Christmas in the Holy Land: Only Christ Can Give True Peace to the World

A scholar studying in Jerusalem reflects on war and peace.

In the left upper corner of this picture, see the tail of two rockets exploding above ‘The City of Peace’ on Oct. 7.
In the left upper corner of this picture, see the tail of two rockets exploding above ‘The City of Peace’ on Oct. 7. (photo: Courtesy of Nina Heereman)

On Aug. 31 I finally left for Jerusalem, the place that had seemed to be most appropriate for my writing project. I am staying with a French missionary congregation of sisters whose convent is just opposite the famous École Biblique et Archéologique de Jérusalem, where I did my doctorate and now spend my days reading and writing. The École was founded by the venerable Dominican Father Marie Joseph Lagrange at the end of the 19th century as a response to Pope Leo XIII's call for Catholics to engage in serious historical study of the Word of God. It is run by the fathers of the Dominican order, directly under the governance of the master of the order and attached to the Dominican convent of the Protomartyr St. Stephen. The latter derives its name from the fact that it is built on the remains of a Byzantine basilica which hosted the relics of St. Stephen until the Persians conquered Jerusalem in A.D. 614. The modern Church is a faithful replica of the ancient basilica and worth a visit next time you come to Jerusalem. It is the biggest Catholic church in Jerusalem.

The École is mainly a research institution. The only degree it grants is the doctorate in sacred Scripture and thus its student population is rather small. Almost anyone inscribed in the program is preparing to teach at a Catholic university or seminary somewhere in the world. Most of the students are priests and come literally from five continents. As the Church’s oldest exegetical research institute, it has a world-class library that is open to anyone with an institutional affiliation and who wants to do research in the field of Scripture or archeology. The Dominican fathers, moreover, are very welcoming, and thus scholars from all over the world and different backgrounds of faith come for shorter or longer periods of research and form part of the community at the École. As I had lived here for many years while working on my dissertation, it felt like coming home. I soon settled in and started working on the Book of Ruth, enjoying the blessing of being in the Holy Land and dedicating my days to studying the Word of God.

And then Oct. 7 hit. On the day of the attacks, I was blissfully unaware of what was going on. Together with a Dominican friend, I was guiding two Nashville Dominican sisters through Jerusalem. Sure, we heard and saw a good number of rockets coming from Gaza, but I in particular thought this was just “business as usual.” The rockets were more in number, but nothing substantially new, and so we considered ourselves safe since, so far, they have never hit the old city. We had no idea of the massacre that was going on just a few miles away from us. It was only in the evening that we started to realize the full scope of the horror.

Life in Jerusalem changed quickly. During the first two weeks, we often had to seek shelter in one of the typical safety rooms that every house is required to have by Israeli law. Since the École  is older than the state of Israel, our “safe space” is the souterrain corridor of the monastery. Of course, we all had to discern whether to stay or leave the country. Particularly in the early days, we were afraid the conflict might spark a major war in the Middle East. Since I had already experienced the Gaza war in 2014, I knew that if the war remained local, we would be safe in Jerusalem. The sisters in the house had lived through wars much worse than this one. Some lived through the Lebanon war while being in Beirut, others in Damascus. Their testimony was helpful to me, as I am convinced that there are no so-called “coincidences” in our lives. If we are in a state of grace, God guides our lives according to his perfect plan. I had discerned very carefully whether to spend this year in Jerusalem or elsewhere and had felt a deep conviction that Israel was the place where the Lord wanted me to be. This did not change with the outbreak of the war. I sensed a deep peace at the thought of remaining here, whereas the thought of leaving brought only a sense of panic, stress and restlessness. It was not an easy discernment. I am very aware of how easily we can mistake our selfish motives for the movements of the Holy Spirit. Yet, prayer, the counsel of the French Embassy and other experienced locals, as well as the witness of the religious with whom I live affirmed my decision to stay.

The past two months have thus been a time of extraordinary graces. I think everyone in the country has been praying much more. The first effect I observed in myself was that the Gospel comes more alive when one lives in a war zone. The worries of daily life fade into the background, and one is more focused on what is essential in life. A central concern of mine has been to guard the peace of my own heart and, if possible, seek out confession more frequently. I have been more keenly aware that only Christ can give true peace to the world and that he has entrusted this peace to us Christians. War and peace in the world are decided in the heart of the Christian. God has made his Church the channel of his peace. The Church, however, is not an abstract institution. It consists of every single one of its members, who are individually and in communion called to mediate Christ’s peace through a heart that is at peace with God and its neighbor. St. Seraphim of Sarov has famously expressed this mystery with the following words: “You find peace and 1,000 people around you will find peace.” This is also the reason why the early Church Fathers went into the desert. They knew that the true battle takes place in the heart of man. These considerations also helped me discern why there might be a difference between me staying here, versus moving to another place where I can just as well work in the library. In the end, and this brings us back to Christmas, our faith is incarnational. 

When we live our life in union with Christ, He can let His graces flow through us into the immediate geographical surroundings, not just “mystically” somewhere in the cosmos. Of course, we are just vessels of clay, but the treasure we carry is the same that Mary held in her arms 2,023 years ago in Bethlehem.

May the Lord be born in every one of our hearts and make us His channels of peace.

Nina Heereman is associate professor of sacred Scriptures at St. Patrick's Seminary and University. She is currently doing research on the Book of Ruth at the École Biblique et Archéologique in Jerusalem, where she earned her doctorate.

Edward Reginald Frampton, “The Voyage of St. Brendan,” 1908, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin.

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