenings out in Israel. In countries with western Valentine’s Day, however, Tu B’Av is not widely celebrated, even by Jews. But is it permitted or recommended for Jews in other countries to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day, even though it is so obviously not a Jewish holiday and even has arguably Christian and/or pagan roots? Generally, it is, because both holidays, for both Christians and Jews, are more cultural than religious. Read one Pennsylvania Rabbi’s take on it here.


— 4 —

This week Rodolfo and I attended a meeting at our church, fly-on-the-wall style, in which a group of British pilgrims met with a few local Palestinian Christians to ask them about what their lives are like here. A few of the Christians are new friends of mine from the ladies’ group I’ve been attending. They talked of extremely long waits at checkpoints to visit family less than 15 miles away in another city, how East Jerusalem is essentially a no-man’s land, and how they are often forced to act as a buffer between clashing Jew and Muslim interests. One thing that I found particularly interesting was one young lady’s take on the possibility of the implementation of the Two-State Solution in the Holy Land. The problem is that Christians comprise less than 2 percent of the population of either Palestine or Israel, and often find themselves caught between the two groups in conflict. While their Arab roots, shared language and shared culture often lead them to be grouped with the Muslim Palestinians, they greatly respect their Jewish neighbors as their ancestors in faith (with a shared belief in the Old Testament) and for their common emphasis on education. They also garner certain much-needed resources regarding health, education, jobs and infrastructure from the Israeli side. If the Two-State Solution were to be implemented, it would most likely result in Palestine becoming a Muslim republic completely cut off from Israel. The Arab Christians would be trapped inside and possibly stripped of any remaining rights they have to freedom of religion and expression. This girl said she would rather live, as now, with each foot in a different world than to be forced onto a side that doesn’t really want her and might persecute her people. She also said it would most likely be the death knell for the Mother Church (as the Christians of the Holy Land call themselves) as they would escape persecution by dispersing to other countries, as many have done in the past few decades, leaving behind their homeland and leaving no Christians in the homeland of Christ.


— 5 —

This week’s recipe is a Jessa and Rodolfo original! Dice one cucumber, one apple and one tomato. Combine with one can of tuna, a generous handful of dried cranberries, and three large spoonfuls of tahini. Sprinkle pepper on top and mix well. Stuff in a warmed pita pocket half. Simple and delicious! This will also be a good recipe in summer when you don’t want to turn on the oven!



— 6 —

Also this week we ate an American Jewish favorite that has come back to Israel with the people: bagels and lox (smoked salmon)! We had it from a place called Holy Bagel in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. Delicious!


— 7 —

For a quick and interesting look into the widely varying types of people and places in this one small country, visit photographer Maja Daniels’ Israel. Interesting juxtapositions.

Have a wonderful week!


Filed under Holidays, Playing Tourist, Quick Takes, What's Cookin'?

The Sunday Seven: Episode 2

— 1 —

Happy New Year! Here’s hoping that 2012 brings joy and blessings to you and yours!

New Years in Israel actually doesn’t fall on January 1st. In accordance with the Jewish calendar, the new year here falls on Rosh Hashanah, which occurs in the fall (usually September). Today is just another day to most Israelis. So we had to go find some more foreigners to celebrate with… at our church! Our church here is actually a hotel for pilgrims and the only other parishioners are various other expats such as ourselves. So we went to an 11 p.m. Mass that ended at (approximately) midnight and afterwards toasted the new year with some new friends from Spain, Mexico, France, Ireland and Germany.

— 2 —

Officiating at the mass was the Apostolic Nuncio to Israel, the Most Rev. Antonio Franco. As if it wasn’t confusing enough that the archbishop of Jerusalem is actually known as the Patriarch, there is also this guy, who is at the most technical level a diplomat but also serves in certain capacities that make him similar to a bishop. He is essentially the ambassador for the State of the Vatican City (the smallest country in the world) to the State of Israel. But when our church-hotel prays for “Our Pope, Benedict, and our bishop…” this is the guy they name. And since every bishop has to have an official “seat,” our hotel-church is actually his church, though he’s almost never there. Very interesting. Concerning Msgr. Franco himself, he was remarkably spry for a 74-year-old, and even sipped a little champagne for the toast.

