Wednesday 19 October 2022

For many years I was hesitant to travel to the Holy Land on pilgrimage. The main reason for my reluctance centres on a fear that my illusions would be shattered and that many of the places associated with Jesus’ life and actions would turn out to be fabrications of later generations. Some of that may be true but archaeology and biblical research have shown that much of the tradition is historically correct and that in certain places one can be sure to have walked on the same ground as Jesus. In 2009 I made my first pilgrimage to Israel, and I came away very moved to have visited the biblical sites and in particular the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. My fears had been allayed by the expert guide who went to great pains to explain things in the tiniest detail. But this pilgrimage wasn’t simply an archaeological visit, I was struck by the people I met continuing the work of Jesus in orphanages, specialist schools, the seminary and Catholic University in Bethlehem, and the religious sisters, priests, and seminarians. These are often referred to as the ‘Living Stones’. Their faith and their active expression of it was something I was unprepared for, and which had a deep effect on me, and opened my eyes. If I have to say which places impressed me most apart from the tomb of Jesus in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, I refer to my second pilgrimage to the Holy Land which wasn’t to Israel but to Jordan. Like Jesus we ’passed through the towns of the Decapolis’ or at least some of them. Beginning at Gadara which is associated with Jesus casting out the demons from the demoniac and sending them into a herd of pigs. To stand at the top of the steep hillside over which the pigs ran in to the river below was a wonderful experience. From that vantage point to the right were the Golan heights, to the left in the distance Mount Tabor and below was the sea of Galilee. The view was awe inspiring because it took in so much of Jesus’ life – and it was a long and broad view – and my eyes were opened. We then went to Jerash, another archaeological site in the Decapolis. In Jesus’ time this was a busy Roman settlement on an important trade route and I realised that Jesus’ ministry was in important cities, and not just villages and small towns. That too was an eye-opener. Lastly, I want to a mention a teenager selling olive wood rosaries in Bethlehem. He was Palestinian whose family had been displaced from their home several generations ago. He was also very persistent when I said that I had enough rosaries. He said that I thought that he and people like him were human rubbish. Obviously, I was disturbed by this remark, but I didn’t want to give in to him. So, I bought two Magnums, sat on a wall with him and listened while we ate our ice creams. I didn’t buy his rosaries, but our conversation opened the eyes of my mind in an unexpected way.

Malcolm McMahon OP

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