An Extraordinary and Unforgettable Start to Advent
The Holy Land is the perfect place to prepare to meet Christ in mystery and in majesty
Advent is about a two-fold triple dynamism: Christ comes to us in “history, mystery and majesty,” and we go out to meet him respectively in Bethlehem, in the sacraments, prayer and daily life, and as he comes again — so that, transformed by the encounter, we will better follow and journey with him.
I gained new perspectives on this double three-fold spiritual movement by beginning the liturgical season on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, landing as Advent wreaths were being lit for vigil Masses on the first Sunday of Advent and returning a week later.
It was my twelfth time to the Holy Land, but it was unlike any other.
My fellow pilgrims from the Leonine Forum — a program to form young adults in Catholic social teaching to help them live fully-integrated lives of faith, presently in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, where I am the chaplain — arrived just before Israel implemented a travel ban out of fear of the omicron strain of the coronavirus. We were, therefore, among only a few pilgrim groups in the country, and seemed to have many of the sacred sites, and even a much-used hotel in Jerusalem, all to ourselves.
It gave us the time, prayerfully and without haste, to enter into the longing of the Jewish people for the coming of the Messiah, to retrace the pivotal steps of that Messiah when at last he came, and to cultivate the virtues necessary for embracing him on his return, reorienting life as a communal pilgrimage toward the heavenly Jerusalem.
Insofar as, because of the pandemic, it has been much harder for Christians to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I’d like to share some of the fruits of our traveling retreat.
To help us meet Jesus “in history,” we were able to retrace his steps by journeying to Nazareth, where, through Mary’s fiat to the Archangel Gabriel’s news, the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.
We visited Ein Karem, where Mary and Jesus growing within her went to care for Sts. Elizabeth, Zechariah and John the Baptist, before the voice of the One crying out in the desert had enunciated his first syllable.
We followed the angels, the shepherds and wise men to Bethlehem, where we were able to anticipate Christmas with Mass in a cave at Shepherds’ Field and then recapitulate their short, transformative route to another cave, the Grotto of the Nativity, to adore Jesus in the place where he was born, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.
We journeyed to a tense Temple Mount, where Jesus was presented on his 40th day among the prayers and praises of Simeon and Anna, where at 12 he was “lost and found” doing God the Father’s business, and where he later drove out money changers and animal sellers and taught under the malevolent eyes of those seeking to kill him.
We spent a peaceful afternoon in Nazareth, where, surrounded by Mary and Joseph, Jesus lived his hidden life and teaches us still about how our family life and work are meant to be part of the redemption. It was particularly poignant, at the end of the Year of St. Joseph, to examine how this “just man” teaches us how to relate to Jesus and to the Blessed Mother.
We traveled to the Jordan River, where we were able to hear the voice of an adult John the Baptist calling us to make straight the paths of the Lord — which the Church ponders every Second and Third Sundays of Advent — and where, at the end of centuries of waiting for the Messiah, the camel-attired locust-and-honey-eater was able to point out Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world and whose sandals he was unworthy to untie.
We crossed into the extensive desert where Jesus prayed for 40 days and nights and was tempted.
We visited Cana, the site of his first miracle and the elevation of marriage to a sacrament; traversed Jericho, where Jesus healed Bartimaeus and summoned Zacchaeus from the tree; took a ride on the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus walked on water and calmed various storms, and from whose shores he called several apostles from their nets to become fishers of men; visited Capernaum, the location of Jesus’ raising Jairus’ daughter, calling of St. Matthew, proclaiming himself as the Bread of Life, healing Peter’s mother-in-law, a paralytic lowered on the stretcher, a hemorrhaging woman, a man with the withered hand, a possessed man and so many who met him at the door of St. Peter’s house.
We likewise visited the places where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, gave Peter his name and the keys of the Kingdom of heaven, hiked and was transfigured among Moses and Elijah, multiplied five loaves and two fish and, after the Resurrection, cooked breakfast for the disciples and restored Peter to the essence of his vocation of loving, feeding and protecting the Good Shepherd’s sheep and lambs.
Finally, we retraced Jesus’ footsteps in and around Jerusalem, visiting the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, examining his weeping over Jerusalem for its failure to recognize in him its messianic visitation, following on foot Jesus’ route on Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday and Good Friday, not just listening to the Gospel accounts, but trying to enter, at least a little, into some of the physical exertions he himself would have endured, as he walked, or was dragged, from place to place.
The Holy Land is traditionally called the “Fifth Gospel,” where one is able to do more than a lectio divina or meditation on the Word of God. We can do a visio or habitatio divina, seeing and entering into the biblical scenes in which we become eyewitnesses of what happened millennia ago and, not just with our imagination but various senses, enter them.
A pilgrimage to the Holy Land is also an enhanced way to meet Christ “in mystery,” the traditional way the Church has referred to meeting Jesus in the sacraments, prayer and in daily life.
We prayed in the Upper Room, where the sacraments of the Eucharist, Holy Orders, Penance and Confirmation were all instituted.
We celebrated Christmas Day on Dec. 1 in a cave where shepherds watched their flocks by night and there adored on the altar the One they went in haste to see.
We climbed Mount Tabor (in vertiginous van rides) to enter into the holy cloud where Jesus conversed with Moses and Elijah and God the Father spoke, telling Peter, James and John and all of us to listen to Jesus, especially to what he taught about his passion, death and resurrection and our summons to deny ourselves, pick up our Cross and follow him.
And we had the awesome privilege three days in a row — because there were so few pilgrims in Jerusalem — to celebrate Easter Mass within the edicule built over the tomb of Jesus in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, placing the risen body of the Lord back into the empty tomb and then have that same Lord Eucharistically enter each of us.
Because of such mind-blowingly grace-filled opportunities, I’ve always found that meeting Christ in mystery is much easier in the Holy Land.
The Holy Land is also a great place to prepare to meet Christ in majesty.
Ranging through the sights of the Messiah’s first coming, in general, is excellent preparation for the reality of his second, but we also were able to enter into the holy longing of the Jewish people in the lives of Sts. Joachim and Anne, St. Zechariah, Elizabeth and John, whose homes we visited; see the remnants of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and behold the Valley of Megiddo (Armageddon), both of which are associated with the Biblical accounts of Christ’s return; and pray at the traditional site of Jesus’ ascension and ponder how he will one day return from where he went so that, by God’s mercy, he might bring us with him to the place he has gone to prepare.
Mostly, however, we were able to prepare for Christ’s second coming by entering into the reality of how every earthly pilgrimage is a chapter in the book-long pilgrimage of earthly life.
Making the steep 20-mile climb from Jericho to Jerusalem, we prayed the 15 Psalms of Ascent, which Jews for 2,500 years have prayed in preparation for entering the holy city. There is an obvious application to the way we pray with joy and desire for the ascent to the Heavenly Jerusalem. The Church is, as we pray in Eucharistic Prayer III a “pilgrim Church on earth,” and together we seek to make that trek to the house of the Lord.
It was, in summary, an extraordinary and unforgettable start to Advent.