Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, opens one up to experiencing God using all the senses. We kiss the wood of the cross, consume the Lord in the Eucharist, smell incense by the altar, and see beauty in statues and paintings. In this vein, the experience of visiting the Holy Land is one of sensory overload. St. Jerome referred to the area of Jerusalem as the “fifth Gospel,” meaning that in order to understand the Bible one must comprehend how the land shaped the stories.
A recent journey to Israel not only opened my mind, but also deepened my faith.
Walking in the footsteps of Jesus sounds so cliché, but just a few hours after taking off from Vienna, my husband, 4-month-old and I were walking the dusty road in Emmaus and then Ein Karem — visiting the birthplace of John the Baptist and praying the Magnificat at the sight of the Visitation.
Our trip to Israel included four days around Jerusalem and three near the Sea of Galilee. The real lesson of any pilgrimage is not the miles traveled, the pictures snapped or the churches admired, but the resulting change of perspective on faith and life.
There are three themes I rediscovered during the first part of my Israel trip.
Let’s begin where Christ began his earthly life: in Bethlehem. No need to give directions to this church — just follow the star! The first stop: Shepherds Field to understand the natural caves common to the area. While in the damp, cool chapel of rock, I imagined those shepherds being awoken in the night by a group of heralding angels. Continuing to the underground cave housing the Grotto of the Nativity, it was a memorable moment to adore the site of the birth of Christ (marked beneath an altar by a 14-pointed silver star set into the marble floor and surrounded by silver lamps) while holding my infant son. The church is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world and seemed busy with Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic authorities all jointly administering the complex.
Anyone who has watched midnight Mass broadcast live from Bethlehem will recognize the adjoining Roman Catholic portion of the shrine: the Gothic-style Church of St. Catherine. I vividly remember the underground altar dedicated to St. Joseph commemorating the angel’s command to flee to Egypt (Matthew 2:13). I was encouraged by Joseph’s example of trust to leave his country and way of life for a foreign land to follow God’s plan. I found myself asking what areas of my life could use a greater dose of trust in divine Providence.
Prayer for Peace
While walking the Temple area of Jerusalem, the Old Testament came alive. What was before a mere story of kings, judges and Temple laws now took shape by examining the rocky landscape and imagining the foundations of the first and second Temples.
The Dome of the Rock was an interesting encounter. Now a Muslim shrine, Christians and Jews are no longer allowed to adore and pray at the foundation stone found at its center. According to tradition, this was the site of Abraham’s intended sacrifice of his beloved son, Isaac (Genesis 22). To Muslims, this is the site of the ascent of Muhammad into heaven. Jewish people hold the rock to be the foundation for the Holy of Holies in the first Temple and, therefore, their holiest spot on earth. The tensions surrounding this spot are intense, with armed guards walking around the grounds and rigid security in order to enter the grounds, including no Bibles or crosses allowed past the security checkpoint.
We took our intentions to the Western (Wailing) Wall. There, we joined with Pope Benedict XVI who, in his May 2009 visit, left a prayer in the wall stating: “God of all the ages … I bring before you the joys, the hopes and the aspirations, the trials, the suffering and the pain of all your people throughout the world. … Stir the hearts of all who call upon your name to walk humbly in the path of justice and compassion.” In this spirit, I was impelled to continue to pray for peace in the world, especially among people of differing faiths.
The Mount of Olives overlooks the city of Jerusalem from the East. Descending the hill to Gethsemane, we visited the garden and grotto of Jesus’ arrest. The olive-wood trees in the garden can be thousands of years old — what if they could talk? It is natural to contemplate the events of the Sorrowful Mystery while there.
Another pilgrimage must is to walk and pray along the Via Dolorosa. The first nine stations are marked along the Jerusalem city streets with numbers. Some stations are in the middle of a busy market street, while others have small chapels. The practice of publicly praying the stations along the route was similar to the scene Christ found during his carrying of the cross — not silence, but amid the bustle of daily life on city streets.
The final five stations are found inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, also called the Church of the Resurrection by Eastern Christians. Inside are the rock of Golgotha (Calvary) and the tomb of Christ.
There is something very memorable about weeping at Calvary only to walk around the complex to rejoice in the empty grave.
It was a powerful image for the life of a Christian: There will be sorrow that is overwhelming, but the joy that lasts a lifetime is only a few steps farther along the journey.
Upcoming in a future issue, Part 2: Sea of Galilee.
Niki Kalpakgian writes from San Diego.