Friday, 7 December 2007

Cathedral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

There is, when all is said and done, only one place to go on pilgrimage – or perhaps it is fairer to say that one pilgrimage destination ranks above all others: The Holy Land. A large group of pilgrims from the Cathedral parish visited Israel in November, accompanied by the Administrator, and (from Pax Travel) by seminarian and one-time Cathedral intern Andrew Gallagher.

Geography is everything in the Holy Land; the north is low lying and sparsely populated. This is Galiliee, the site of Jesus youth and his ministry, and here the landscape remains much as it was in his time. Walk down by the reedy shore of the Sea of Galilee (above), or stand upon the heights of the Mount of the Beatitudes, and the Gospel comes to life.

An evocative boat journey across the lake is interrupted when the engines are cut, and in the silence the Gospel of the calming of the storm becomes not historical narrative, but a vivid demonstration of the healing power of God.

At Capernaum, we sat in the synagogue said to have been built by the Centurion whose servant Jesus healed (above), and in that powerful space read one of the many incidents in Jesus’ ministry that took place there. At Cana, our married couples renewed their vows and felt a special blessing of the presence of the Lord. Only in Nazareth did the imagination have to work overtime; the impoverished little village of Our Lord’s time is now a sprawling city choked with cars. The huge basilica of the Annunciation, the largest Church in the middle east, looms grandly over the pile of masonry claimed as Our Lady’s House. Here we experienced another emotion – a recognition not of the eyes but of the heart, an awareness of the sacredness of the spot and the closeness of heaven to earth.

An inscription under the altar (above) brought it home: VERBUM CARO FACTUM HIC EST – Here the Word was made Flesh. There is no more to be said in this place; one stands silently and is open to the eternal wisdom of God.

Southern Israel is more mountainous, and at one of its highest points is the city of Jerusalem. Throughout the gospel, Jesus travels upwards as he moves towards the great city, so that his final revelation as God’s Son will take place – as always in the Bible – on the heights.

Jerusalem is heavy with history; events lies thick upon each other, layer on layer, stone on stone. The city looks different from Jesus’ time, but the feel is the same; crowded, vexing, noisy. Try to pray the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa, and your meditations are interrupted by vendors hawking tee-shirts, tobacco or transistors. Indifferent locals barge past, or shout at you to get out of the way. Your first reaction is indignation, until the penny drops. This is how it was. When Our Lord carried his cross, the crowds did not stand in silent respect – the petty, insistent, uncaring business of the world surged around him as he stumbled through these same narrow streets.

The easiest place in Jerusalem is the Mount of Olives – across the Kedron valley. There, the Garden of Gethsemane (above) really is a garden; its olive trees, even if not contemporaries of Our Lord, nevertheless lend an air of timelessness. Here, we watch with Jesus as he endures his agony in the Garden; the sorrow of the space lies heavily upon the soul.

The hardest place in Jerusalem is the Holy Sepulchre: the hill of Golgotha and the tomb are now encased in the crusader Church. The photograph above is taken outside the basilica - the steps on whch we stand are the external entrance to Calvary. Visually, there is little to call forth the sites of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Worse still, this holiest place in Christendom is the frequent scene of brawls and arguments between the Christian denominations. Yet again, it is the heart which validates the shrine: there is a thread connecting this site to heaven; the momentous events of our salvation have left their imprint upon the atmosphere of the building. It is not what one expects, but neither is it possible not to be moved, to pray, to wonder.

Bethlehem is not far from Jerusalem: not as large as Nazareth, it nevertheless has outgrown its tiny rural origins and is a sizeable and busy town. The pilgrims were photographed at the ancient basilica of the Nativity (above); the tiny entrance is to the left. The venreable church survived the destructive invasions of the Persian because of the mosaics of the Magi dressed in Persian garb, greeted with respectful awe by the attackers. At Mass in this holy place, we paused to let the atmosphere sink in – again, that sense of the closeness of eternity, of heaven and earth contained in this space.

The traditional site of the birth of Christ is reached by jostling large impatient crowds down narrow steps (above); but again the power of the connection with our salvation breaks through the human chaos, and the heart is filled to overflowing, thrilled to stand in this spot.

There is another Israel, not of pilgrim sites and ancient Churches, but of a divided land, scarred by a brutal concrete wall. It is not uncommon to see young people in uniform, and guns are carried casually. This is a restless land of contradictory histories, and it is not at peace with itself. It is a tinderbox; the future is always frightening.

Into such a place was our Saviour born, and it is perhaps no accident that the geographic heart of our faith lies amid such political uncertainty, human frailty and scandalous division. This was the humanity that Christ redeemed. In the Holy Land we celebrate that event, the pivot of our history, and we realise how much more our world is in need of his salvation.

1 comment:

John the organist said...

3 of the party were at the spirituality day and Sharing in his life final group meting and spoke with awe of the Masses in Galilee and in the desert.