A pilgrimage to the Holy Land
28 pilgrims set out on an adventure; to boldly go where all Christian humans want to go; even just once! The Holy Land. Here are some highlights of a eight day intensive pilgrimage to this very tactile and very Holy Land.
Putting you hands in the hand of the man from Galilee. What a fantastic opportunity! So if waking in Bethlehem isn’t awesome enough; we now begin our tour. Bleary eyed, it’s time to face the dawn, and the two hour time difference and get up and going.
Just as John the Baptist announced the arrival of Christ, so he does once again- in our time at our pilgrimage beginning. As we battled the first set of unruly pilgrims (from other countries) the Canticle of Zechariah shone out in its wonder; “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, he has visited His people and redeemed them!”.
Leaving John’s birthplace we walk for a short while up an ancient hillside, surrounded by terraces of olive groves. Here lies the church of the visitation where a newly pregnant Mary and heavily pregnant Elizabeth meet on the hilltop, witnessed by the sheep and shepherds below. Elizabeth filled with the spirit gives us those words so common to our tongue ‘Blessed art thou amongst women’. The response is cried out from every inch of this church; the great ‘Magnificat’. My soul glorifies the Lord, and this church glorifies creation; her arches, embracing all who enter in that unconditional motherly love, celebrating the bringing forth of new life and the wonder of creation. As it did for John the Baptist, this church also provides sanctuary. Nestled within the lower chapel lies the stone which hid John the Baptist from Herod’s deathly decree. This stone worn by the millions of hands transmits the vibrations from every foot that has crossed this threshold.
The next up, the Church of the Nativity and birth place of Christ. Getting to grips with crowds and multinational pilgrims was the task of these long tiring days! As we each move forward for the same purpose, conversations began in the queue. Different nationalities held together by the love of Our Lord. In the chaos that is thousands of pilgrims, the place held grace and peace; overseen eagerly by a zealous Orthodox Monk! Descending into the crypt to see that twelve pronged star, to touch and be in the place where Our Lord came into this world! We were each swept up by sheer disbelief that we are here. The awesomeness of this moment and the place where our God became incarnate and palpable. The wonder and disbelief became real; how did our creator put so much trust in us (His creation) to give us himself as this tiny helpless babe?
Dinner was spent in the Shepherd’s Field. As a group we sat and discussed the day. Many were overwhelmed by their experiences. As we ate, we wondered what the shepherds of these fields 2000 yrs ago would have eaten. We discussed how far they would be travelling, with their best lambs to arrive at Jerusalem’s temple ready for the Passover. Thousands of lambs would have been slaughtered that day. Imagine that! The temple would look less like a temple of our time, and more like a butchers shop! Our table discussions held the same threads of the others; of wonder and honour and privilege. This faith we believe is real! It comes alive in physical form in front of us. Us mere mortals are being given the opportunity to touch the place of God!
A new morning brings us to the Wailing Wall at Pesach (Passover) and Sabbath. Here we share a special peaceful moment with the tormented chosen race. Whilst this wall is only the retaining wall of the temple that would have dominated Jerusalem 2000 years ago, it stands tall with stone bricks so large they drown us humans, difficult to climb or to besiege; and steeped with so much history.
For the Jews, this wall is beyond sacred. They believe this wall gives them direct access to God and so will come from all over the world to visit this wall. The wall is treated as a temple and before we approach we are separated into male and female, and given the relevant headwear. The atmosphere is quiet, prayerful, friendly, inclusive and relaxed. We edge forward and get to stand alongside our fellow sisters holding and praying at the wall. The wall tells the history of its pain. Over 2000 years later and this wall is still weeping!!!!! It weeps for all it has witnessed; the rise an fall of its people, their holocausts and suffering, their rejection. It also weeps for the troubled land on which it stands. The wall also tells of hope. Into the tiniest of crevices there are papers, prayers of those who have visited. There is a presence far larger than humanity here and as swifts dance with joy above our heads we leave feeling different and elated. This ancient temple isn’t just a holy site for the Jews, but for us Christians too. Here Christ was presented to as a baby; here He got lost and was found teaching and arguing with the priests, here He was condemned.
