We watched the sunrise and then celebrated the Eucharist in the Judean Wilderness.
By Fr. Tom Newcomb
At the end of April, twenty-three parishioners and friends left with Lee Ann and me from New York for a ten-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land — the land where Jesus lived. It was an amazing and wonderful journey.
It is always a challenge to share the significance of a pilgrimage like the one we took. Pilgrimages are a special kind of journey rooted deep in the fabric of the spiritual lives of those who seek God. They have been taking place from time immemorial – since Abraham, through the Exodus, down through Jesus, St. Helena, St. Francis, and countless others. As Christians, we hear the scriptures read, we study their meaning, and we look at paintings of the Old and New Testaments, but going to Israel and walking where the patriarchs, prophets, and Jesus himself walked brings the events of the Bible to life vividly. To see the same hills, rivers, and plains that Jesus saw and to hear his words read where he spoke them draws us closer to him. When pilgrims return and share what they have seen, it clarifies their experiences and gives others a vivid glimpse of the places they have heard about all their lives in the scriptures.
We stayed the first five nights in Jerusalem, then two nights in Nazareth, and then two more nights in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was amazing and wonderful — but also very intense. It is an active city that is home to Palestinian Arabs, secular and religious Jews, and Christians of various churches and denominations. From a political point of view, Jerusalem is complicated. Both its long history and its present day life are of monumental significance to three of the world’s religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. At the center is the old walled city which has Christian, Jewish, and Muslim quarters. East Jerusalem is mostly Arab, while the Western areas are mostly Jewish.
Important historical sites are everywhere. The most important site for the Jews is the Western Wall, the only portion of the great Temple left after centuries of conflict. For Christians, the focus is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which is built over the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. For Muslims, the Dome of the Rock, situated above the Western Wall, is the place where Mohamed is believed to have ascended on a night journey to heaven to bring back messages from God. It also contains the rock on which Jews and Christians believe Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac, and Muslims believe Abraham was willing to sacrifice Ishmael.
We were led by Canon Iyad Qumri, a Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem. We stayed at the guest house on the grounds of St. George’s Anglican Cathedral. Since it would be impossible to visit all the important sites and since we were Christian pilgrims, our time was focused on the sites associated with the life of Jesus. We visited the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Garden of Gethsemane, and we walked the route Jesus walked on Palm Sunday.
Outside Jerusalem, we went to the West Bank, which is the portion of Palestine that was captured and occupied by Israel in the 1967 War, and which is home to over two million Palestinians. Since the Second Intifada (the Palestinian uprising between 2000-2005), the State of Israel has built a series of walls and fences separating the occupied territories from Israel proper. It was sad to see those walls, and we felt the sorrow that they have brought. Although only seven miles from Jerusalem, Bethlehem, which has been Christian since before the fourth century, is in the Occupied Territories, and it was heart breaking to see the huge concrete walls surrounding it today – the same walls Pope Francis prayed at two weeks after our visit. There we prayed for peace and for a just resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In the evenings we heard guest speakers who spoke from contemporary Palestinian, Muslim, and Israeli perspectives.
When we visited Galilee in the north, the atmosphere was very different from Jerusalem, and we enjoyed the change. Galilee is beautiful, fertile, and compared to crowded Jerusalem, I found it exhilarating. In addition to seeing Nazareth and the other important biblical sights of Galilee, we visited Shefa Amre, and Arab-Israeli town, and met Father Faud Dagher, the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. We saw the wonderful work he has done in establishing a center of reconciliation among Christians and Muslims, and the revitalization it has brought there. Our day at Sea of Galilee was delightful. Its highlight was our stop at the Jordan River where we renewed our baptismal vows. After dinner at Canon Iyad’s home in Jericho, we returned to Jerusalem. On our last day we rose early and, in the pouring rain, we walked and prayed the Stations of the Cross ending in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
I am grateful to God for the very special gift that our pilgrimage has been to me and to each of the pilgrims, and I pray that, as we share what we have experienced, others will be drawn closer to God in Jesus Christ.