“After all the money you paid to travel to the Holy Land,” said Mike, our guide on our first day in Israel and the West Bank, “and after all the difficulty and huge hassle you experienced to make it here because of an East Coast storm that never panned out, why did you come here, anyway? Why not travel elsewhere in the world?”
From the very beginning of our trip to Israel and Palestine, Mike challenged us to look deep into our hearts. “What is the point of this trip, anyway? How is God going to speak to you in the next ten days? The reason you are here is not just to listen to me and enjoy the sights. You are not a tourist, you are a pilgrim. Your goal is to become a better person.”
I’ve been to the Holy Land enough to be convinced that the land itself, often called the fifth gospel, not only has the power to transform the way we read the Bible but can change our minds and hearts as well. Most of all, I recognize that tourists don’t weep. Pilgrims do. As our bus of twenty-one pilgrims approaches Jerusalem on our first day, we listen to Stephen Adam’s stirring song, The Holy City, and tears come to our eyes.
Last night I lay a-sleeping, There came a dream so fair,
I stood in old Jerusalem, Beside the Temple there.
I heard the children singing, And ever as they sang,
Methought the voice of angels From Heav’n in answer rang.
Methought the voice of angels From Heav’n in answer rang.
Chorus: Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Lift up your gates and sing;
Hosanna in the highest, Hosanna to your King.
Our journey starts in Jerusalem on Wednesday as we walk the Palm Sunday path on the Mount of Olives. Halfway down we pause to cry at the Dominus Flevit Church, which means “The Lord Wept.” Luke says, “As Jesus came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.’” (Luke 19:42) We remember the great need of our world for peace, at the same time recognizing that peace begins with us. Tourists don’t weep. Pilgrims do.
In front of the altar, a mosaic of a mother hen covering her chicks reminds us of Jesus’ lament as he enters Jerusalem for the last time and is overwhelmed by the beauty of the temple, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37) May God, our mother hen, protect and nurture all of God’s children.
We enter the Garden of Gethsemane and see an olive tree that has been there since Jesus’ day. A huge stone in the chancel of the nearby Basilica of the Agony (also known as the Church of All Nations) is thought to be the place where a grieved Jesus begs his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” As the disciples fall asleep, Jesus cries out in agony, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” (Luke 19:42) Remembering all of the ways in which we disappoint God by not loving others, we weep and sing, “Stay with me; remain here with me. Watch and pray. Watch and pray.” Tourists don’t weep. Pilgrims do.
On Thursday we visit the Church of St. Peter en Gallicantu, which was built over the spot where Jesus was likely imprisoned in the house of Caiaphas the night before he died. As I look down the hole where Jesus, broken and bloodied, spent the night alone, and as I see powerful artwork depicting the horror of that night, I again weep. I can hardly hold myself together as I pray with our group over this sacred spot.
Together, we ponder Peter’s betrayal of Jesus. Could it be that Peter’s failure was necessary to prepare him for leading the early church? After all, Peter was going to face many trials himself: beatings, torture, abuse and eventual crucifixion himself in Rome. Jesus knew that he was the one who had the personality and gifts to shepherd the early church into existence. If Peter had confessed to being a follower of Jesus, he likely would have been killed and there would be no church today. Moreover, by his forgiveness, Jesus was setting an example not only for Peter but for us. Tourists don’t weep. Pilgrims do.
The next day we visit Caesarea along the Mediterranean Sea. It was here that the apostle Peter met in the home of the Gentile Cornelius, a God-fearer who responded to a vision from God and sent for Peter in Joppa. Peter boldly announced to Cornelius and all those gathered that God showed him in a vision that he should not call anyone profane or unclean, saying, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
The Holy Spirit came upon everyone in the house, even … especially the Gentiles, and Peter baptized them in the name of Jesus Christ. I weep as we recount the story, knowing that Peter’s courage in loving and welcoming those who were considered unclean enabled the Christian church to move beyond a Jewish sect to be a witness to God’s unconditional love and acceptance of all people in this world. No exceptions. Tourists don’t weep. Pilgrims do.
Every site deepens my faith as the Bible comes alive. On Saturday we divert from our itinerary to visit the Eremos Cave. This is the only cave on the Galilean plain and is thought to be the deserted place where Jesus would occasionally withdraw to be alone, pray and renew his spirit. (Mark 1:35) It is also considered to be the authentic site of the Beatitudes rather than the traditional site on the Mount of Beatitudes. Scholars and archaeologists both agree that this was a location where Jesus would have been able to be heard by up to five thousand people at a time.
We walk up a short but very steep hill to visit the Eremos Cave, an isolated, off the tourist path site where an octagonal Byzantine church, no longer standing, was built in the 5th century. A rock with the Beatitudes engraved into it marks the Eremos Cave as a holy place for Jesus, the occasional hermit. Eremos is a Greek work which means isolation and is the root for our English word “hermit.” There is life and energy in the Eremos cave, and we weep. Tourists don’t weep. Pilgrims do.
Gold, silver, elaborate churches, beautiful paintings, mosaics and sculptures. They are all windows into faith. The sights and sounds of the Holy Land will stay with us forever. Yet the best pictures we take are with our soul’s eyes as we decorate our hearts with God’s fervent desire for peace in our world. We leave as pilgrims who weep for both justice and joy. We weep by loving our neighbor, building bridges between people and nations and bringing in the kingdom of God so that every person in our world will experience wholeness and shalom through the grace of Jesus Christ. Tourists don’t weep. Pilgrims do. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.