From the Mount of Olives overlooking the city, we stopped at Pater Noster - the place where Jesus Christ taught the disciples the Our Father before descending down the Palm Sunday and Passion Route. Along this hillside we take in Dominus Flevit. Here we’re told by the gospels that Jesus wept for Jerusalem; but I’m sure he wept for us all. The view of the city dominated the horizon, the Kidron valley, the city of David. The view reminds us of the endurance of the passion and the lengths Christ went to to free us. Mass was celebrated outside in the garden overlooking the Jerusalem. People passed us, some stopped to sing. Mass outside is always moving and something very special. Jesus wasn’t the only one who wept there!
Towards the bottom of the mount, as the sounds and smells of the city begin to fill our senses; we arrived at the Garden of Gethsemane. The stillness of this garden echos the peace Jesus sought before he faced his passion ahead. As a child when we feel frightened or low, we turned to our parents for refuge. As adults we turn to those around us whom we love and trust. Here Jesus took his friends, his brothers and sisters in faith to a place of refuge. As we touch the stone where Jesus knelt, where in his anguish he sweated blood, we feel the place where Jesus sought the love and guidance of his father. The All Nations Church was breathtaking! Grace and peace filled the expanse. Here mass was being celebrated in chinese reminding us of the multiple faces of Catholicism. Both the church and the garden filled each of us with overwhelming sadness. Here Jesus witnessed the diminishing hope in humanity. Here He lessened himself so God can do more. Here He began his surrender; giving everything over to the Father out of love for us all.
Church of St Peter Gallicantu marks the place of Peter’s denial. It is also the site of Caiaphas palace, where Jesus was lowered down through a narrow opening into a stone pit before being lifted out to be beaten. The stone cell was oppressive. Sitting in the corner you could imagine the eeriness of the darkness, the chaos of the mind and pain of the body, exhausted; not knowing when next you are going to be dragged out to be beaten again. In this place men have been flogged. Ropes mark the places where arms would have been held, the smooth shiny stone below speaks of hundreds of knees dragging as men were flogged, wiped down with salt water and vinegar, before being flogged again. We know that through the long torturous night before his crucifixion, Christ was flogged at The Church of Flagellation tied to stones like these. We know he received over 120 lashes, bearing more than any human could dare. From this point of exhaustion and dehydration he began his passion walk. His torture was present till the very last breath at the ninth hour. Before his last breath, Jesus endured a walk of shame with his cross through the narrow streets of Jerusalem. He experienced over 18hours of vicious torture to save humanity. Sometimes I wonder if humanity is really worth saving.
We followed the Via Dolorosa, ending our stations of the cross at the Holy Sepulchre. This church houses Calvary and the burial place of Christ. Naturally this is the busiest place in the whole of Jerusalem. The jostle to the tomb was hard as not everyone was willing to wait their turn. The Devil certainly had his work cut out here sending people in to jump the queues and push, to make pilgrimages angry. What better way to become disillusioned by Christianity than to see fellow brothers and sister misbehaving in the name of Christ? What better way to try to get us to turn away from the most blessed place of Christianity, the foundation block of our faith. After hours of waiting we were given permission to enter the inner sanctum. Like many other holy places the doorway was tiny. It forces us all to our knees to walk humbly in front of the Lord. Once in the tomb, kneeling in front of it wasn’t really an option. Overwhelmed with emotion and elation, you simply fall to you knees. Here is the birth place of Christianity! Us mortals are here in this immortal place of God!
