THE purpose of a visit to the Holy Land is to deepen one’s understanding of the incarnation.
But in arranging such a trip, many pilgrims stick to the safe places: to the timeless beauty of the Sea of Galilee, or to purpose-built sites such as the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, or Nazareth Village (a re-enaction of village life in Galilee at the time of Jesus). And as they visit, they cast their minds backwards, as if pilgrimage were an exercise in reminiscence, and the pilgrim’s highest goal to imagine “how things were when Jesus was alive”.
But the birth of Christ is more than just a historical event: in the life of the Church it is a contemporary reality. So, it is good to remember that Jesus walked this street and taught on that beach, but only if it reminds us that Jesus still walks, still teaches, and still locates himself among the poorest and the most oppressed. The dead stones are dumb without the living stones — which are the hard-pressed Christian communities of the Middle East.
On our pilgrimage, of course we delight in the dead stones; we celebrate the eucharist each day, in places such as Mount Tabor (which some believe is the mountain of the transfiguration), the Sea of Galilee, and at one of the sites associated with Emmaus. We push through the crowds to see the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, and the Via Dolorosa, in Jerusalem’s Old City.
We photograph the amazing views from the Mount of Olives, facing the Old City of Jerusalem. And we renew our baptismal promises in the River Jordan, where Jesus was baptised.
But if that had been all that we did, we would have been religious tourists, not pilgrims.
Bishop Philip delivers his first vlog, in Nazareth
WHAT makes our pilgrimage to Israel and the Palestinian territories real is meeting Jamal, in the church-run Jeel al-Amal Boys’ Home, in the West Bank city of Bethany. Jamal arrived at the age of two, desperately thin, and with his body covered in more than 50 cigarette burns. Now, he has a place of love and safety, with food, education, and friends. It is through him that Bethany, the place of hospitality and recuperation for Jesus, speaks to us, because the truths of scripture are animated when Christians live them out in love and service.
Or Mary, a wonderfully articulate Palestinian Christian who addresses us at the Bethlehem Arab Society for Rehabilitation, founded in 1960 as a Leonard Cheshire home. The notor-ious Security Wall, placed without warning seven yards from the hospital, means that Mary cannot expand the vital work that she and her team are doing. This is a huge frustration; for in that desperately poor city, sick and needy people in ever larger numbers are seeking medical care.
It is Mary who brings alive for us the real Bethlehem, where God’s grace meets human need.
Or the Dean of St George’s Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem, the Very Revd Hosam Naoum, who speaks to us honestly about the profound challenges confronting the ever-shrinking Christian presence in the Middle East.
The diocese of Jerusalem, which extends over five countries: Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, now has just 7000 worshippers and 36 clergy. The Dean reveals the real Jerusalem, where it is only the resurrection that brings hope to cross-shaped lives.
These encounters make for hard listening: and that is the point. It is this tough, sinful, broken world that the incarnate Christ touches and changes, not one conjured up in our complacent Western imaginations. Jesus was born in an occupied nation and among an oppressed people; so it is no surprise that this is where we find him.
istockphotoA view over the Temple Mount and the Old City of Jerusalem
SOME would object, saying that a pilgrimage like this was political, and that pilgrimage is about prayer, not politics. But, in the Holy Land, everything is political. The only question is: whose politics will we subconsciously accept? The hotel that we stay in, the guides we choose, and the sites we visit are all deeply political decisions. So, instead of trying to escape the politics, we must look for Jesus there. That is what pilgrimage is about.
One day, we celebrate the eucharist in the desert. As we set up, we are surrounded by Bedouin families who are selling scarves and bracelets. Some of the young boys sit with us during the service — not out of devotion to Jesus in the eucharist, but, because they did not want to lose customers.
A pilgrim offers one of the boys a piece of pitta bread. He takes it, shoving it in his mouth with desperate glee — all except for one last mouthful. “This is for you,” he says to the pilgrim, and they share the bread together.
All he had to offer was that which she had already given him. So there was Jesus; for what can any of us offer God other than mere scraps of what he has already given us?
A pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a wonderful experience. But do not bury yourself in anodyne reminiscence. Let the living stones speak. Because that is where you will find Jesus.
Bishop North and his pilgrimage party travelled to the Holy Land with McCabe Pilgrimages (www.mccabe-travel.co.uk), who work in partnership with an agency in Jerusalem, and are experts at organising this kind of pilgrim-age. The Church Mission Society is running a ten-day Holy Land Study Tour in May 2018, with McCabe Pilgrimages, priced at £1795 full-board pp, including flights (https://churchmissionsociety.org/holy-land-study-tour-2018).
The Rt Revd Philip North is the Bishop of Burnley. Bishop Philip’s 13 short daily vlogs of Holy Land pilgrimage can be viewed at www.youtube.com/user/blackburndiocese.