Annual peace pilgrimage points to true meaning of Christmas

By Kathleen Ogle
Catholic News Service

BETHLEHEM, Pa. (CNS) — For the past four years, Emil Brisson of New Jersey has taken an Advent journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Except this Nazareth and Bethlehem are just a few miles on the other side of the Delaware River, which separates New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Unlike the towns in the Holy Land, which are divided by about 60 miles of desert, this Nazareth and Bethlehem are connected by 10 miles of paved highway.

In this journey, Brisson is accompanied by a hundred or so like-minded people who also believe in peace. For the past 47 years, people who believe in the importance of peace have been gathering at the Moravian Church in Nazareth to walk to Bethlehem.

Considered to be the longest continuous peace witness in the world, this pilgrimage is symbolic of Mary and Joseph’s journey and provides the walkers, as well as those who pass them on the highway or read about the walk, with an opportunity to think about what Christmas really means.

“It takes your focus away from the commercialism of Christmas,” said Brisson, a member of St. Philip and St. James Parish in Phillipsburg, N.J., in the Metuchen Diocese. “When you’re walking you’re not thinking about shopping.”

Advent, Brisson believes, is ideal for setting aside time to think about peace and social justice. At home, his family lights the candles on their Advent wreath before dinner each night and sings the first verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” But he generally does not find it always possible or easy to think about such issues during the day.

Brisson’s interest in social justice issues is rooted in his Catholic faith. “In my mind it’s a pretty simple thing. We’re taught that God is love and that we’re all God’s children, not just us in the United States but everybody is a child of God. That should mean something,” he told The Catholic Spirit, Metuchen’s diocesan newspaper.

“At Masses for children our pastor always asks, ‘What would Jesus do?’ I once saw a bumper sticker that said, ‘Who would Jesus bomb?’ I think Jesus would support peace activities,” Brisson said. “The first thing Jesus said to his apostles following the resurrection was ‘Peace be with you, my peace I give to you.'”

Brisson, a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War who performed alternate service for two years, acknowledged that it is easier to get involved in a peace pilgrimage or peace rally than to deal with people on a daily basis. “People who are involved with peace movements, especially religious, talk about how you have to have peace within yourself before you can go out to other people,” he said.

In his work as director of professional and residential services at Hunterdon Developmental Center, a residential facility in Clinton, N.J., for adults with developmental disabilities, he tries to get people to work together rather than just espouse a certain way of doing things.

“I think you need to talk to people and work things out,” he said. “It may take hours. You have to put up with other people who disagree with you. I guess I just think that there are good things in everybody’s way of looking at things.”

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