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The God-Trodden Land

text by George Martin
photographs by Miriam Sushman


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For nearly 2,000 years, countless numbers of Christians have followed in the paths of Jesus, making their way on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and the city of Jerusalem.

Pilgrimage is a deeply rooted religious tradition. For Jews, Christians and Muslims, Abraham is the prototypical pilgrim, obeying God’s call to “go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). Elijah provides another prototype: he “walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb)” (1 Kings 19:8). Pilgrimage is travel from the familiar, from our land to a holy land.

Yet this seemingly simple notion of pilgrimage masks a complex reality. Often it is only after a pilgrimage has been completed that one realizes what one was seeking and what one found.

I ask those whom I take on pilgrimage to the Holy Land what aspect of the pilgrimage they look forward to most. Their responses invariably fall into a pattern. Some say “to walk where Jesus walked” or “to be where Jesus lived and taught.” Some express the desire “to see the places I’ve read about in the Bible.”

If I were to probe a bit and ask, “Why do you want to walk where Jesus walked?” some might say they are setting out in the hope of encountering the holy – going, like Elijah, in search of God’s presence. Elijah went to the mountain where God had given the Law to Moses, but Elijah’s encounter with God was not what he anticipated. While there was wind and earthquake and fire, as had accompanied the giving of the Law, God was not in them. Instead God spoke to Elijah in a “tiny whispering sound” (1 Kings 19:11-12).

So too, in the course of their pilgrimage, many modern pilgrims do not encounter God in the manner they expected. The Holy Land is a land of surprises. While pilgrimages need to be carefully planned, God’s grace cannot be programmed.

A pilgrimage to the Holy Land is no guarantee of attaining holiness. St. Gregory of Nyssa visited Jerusalem in 380 and was not impressed: “If God’s grace were more plentiful around Jerusalem than elsewhere, then its inhabitants would not make sin so much the fashion. But as it is, there is no sort of filthy conduct they do not practice – cheating, adultery, theft, idolatry, poisoning, quarreling and murder are commonplace.”

Many come on pilgrimage in the hope of understanding Scripture better. St. Jerome could be their patron saint. Jerome moved to Bethlehem in 384 to study and translate the Bible. With a nod to Gregory he acknowledged that Jerusalem was crowded “with the whole variety of people you normally find in cities – prostitutes, actors and clowns.” However, he held that making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land helped one understand the revealed word of God.

Biblical passages take on greater meaning when they are read on site. Peter’s house in Capernaum, the Pool with Five Porticoes, Gethsemane, Golgotha and the tomb of Jesus – these and many other sites form a “fifth gospel,” which offers a unique testimony to the life of Jesus.

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Tags: Christianity Holy Land Unity Pilgrimage/pilgrims