I’m back from the Holy Land; tired and exhausted yet inspired, challenged, and eager to share the stories with you. My experience of pilgrimage to the Holy Land was almost overwhelming. Every day, everywhere we went, there were biblical sites, holy sites, and historical sites, piled upon one another and impossible to see them all.
Galilee was beautiful. We were there during the rainy season and everything was green (green by Galilean standards). Standing on the top of the Cliffs of Arbela overlooking the western edge of the Sea of Galilee (which is no more than a modest-sized lake) one can see the very route from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee that Jesus walked. Furthermore, clustered along the lake’s coastline, all within view because they are no more than a few miles from one another are the remains of the villages of Magdala (the home place of Mary Magdalene) and Capernaum. Beyond that, up where the Jordan River runs into the Sea of Galilee, is Bethsaida. All of these villages are easily within walking distances of one another and most all of Jesus’ Galilean ministry happened within these few miles.
Besides how close everything is – it is a very small country – I was struck by how hilly it is. Nothing is built on flat ground; even Jerusalem is built upon a series of hills. Those Galilean villages, so close as the crow flies, are separated by hill after hill. It made we wonder if Jesus walked on the water because it was the only flat and direct way to get somewhere.
We spent a week in Galilee, each morning taking bus rides to different sites and each afternoon we were free to explore more sites or to rest and reflect, pray and write in our journals. The second week we stayed in Jerusalem in a hotel across the street from the wall of the Old City. Outside the city wall, Jerusalem is a bustling modern city. Inside the old walls it is an ancient city with narrow streets made for walking, crowded with tiny shops selling everything imaginable to tourists and pilgrims, the shop owners all yelling, “Come into my shop!” “Very cheap!” and, “This rug is $80 but for you, my friend, I sell it for $40.”
We visited the holiest shrines in Christendom: the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem (inside are the traditional sites of both the crucifixion and the empty tomb of the resurrection). We viewed Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives and walked across the Kidron Valley, through the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Via Dolorosa (the way of suffering). We saw Nazareth up in Galilee and the Mountain of Temptation down near the Dead Sea where Jesus fasted for forty days and was tempted (there’s a restaurant for tourists built on the traditional site of Jesus’ fasting!).
But the highlights for me, without a doubt, were the conversations with Palestinian Christians who are seeking to be faithful to Jesus of Nazareth and his Way of Peace, in face of powerful oppression, violence, and injustice. For example, I visited with Rev. Mitri Raheb, pastor the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem about the ministries of education and empowerment for the Palestinian people. Mitri said there were five things about this Holy Land we needed to know:
(1) There’s too much “peace-talking” and not enough “peace-making.” Like Jeremiah, there is talk of “peace, peace but there is no peace.”
(2) There’s too much politics and not enough care for the polis (the cities where the people live). He said that Condoleeza Rice visited Israel and Palestine 28 times and not one checkpoint was moved.
(3) There’s too much religion and not enough spirituality and real faith.
(4) There’s too much humanitarian aid (it tends to go to agencies and organizations and the Israeli government) and not enough empowerment of the people.
(5) There’s too much “pess-optimism” and not enough biblical hope. “Pess-optimism” is the back and forth between how people feel about the situation in the Middle East. It is up and down, back and forth. But biblical hope is more solid, foundational and leads to the transformation of people from spectators to participants.
I discovered much of the same on a free day visit to the village of Ibillin in Galilee and the home of the Mars Elias School and the work of Archbishop Elias Chacour, whom many consider a modern-day Martin Luther King in Israel. Father Chacour, whom I had the great honor to meet, is a Palestinian Christian who witnessed as a boy his childhood home and village bulldozed by Israel. Nevertheless, he has spent his life and ministry working for the reconciliation of Jews, Muslims, and Christians. His school has Christian children and Muslim children learning how to respect one another. Jewish children are welcome but none come. The Israelis are deeply suspicious of all the school does and what Father Chacour does, although the school does have Jewish teachers along with Muslim and Christian teachers.
A Mennonite friend of mine and I went by car over to the village and toured the school and church. A young Mennonite woman intern from the U. S. greeted us. I got out of the car and she hugged my neck, telling me that she graduated from Elkhart Seminary last May when I gave the commencement address. She and a Palestinian Christian man, who is active in the church and is in charge of construction and maintenance at the church and school, gave us a tour. At one point, we paused in the beautiful Melkite Catholic Church (Roman Catholic but Greek Orthodox in its liturgy, doctrine, and tradition) and he asked me to stand in the back to hear the acoustics. Standing in front of the iconostasis (the screen between the altar and the nave) he began to sing and chant the ancient liturgy. I heard those old, old words, from the back, surrounded by icons of biblical heroes as well as contemporary ones like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, and Archbishop Oscar Romero, and I was mindful of the witness of these Palestinian Christians who at great sacrifice and risk pointed to Christ. And I knew that I was near Jesus.
It was among those Christians where I found the holy land. Or as Father Elias Chacour says, “It is not the ancient stones and shrines which make this land holy but the living stones of Palestinians and Jews who sanctify this land by what they do to make God present.