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There’s no place on earth like the Holy Land. Once you have been there, you will never hear or read the Bible in the same way. Every place, every character, every story seems to leap from the page into more than living color. A pilgrimage to the Holy Land fills the imagination with the sights, sounds, and smells of Scripture.
I have been blessed to visit Israel twice in my life, once as a young child, and once as a young adult. When I was six, my father won a trip as part of a salesman incentive program, and he, my mother and I spent nine days in the Holy Land. That was in 1967, just six months after the Six- Day war. Our family--and one elderly Mexican woman--were the only Christians on the tour bus. Everyone else was Jewish, as was our guide, Jakov. We spent a night in a kibbutz, visited the Shrine of the Book to see the Dead Sea Scrolls, and went to the Western Wall. We also travelled into the Gaza Strip, and toured Israeli efforts to irrigate the desert. I remember getting a camel ride in Beersheba, and seeing Arabs in robes with tents and herds of sheep and goats.
The guide taught me a Hebrew song about King David (I can still sing it), but knowing we were Christians, he made extra efforts to take just us to some of the most important Christian sites during off-hours. I remember him knocking on the door of a convent at night to ask if we could come in to stand on Gabbatha, the Stone Pavement floor on which Jesus stood as He faced Pontius Pilate. At that time, Jews, Muslims and Christians all had their palatable presence in Jerusalem. They were as easily recognizable as the actors in movies like “The Ten Commandments”, “The Robe”, and “Lawrence of Arabia”.
When I returned to Israel in 1989, it was much more of a pilgrimage than a “trip.” The entire focus of the journey was to pray in the places made holy and significant by Jesus. I had the joy of traveling not only with three terrific priests, a deacon, and a group of truly wonderful Catholics, but with our oldest daughter (then six), my mother, and grandmother.
While the guide and goals of that experience were explicitly Christian, and while I saw a great many more churches and sites relevant to the Gospels, one thing about Israel had changed dramatically since 1967. Christian sites were everywhere, but Christian community was not. That is, Christians living in the Holy Land had left in droves. It was still easy to feel the presence of Christ, to imagine Jesus in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, to hear Him preaching on the hillside, or see Him visiting Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany. But the influence of the Christian life, one of peace, humility, and love, was more difficult to perceive. I can’t help but believe that Christianity could and did serve as a much needed buffer between the poles of politicized Judaism and Islam. I wonder too, if there is any peace possible in the Middle East without the presence of those who strive to follow the Prince of Peace in every village, town, and city. A simple glance at history shows that Christian neighborhoods, Christian families, Christian lives, can make a tangible difference in the world.
I think of the Holy Land often. Every time I fantasize about retiring somewhere else, or wish I had the money to travel more, the Holy Land comes to mind. Of course, there are always people who express concern about safety. I figure that when God calls me out of this life, I will answer wherever I am. I can’t imagine a better place to meet Him than in the Holy Land.
Jerusalem is, after all is said and done, the center of the universe--the center of human history as God intervenes in it, at any rate. Sometimes, I wish that our Holy Father would call a new crusade: not one with soldiers and swords, but passports and immigration papers instead. I can’t help but wonder how things might change there if Christians returned en masse to the homeland of Jesus, to the Holy Land.
Benedict’s journey there this week brings all such longings to the surface for me. Perhaps ultimately, to desire peace in Jerusalem is to yearn for the New Jerusalem to come down from Heaven like a bride adorned for her husband. That is something only God can do. It is my hope though, that the presence of one more Christian in the Holy Land this week--one who is called as the successor of Peter-- brings something of the character of Christ to bear on the places He knew and loved. “How beautiful are the feet of them who preach the Gospel of Peace,” especially on the dusty desert roads that felt the steps of Christ.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an author, speaker, musician and serves as Faith Formation Coordinator at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Lynnfield.