Like all the sites in Jerusalem it was hard to find some space to pray and peace, everywhere was bustling and crowded. But watching the sheer numbers of pilgrims visiting is a prayer in itself. This is a Holy Land and pilgrims will flock from all four corners of the globe to be here! 8 pilgrims set out on an adventure; to boldly go where all Christian humans want to go; even just once! The Holy Land. Here are some highlights of a eight day intensive pilgrimage to this very tactile and very Holy Land.
Here is the second part of this two part series; Christ be beside me as we walk the hill towns and shores of Galilee..
Before heading north to Galilee we journeyed to the desert. A barren place, where it’s easy to lose hope and faith. Jesus spent forty days and forty nights out here. Our visit to Masada wasn’t that long, yet under the relentless oppressive heat, we left exhausted and slightly crispy. It’s hard to find any spiritual grounding here, but then, that’s what the desert is. Even the psalmist cries:
“Oh God, you are my God, my body pines for you, like a dry weary land without water” (Psalm 62/63). Floating in the Dead Sea 420 meters below sea level, soon brought us back down to earth, and revived our senses before we continued on.
Does anything good come out of Nazareth? Well we all know plenty does! The Church of the Annunciation illuminated the idea that Mary, whist in essence is the same, her image differs in different nationalities. She truly is a mother to all people’s! Next door stood Joseph’s workshop. In-between both, a statue of Joseph and a Indian Banyan Tree. The statue was fascinating, as the back of it portrayed Joseph being supported by angels. He apparently spoken to Angels quite a bit in his lifetime. For me, finding an Indian banyan tree in the midst of the most important parents of humanity reminded me of my home, my heritage, and my parents; the merging peoples, religions and lands. In India these are sacred trees which symbolise immortality. Hindu temples are often built to incorporate these trees. What a perfect place for a very special and quite rare (in these parts) tree.
‘We’re going to the chapel and we’re gonna get married’...
How we all laughed at the prospect of going to Cana. Expecting a ‘Vegas wedding chapel’; we got something altogether classier. Cana; the place of the first miracle, where Mary asked Jesus to transform the water into the wine. Here we saw the stone urns that stood larger that the average man of today. There were six, and each held 20-30 gallons. How I wished I’d been at that wedding! But their wedding joy became ours. Standing alongside 3 other couples I renewed my wedding vows with my husband, with my pilgrim friends and God as our witness. We thanked God for the gift of our marriage asked for support in those difficult times.
Imagine sitting on the shores of the calm Sea of Galilee at sunrise and saying morning office. Looking out over the vast waters, with the joy of dawn chorus and the swifts working, dipping up and down to get their own breakfast.
‘O the works of the Lord or bless the Lord, the sun, the sea, all creatures of the sea, birds of the air, O bless the Lord’.. The Canticle of Daniel cries out that God is here in all that surrounds us. He sends the birds to sing, the sun to us warm us, the wildlife and flowers to capture our wonder. To say it was magical is an understatement. Jesus and his followers would have done this, saying these ancient prayers on these shores. As I look up and look across the waters into the rising light, I can imagine Him walking across the water; apparently he walked across the full width (approx 5 miles) to Jordan. I wonder if my faith is strong enough to walk across these waters as Jesus and Peter did. Can I go into the deep waters and focus only on Him? I’d love to think I could. But for now, I settled with being able to swim, not once but twice, in the incredible Sea of Galilee!
On the shores of Galilee stands Capernaum, the town where Jesus’s would settle, Peter’s hometown. Situated on the main highway, people would pass through here and would stop and listen to Jesus preaching. It is documented that in the synagogues; He read and taught with authority. Here Jesus met the man with the demons who asked ‘what are you going to do with us Messiah?‘. Here too, He healed the servant of the centurion and we get our communion prayer from ‘Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof’. Jesus responded that he had never seen such faith in all of Israel! In Capernaum Jesus chose all of his disciples, preaching that we must be like children if we are to enter kingdom of heaven.
