From the time of Solomon, more than 900 years before Christ, Jews in the land of Israel made their pilgrimage to the
three times a year. From the early centuries of the Christian Church, prayerful Christians have made their way to the sacred places where Jesus lived and died and appeared after his Resurrection, as well as to places sacred to Jewish pilgrims. Pilgrimage belongs to the heart of religion. For a believer, it is not simply a trip to a religious site. It is a journey to encounter God in the events and people of the Scriptures.
The Holy Land is where God chose to reveal himself, not in philosophical propositions, but in the lives of real people with human struggles. Jacob, shrewd and scheming, with struggles within his own family. Samson, strong in body but weak with women. David, devout and dedicated to God, yet not without sin and a divided family. Mary, the young girl of Nazareth, humble and joyful, awaiting her marriage to Joseph. And, Jesus whom some revere as prophet, but who is, as we confess and proclaim, the eternal Son of God made man.
St. Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.), a native of the Holy Land, wrote: “If anyone wants proof for the birth of Jesus Christ, let him go to
and see for himself… the cave in which he was born …”
, who arrived in the Holy Land in 385 A.D., spent more than 36 years there translating the Sacred Scriptures into Latin. He captured the experience of both Jew and Christian when he wrote, “We understand Scripture better when we have seen Judea with our own eyes, and discovered what still remains of ancient towns.”
From April 29 until May 6, we had a diocesan Year of Faith pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Our schedule was crowded with the biblical sites, but our visits were prayerful and unhurried. On our very first day, we ascended the Mount of Beatitudes in the Galilee, where Jesus gave us a new Torah as his disciples. Overlooking the placid waters of the Sea of Galilee, glistening in the afternoon sun, we heard afresh the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. Seated with Jesus on the mountain side, we listened to him spell out, in each of the eight beatitudes, the meaning of authentic love. And, we understood with deeper insight that his teaching on poverty, humility, patience and charity is indeed the way to peace.
At the end of our pilgrimage, we ascended another hill in Jerusalem. Entering the Crusader Church of the Holy Sepulcher, we made our way to the top of Calvary where Jesus offered to the Father the perfect sacrifice of his life for our redemption. Here Jesus put into deed the love that he preached in word throughout his public ministry. In much suffering and pain, he loved us to the end, even to his dying breath. Privileged to celebrate Eucharist on Calvary, we were truly present with Jesus at the moment of his sacrifice on the Cross. Awesome!
At Kefr Nahum, where Jesus had headquartered his Galilean ministry, we stood in the ruins of the magnificent limestone synagogue built over the first century synagogue where Jesus taught and gave the first promise of the Eucharist. In prayer, we recalled his first Sabbath day in Kefr Naum. We heard his teaching. We saw him cast out Satan from a possessed man. What authority, so unlike the wise and the worldly!
Walking a stone’s throw away from the synagogue, we came to the home of Peter. Here Jesus stayed. Here Christians gathered from the very moment the Church was born. Seeing the synagogue and the Church so close together, we begin to realize that even in those first few centuries, Jews and Christians were able to live and work together. Worship of the one true God is the source of unity.
During our pilgrimage, we experienced so much. The Holy Land truly is a fifth gospel. Certainly, there were many more places all of us would have liked to have seen. Among them, Rachel’s tomb along the road to Bethlehem, Hebron and the Cave of the Patriarchs, the ruins of Jericho and Zacchaeus’ sycamore, Samaria and Jacob’s Well. But, there will always be another day.
Soaking in the serene peace of the Sea of Galilee, seeing Jerusalem’s crowded streets and walking together through the dense, markets and bazaars that crowd the
, we came face to face with the great diversity of cultures and beliefs that unite us in the worship of one God, yet divide us into Christians, Jews, and Muslims. We joined our voices in prayer with our Jewish brothers and sisters at the Western Wall. We prayed for peace among all peoples.
For those of us who made this pilgrimage, our faith grew stronger and our love, more fervent. I would dare say that one of the most important gifts of our pilgrimage was the lively awareness that God is still revealing himself in each of us who journey this life together. Because Jesus, Crucified and Risen, is truly with us, as he was with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, every place we travel is