Our Holy Land Pilgrimage was a wonderful experience and life enhancing indeed. The Holy Land is largely peaceful with Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians living and working together at all levels of society. This is the opposite of the news media covering of the various disputes and troubles which flare up from time to time, giving the false impression of inveterate and perpetual strife. Jerusalem is a beautiful city different from any other in the world. It is a good place identified with the practice of faith. It is spiritually light and has an ephemeral strength and vitality associated with prayer and piety. The view from The Mount of Olives across the Kidron Valley is truly spectacular (though regrettably dominated by the two Muslim buildings, The Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque). The limestone blocks make the buildings clean and bright. The most meaningful sites for us were the Garden Tomb and Gethsemane. The prison cell of Jesus and the Calvary Place of the Skull site were moving also. Standing on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and visiting the Sermon on the Mount area there was inspiring. Capernaum and Peter’s rather posh house were impressive. However Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity and Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre are over-ornate church buildings which prevent any meaningful connection with the realities of Jesus’ time. We enjoyed visiting Nazareth and the 1st century farm where Jesus may well have stood as a boy and young man. We sailed on the Sea of Tiberias in a wooden Galilee boat. Fortunately, the weather was calm and warm.
It was awesome to stand before Abraham’s Gate at Dan, dated 1750 BC. It is likely that he passed there in search of Lot. The nomadic nature of the patriarchs and their encounter with God is emphasised in travelling through the desert places of the Holy Land. How and why the People of God were so formed can only be explained by divine choice and appointment. It is given to us to share in this knowledge of God through Jesus Christ Our Lord and this is our cause for thanksgiving.
The many pilgrims we encountered contrasted with the brutal secular society in which we live here. Roman Catholicism dominates the Christian presence throughout the Holy Land. Its monumental churches witness as much to Roman Catholicism as to the times of Jesus. However lots of monks and nuns in habits remind and testify to vocations and commitment sadly lacking in this country today. And there is value in the Franciscan Custodians of the Holy Land building churches on historical sites to mark them out, claim them and preserve them for future centuries. The Muslims would surely flatten them at the earliest opportunities as they did in the past. We learned that the holy sites may be genuine or near genuine in their locations. Early Christian place association followed by church building gave way to Roman destruction and replacement temples on the same sites. This was followed by Byzantine recovery (Christianised Eastern Roman Empire based at Constantinople 4th to 6th century), Muslim destruction, Crusader recovery (12th - 14th Century), repeat Muslim destruction and 19th century Christian reclamation by the Roman Catholic Church whose wealth enabled the construction of the churches which mark the traditional sites to this day.
The Holy Land is a surprisingly tolerant place. The Jews are tolerant of Christian presence, Christian establishment, Christian worship, large scale Christian pilgrimage, Christian architectural symbolism. There seems little daily antagonism between Jews and Muslims although incidental murderous activity occurs from time to time by Muslims seeking to make their political point. Two million Palestinians have Israeli citizenship. All Israelis and Palestinians need and depend on each other. This is not reported in the west. Jerusalem has four distinct communities, the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian (Christian) quarters. Orthodox Jews pray and hold Bar Mitzvah ceremonies and wedding parties at the Wailing Wall – all that is left of Herod’s Temple. They sing and dance on the streets as they make their way. It was very good to be among people for whom believing in God is a natural expression of visible life. Here, in this country it is the opposite. Christian Faith is marginalised and discounted. False gods rule people’s lives and conduct. Strident hostility to Jesus Christ is encountered in so much public life.
The Holy Land is indeed a land flowing with milk and honey. The Jordan Valley is spectacularly fertile producing fruits, vegetables and wines of exquisite taste and quality. To the south are the wildernesses and we visited Qumran where John the Baptist lived before his public ministry and the clifftop fortress at Masada where Jewish insurgents killed their wives and children and then committed suicide in 73AD rather than surrender to the Romans. King Herod built great palaces and fortresses and his influence lives on in the ruins of his projects notably at Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast near Tel-Aviv. But the influence of Jesus far outstrips his memory and reputation. No-one loves and worships Herod.
Just being warm was very pleasant but we can find that in many other holiday destinations. Visiting the Holy Land is a joyful experience for Christians. However we did not feel any spiritually closer to Christ in these holy places. They do not abound with His localised resurrected presence. It was good to remind ourselves of the word to the women who were looking for Jesus. “He is not here, he is risen”. Throughout the whole world Jesus is alive to those who love and follow Him. A Holy Land pilgrimage is an added blessing.