— 3 —

Before Mass, we went to have a delicious meal at an Italian restaurant downtown called Cielo. The food was amazing; and equally amazing was that it was non-kosher; our first non-kosher meal in nearly two months! This means we were able to enjoy such delicacies as scallops (shellfish are not kosher) and prosciutto (pork, also non-kosher). And you should have seen the plate Rodolfo ordered. It was called a Steak San Marco, also known as the Jewish version of the Seven Deadly Sins. It was a steak stuffed with salami (real salami, i.e. pork salami instead of local delicacy beef salami) with a layer of cheese on top. This breaks two kosher rules, both the one against pork and the one against mixing meat and dairy, a distinction which we were only aware of being held by one other food on earth: The Wendy’s Baconator… It was amazingly delicious. Because, yummy as it is, one can only eat so much falafel…

— 4 —

This evening we went to the best kept secret in the old city, the Austrian Hospice. It’s a forbidding-looking building with locked doors, but all you have to do is ring the bells and they’ll let you in for the most delicious apfelstrudel east of Vienna and a breathtaking rooftop view of the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I will return soon in the daylight with the good camera to share this magnificent view with you.

— 5 —

We also went and saw Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows at a local movie theatre, which is also apparently a well-kept secret. You walk through a high gate topped with spikes into what appears to be an abandoned parking lot, approach the large, hostile-looking glass building and suddenly find yourself inside a movie theatre with cheery Disney characters plastered all over the walls. The girl accidentally sold us four tickets instead of two, and we freaked out at the exorbitantly high price of the movie before realizing the mistake. It was still expensive, about the price of a 3-D movie in the U.S. for a 2-D film, but it was a cool movie so it was worth it.

— 6 —

Earlier this week we were invited to a Chanukah party with Rodolfo’s coworkers. Another fun insight into the holiday; we ate latkes and watched as no fewer than seven hanukkiah menorahs were lit by the kids. Then we got to play dreidel with the kids…

And here I am, with a giant dreidel, wearing a candle crown on my head…

The cool thing about this large cardboard dreidel, and every other dreidel made in Israel, is that it has a letter pei (פ) instead of a letter shin (ש). The letters on a dreidel (everywhere but Israel) are an acrostic for “A great miracle happened there,” in Hebrew: “Nes Gadol Haya Sham.” In Israel, the “there” changes to “here,” so that the letters actually mean “A great miracle happened HERE:” Nes Gadol Haya Po.” This corresponds to the fact that the “great miracle” of Chanukah, the lamp burning for eight nights with only enough oil for one night, actually happened here, in Israel. Learn more about the dreidel on Wikipedia.

— 7 —

On the last night of Chanukah, we went to a neighborhood in town called Nachlaot to walk around and look at the Chanukah lights, a Jerusalem version of my family’s Christmas tradition of driving around to look at Christmas lights and decorated houses, or a stroll down 37th Street in Austin. Not quite as glitzy, but Jewish tradition dictates that a family’s menorah has to be placed in a window for all to see (unless that would bring danger to the home). We counted over 120 before losing count.

Then we went and watched the official hanukkiah lighting ceremony at Jaffa Gate in the Old City. A rabbi rides a cherry picker to the top, where he says the prayers over a loudspeaker and lights the hanukkiah! Very cool! As the holiday season draws to a close, we wish you and yours much happiness and joy in 2012!


Filed under Catholic Life, Eating Kosher (or not), Holidays, Playing Tourist, Quick Takes

Joyful and Triumphant: Christmas in Bethlehem

“O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant
O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem
Come and behold him, born the king of angels
O come let us adore him, o come let us adore him,
O come let us adore him: Christ the Lord.”
–Christmas carol

Christmas in Bethlehem was not at all like I imagined it. We stood in the freezing rain for hours; my canvas shoes were so soaked that my feet squished when I walked. And yet, we were happy…

Because we were among the faithful who came, joyful and triumphant, to Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of our savior.

Rewind to about a week before Christmas. We were crestfallen to learn that our application for tickets to the midnight mass at the Church of St. Catherine (the Catholic next-door neighbor of the much-storied Greek Orthodox Basilica of the Nativity) had been denied by the Pilgrims Office. Nothing personal; it’s just that thousands and thousands of pilgrims from all over the world come to visit the Holy Land at Christmas, and there is only room for around two thousand (or slightly fewer) pilgrims in the midnight mass.

