Tuesday, November 23, 2010


“Remember”, said Bassam our guide as we set off from Tel Aviv airport for the Galilee, “this is not a holiday but a pilgrimage”. The next nine days were to show us the difference and help us realise that we were pilgrims, not tourists. What is the difference? Well, a pilgrimage is to leave the known world for the unknown and to seek an encounter with what lies at the end of the journey. And what lay at the end was to be the greatest shock of all to many pilgrims: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The place marking Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Pilgrims experienced many uplifting moments and so many Masses in wonderful places. On the shores of the Sea of Galilee with the water lapping almost at our feet as the sun burned brightly above. Beneath the great arch of the Antonia Fortress in Jerusalem where Jesus was brought before Pilate. On a hill known as ‘Shepherd’s Fields’ where the angels sang their song of ‘Glory to God in the highest and peace to those of goodwill on earth’. Many were deeply moved by the stories we were told of the plight of Palestinians – both Muslim and Christian – and we wept by the wall which now separates Jews from Arabs through Bethlehem to Jerusalem. And we listened to a sermon at S. George’s Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem which helped put so much of what we had experienced into context. How Christianity, now the faith of only a tiny percentage of the population (1.3% and falling with the emigration of Palestinians to countries where they do not face economic and financial hardship) can still have such a profound effect through the vast array of social activities, schools, hospitals, rehabilitation centres etc. Our guide share his vast knowledge and deep faith until our heads were bursting and our hearts were touched. And pilgrims ‘saw the sights that Jesus saw’ and walked in the land where his feet trod (though, with the passage of time, often many metres below today’s ground level!) Those ten days open people eyes and hearts in a way that ten years of sermons have not done.

And for that I am grateful, for the purpose of this pilgrimage was to put people in situations where they could experience the reality of what they hear about week by week and year by year. But the goal of our pilgrimage was Jerusalem and the place where life overcame death. But just as our small group came to see and touch and venerate, so did thousands of others from around the world. And just as Jesus ‘went up to Jerusalem for the Festival’ (of Passover) so we came to Jerusalem at the time of a Muslim festival which added to the thousands of pilgrims from (seemingly) every nation on earth who came to be at this place – the heart of our Faith and the expression of human longing to be with the Lord. So, instead of a well-organised religious event as one might experience in England, we had to contend with so many different cultures and traditions all focussed on this (comparatively) tiny church of the Holy Sepulchre. Many find the experience too much – too shocking and prefer to be by the shores of the Sea of Galilee. And no doubt Jesus would have preferred to be with his friends in that quite, beautiful landscape. But he had to turn away from all that and press on to the heart of his own people’s faith. Jerusalem. So we also experienced the jostling crowds as we made the Way of the Cross down and up the steep lanes of the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows). We also felt ourselves at the mercy of political forces which oppress part of the population. We also had to decide whether we wanted to affirm ourselves as part of the body of Christ or merely be bystanders, onlookers – tourists.

Each pilgrim has their own story to tell. For me this – work – (for that is what it was) re-affirmed the importance of bringing people on pilgrimage and allowing them to stand where Jesus stood, where he was crucified and where he lay in the tomb and to simply allow them to respond to God who did such mighty things in that Land we call Holy.

1 comment:

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