Mount of beatitudes
Above the Sea of Galilee stands a mound, the Mount of the Beatitudes. Sitting on an ancient rock on the mount overlooking the valleys, hills and Sea of Galilee, I closed my eyes and listened. Amongst the birdsong, there was music. Hymns being sung and mass celebrated in different languages.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, Blessed are those who hunger for what is right.. come all who are thirsty.. ‘
This was the place of Jesus’s most famous sermon of love and peace. If Jesus was assumed to be ordinary man, he was a man who changed the world; not with an army or force, power or might, but with love. He was not a worldly king but a king nonetheless. Some say the beatitudes are a self portrait of Christ. If he can forgive all then so should we. As I walked, a music worm sang in my head echoing, “All who are thirsty....come to the fountain, dip your heart in the stream of life.. come Lord Jesus come. Holy Spirit come”
Sunday mass was celebrated in Magdala IN A BOAT on the shores of Galilee. Imagine, reading from a boat, preaching from a boat, being fed from a boat!! During the sermon the boat ‘spiritually’ launched
“YOU ARE ALL MY DISCIPLES! I AM HERE. I will be with you, always!”.
This beautiful place is just being discovered by pilgrims, and this stunning new church celebrates not only the life of Mary of Magdala, the first female apostle, but all women of the gospels. Not far from Magdala, on the top of a hill stands the Church of multiplication, where the feeding 5000 men took place under the shade of the Olive groves.
The pilgrimage route progressed and we left Galilee behind just for a short while. In the distance a high mountain.. Mount Tabor, the mount of the transfiguration. Standing on this mountain we get to look down at the beauty of the land below, the land that stretches on and on to Jordan, overshadowed by Mount Herman (Israel’s highest peak). Above us migrating birds find the thermals and soar, others in the flock falling back to let others lead and save energy. It’s natures perfectly engineered team, something often so lacking in today’s world of competition. Yet here, love of our fellow human is what we’re here to remember and like those birds, there are times when we are weak and others step forward to carry us. Likewise, we will also carry them! Mass was celebrated in a newly built glass chapel outside of the basilica. Light streamed in renewing and transforming our souls. It was a small intimate setting; us and our Lord Jesus. The gardens surrounding the Basilica exuded peace and tranquility; a stark contrast to the single track snake road that took us to the hilltop driven by suicide taxi drivers!
Still in under the guard of Mount Herman we travel, stopping at our most northern spot, Golan Heights. Today this often a troubled place due to political unrest, this the Israeli- Syrian border.
Yet, our visit to this most beautiful nature reserve of Israel shone in its peace! Glacial waters tumbled from the snowy peaks of the high mountains, bringing fresh life to Israel and forming one of the three springs of the River Jordan. These ancient hills and springs will have provided the water for John the Baptist’s ministry and the Baptism of Christ!
For us Christians reading the bible, we know this place by another name- Caesarea Philippi. Here the Lord asks Peter- ‘Who do you say I am?’. A simple question with a ground breaking response! The other disciples stated John the Baptist ,a prophet, but Peter knew and professed:
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” You are the Messiah! You are the chosen one that scriptures foretold.
At that point Peter became the rock, on which the church was built. Even though his faith was so strong, and he knew the Lord well, Peter’s faith still wavered. In the pressure and fear for his own life, this rock breaks, three times; denying our Lord at his passion. As with all the disciples, broken-hearted and ashamed, he returns to his old life, the familiar life of fishing after his Lord is crucified.
But Peters story doesn’t end there. In fact, on this shores around Galilee he picks up his cross and begins a ministry that will defy all, but first he needs to recognise that the man on the shore making him breakfast. The man by the fire, breaking and blessing fish and bread is his Lord and he needs to answer three more questions.. ‘Peter, do you love me?’. On these shores of Galilee the Lord gave Peter his Primacy asking him to ‘lead my sheep, feed my sheep’. Those words, ‘Do you love me?’ are as haunting and accurate today to us as to Peter 2000 years ago, ‘Do you love me?’; a mantra for us all to answer every moment of every day.