But, through my volunteer work at the office of the Most Rev. Fouad Twal, the Latin Patriarch (who is like the archbishop of Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Cyprus), we had been blessed with a very important friend; a Jordanian priest, a wonderful man with a gentle, unassuming manner that stands in stark contrast to his imposing physique, and the ability to pull strings for us. When we received the tickets from him, tucked in a lovely Christmas card with “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” written in Latin and Arabic on the front, the serial numbers were in the low two hundreds, out of nearly two thousand tickets.

We arrived by bus late in the afternoon of Christmas Eve, and as night fell, the weather changed from quaintly chilly to a freezing deluge. There had apparently been no contingency plan for rain, because the weather put a serious damper on the party in Manger Square. The lights and then the sound amplification of the grandstand were shut down, until finally the performers gave up and the show was over. But luckily the huge Christmas tree in the square remained lit…

So we spent several hours in the square, wandering the streets, ducking into shops and listening to the impromptu music of streetside coffee merchants clicking their metal cups together in rhythm like castanets. When it was finally 9 p.m., the doors-open time promised on the tickets, we gathered outside the church in the freezing downpour with hundreds of other pilgrims, to no avail. Our tickets were finally checked, and we were ushered into the courtyard, where we then stood for more than an hour under the raining open sky until we, and everyone else, were completely soaked. We sang Christmas carols to pass the time, and the German, Swedish, French and American families huddled around us each sang in their own language.

When they finally allowed us inside, we were wet and freezing, and the mass was standing room only. But it was beautiful.

Around 11:15pm there was an office of readings, and then at promptly two minutes to midnight, Palestinean President Mahmoud Abbas arrived, with much fanfare. At midnight the blaring sound of the organ signified the start of Mass.

The entire Mass was in Latin, but luckily, upon entering, we had been given books to follow along to. It was amazing to hear that the traditional prayers, which are said at every midnight Christmas mass and contain phrases like “there in Bethlehem,” “in that place,” and “there, where Jesus Christ was born,” had all been changed. “HERE in Bethlehem. “In THIS place.” “HERE, where Jesus Christ was born.”

During the Homily, the Patriarch collectively greeted several of the pilgrims in their own languages: Arabic, Italian, English, French, Spanish, German. The message he delivered in Arabic spoke of the Prince of Peace; may He bring peace to a hurting world and this wounded land. The prayers of the faithful were offered in Latin, Arabic, Italian, English, French, German, Spanish and Hebrew.

But then, when we began to sing “Silent Night” during Communion, in spite of having the Latin words available in the book, each pilgrim sang it in their own language. The words were all mixed together, in a single, unintelligible human sound, a song of hope and worship rising to the rafters and to the heavens above. It was chillingly beautiful and I will never forget it.

At the end of the Mass, they take a little wooden baby, like the kind you see in centuries-old Latin American churches, and lay it in the manger in the grotto in honor of the Christ child’s birth. Here is the patriarch as he processes out with the baby.

When the mass was ended, we waited in the dank and drafty Greek Orthodox basilica, where the actual Grotto of the Nativity is located, for what seemed like forever before we were permitted to go and touch the star. This was it; the place where it all began, more than two millenia after it happened.

Here is a photo of us in the grotto from our 2010 pilgrimage, so you can see what it looks like. It’s an underground cave located beneath the altar in the Greek Orthodox basilica. The icons, the red rococo silks and the hanging red lamps are all typical of Greek Orthodox churches in the Holy Land. The fourteen-pointed silver star on the floor marks the place where the Christ child was laid.

We caught a shared taxi-van home, and were completely astounded to discover that one of the ladies we were sharing the taxi with was one of Rodolfo’s woodwinds teachers from the conservatory in Ecuador! As the saying in Spanish goes, “The world is just a handkerchief,” small enough to fold and hide in your pocket the way that Mary hid those beautiful secret things in her heart. (Luke 2:19)

We videochatted with our families and friends, sending Christmas wishes across thousands of miles, and finally poured ourselves into bed around 5 a.m. I don’t think there will ever be another Christmas like this one.

Sleep in heavenly peace, my friends.

Sleep in heavenly peace.


Filed under Catholic Life, Holidays, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Playing Tourist