January 11, 2007
I have been to the Holy Land nine times before. Each time I notice something different. A new excavation. A deeper insight into Sacred Scripture. A better appreciation of the place where God chose to reveal his plan for us.
The day after Christmas, I made a 10-day pilgrimage with 12 priests (11 from the Diocese of Paterson); two young men interested in the priesthood and 32 seminarians from six different seminaries. Of these seminarians, 13 are studying for our diocese.
On January 1, we were on our way to Bethlehem to celebrate the Eucharist at the place where Jesus was born. Our Israeli guide did not accompany us into Palestinian territory. Nor did one of our seminarians who is an Israeli citizen. Bethlehem is on the West Bank.
On the road into the city of Christ’s birth, I wanted to stop and show our group Rachel’s tomb. It is a sacred shrine dedicated to the favorite wife of Jacob, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. Here many Jewish women come to pray for the gift of motherhood. This is a place where it is so easy to speak about the human family of the Son of God. But we could not stop.
In fact, we could not even see Rachel’s tomb from our bus. There blocking its view was a 26 ft high wall made from large, grey concrete slabs and a watchtower. The city limit between Jerusalem and Bethlehem is a short walk of less than a half mile. Yet, now the distance has been widened and the separation deeper between the Palestinians on one side and the Israelis on the other side of the wall.
Since peace talks between the two peoples stalled in September, 2000, terrorist attacks have claimed at least 1,398 Palestinians and 511 Israelis. Some claim the wall is necessary for security. Others claim it is an act of separation that makes life impossible for the many Palestinians who must cross the man-made border to work. In either case, the wall is a powerful witness of man’s inability to live side-by-side with others in peace.
Sadly, the wall at Bethlehem is just a section of a 210 mile long barrier that Israel is placing along the border that separates her territory from that of the Palestinians. The construction of this wall, begun in July 2002, goes along the Green Line, the pre-1967 border of Israel. The estimated cost is $220 million. When the wall is completed, even Jerusalem, the city of peace, will be encircled by it for some 35 miles.
The concrete and iron barrier will break a record. It will be one of the largest and most heavily fortified man-made walls in history. In fact, it will be more than four times the length of the Berlin Wall. Looking at the section of the wall that confronted us in Bethlehem, I realized how much more imperative was our pilgrimage of faith that brought us to shrines sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims.
There are differences. Race. Religion. Language. But there is a deeper unity that lies at the level of a common humanity. Our pilgrimage was a trip across the miles and the centuries as well as a journey of the heart.
From Tiberias along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, we traced the footsteps of the pubic ministry of Jesus. Our days were crowded. A strong reminder of how hard Jesus worked to reach the human heart with the message of God’s love for all.
From the heights of Mt. Carmel and Tabor, we traced the story of God’s intervention into history from the days of Elijah who fought to wipe out the idolatry to Jesus transfigured in glory who offers the vision of humanity transformed into glory. A brief stop at Megiddo where many a battle has been fought reminded us of the struggles we still face as we seek the way of peace together. A lesson repeated as we passed the Mount of Temptations near Jericho.
At Nazareth, we stood together at the grotto where tradition places Mary’s encounter with Gabriel. Here the Word became flesh. Here we stood in awe of the mystery of a divine love that seeks to be one with us.
A few short steps from this spot, we celebrated Mass. During the Mass, ten of our seminarians took candidacy. They offered themselves, like Mary, to be an instrument of the Word. They said their
fiat to God’s will for them to become his priests. How blessed we are to have such young men willing to offer all!
We went up to Jerusalem in the rain. God was pouring out his blessing on us. Circling the remains of the temple in Jerusalem, we knew we are the living stones of the new temple. Jews, Muslims, all peoples, along with us, are called to build up a civilization that honors the dignity of the human person created in God’s own image and likeness and redeemed in the precious blood of Christ.
In the Cenacle, we remembered the Last Supper and Pentecost. There our priests renewed their commitment to serve. Once again the Spirit was renewing the face of the earth.
From the cold waters of the Jordan where we renewed our baptism to the dark tomb of Jesus, on every step of our pilgrimage, we realized that we are immersed in the paschal mystery of Christ. The Lord’s death frees us from sin. His resurrection gives us the power to live as true sons and daughters of God. And this great mystery is given us in each Eucharist, whether it is celebrated on Calvary, or by the Sea of Galilee, or in any Church around the world.
It is the power of this great mystery, this divine love that tears down the walls we build to separate and divide. As high and as ugly as any wall we build can be, greater and more destructive is the sin that separates us from God and from one another. It is only God’s love revealed in Christ Crucified and Risen that takes this sin away. “
For he is our peace; in his flesh has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph 2:14). When the human heart opens itself to this grace, we discover what truly unites us as one. We are able to live in peace with all.