Prepping us for the eight days ahead, the Jesuit leading our pilgrimage to the Holy Land said our time together would be less like a tour and more like a spiritual retreat. As it unfolded for me, it was also something like time travel by bus.
Billed as an opportunity to walk “in the footsteps of Jesus,” the trip promised its 100 participants a chance to see for ourselves the places we’d been reading and hearing about since childhood.
Given the turbulence roiling the present day church, the prospect of exploring its origins beckoned as a welcome respite, a refresher on the stories that shaped our beliefs in the first place.
At Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, our group was herded onto a couple of buses for the two-hour ride north toward Galilee. Israel is not much bigger than New Jersey, and our journey on Yitzhak Rabin Highway felt not that different than a cruise up the Jersey Turnpike. It seemed an odd access road to the antiquities that lay ahead.
It didn’t take long to learn, in conversations across the aisle, that it was a 2014 book called “Jesus: A Pilgrimage” that sparked many of us to make one of our own. It was written by Rev. James Martin, S.J., the priest at the front of the bus.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley recommends the book not only to “fervent disciples” but to “questioning observers,” a swath of humanity inclusive enough for my wife, Carol, and me to feel right at home. We’re both cradle Catholics who, like the nation of Israel, are celebrating our 70th birthdays this year. Despite issues with some of its traditions and practices, neither of us has strayed too far from our roots in the Church of Rome.
Not wanting to appear too pious, though, I’d described our upcoming trip to friends not as a pilgrimage but as our first-ever visit to Israel. Although sites like Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal draw dramatically bigger crowds each year, the Israeli Tourism Ministry says Christian pilgrimage traffic to Israel is growing.
We arrived a couple of months before the United States moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a decision that touched off violence, leaving more than 100 Palestinians dead, most of them shot by Israeli snipers.
There was no sign of conflict as our fancy buses made the winding climb up the hillside known as the Mount of Beatitudes. We caught a glimpse of the lake known as the Sea of Galilee and the appeal of this trip began sinking in.
My most memorable travel experiences have involved places where something important happened — sometimes big in history, sometimes personally so. Standing in Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island, for example, I got a picture of South African apartheid unavailable to me before.
Of less note historically — actually of zero note historically — is the hillside church in County Donegal where my Irish grandmother was baptized on the day she was born in September 1870. My visit 142 years later fleshed out a part of my own story that was previously as invisible as it was distant.
It turns out there’s a Latin word that sums up this idea of, well, being on the spot. Hic. Throughout the Holy Land, those three letters show up in plaques and liturgies as a reminder of exactly where those Bible stories happened: Here!
On the Mount of Beatitudes, we were here, the place where scripture recounts Jesus talking about the merciful finding mercy, those who mourn receiving comfort, even the meek inheriting the earth. Absorbing the Sermon on the Mount within a short drive of the Syrian border was uncomfortably riveting. One of our group kept nudging the rest of us to consider the sort of help that a modern day version of the sermon might prescribe for refugees so near and yet so far.
Like a lot of people, I’ve often faced a big leap trying to envision what it was like for the followers of Jesus. It’s a problem that Jesuit spirituality addresses by encouraging people to use their imaginations to embed themselves in Gospel stories. Now, on the side of the hill just up from the still water below, I was beginning to find the leap less far.
Helpful in all this was the magazine tucked in Carol’s backpack: the December issue of National Geographic, its cover story headlined “The Real Jesus: What Archaeology Reveals About His Life.” Addressing readers whose beliefs range from ardent to zilch, the magazine’s Kristin Romey relied on archeology and history to tell the story of a man named Jesus walking and talking and dying in the places we were visiting.
My skepticism at bay, it was time to pay a visit to Capernaum, the town Jesus called home during the three years of his active ministry. For reasons of geography, we’d be tracking the life of Jesus backward from those years to his birth in Bethlehem before arriving, at the end of our journey, in Jerusalem for his final days.
It’s unclear whether Jesus had his own place. Scripture does, after all, quote him as declaring that “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” But scholars express confidence that he spent considerable time in Capernaum at the home of the apostle Peter’s mother-in-law.
I found the best view of the home’s remains from above, through a window built into the floor of a church erected atop the site in 1990. It was the first of several times that I found myself trying to grasp the past by peering at its ruins from above. The transparent floor was just the right vantage point to imagine the scene from Mark’s Gospel of a paralyzed man being lowered through the roof when crowds blocked the path to Jesus via the front door.
Some of the best evidence that Jesus actually spent time in the room below is graffiti found scrawled on its walls in Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke), Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Syriac. I left the scene feeling — if not fully transported to biblical times — at least as if I was beginning to do some footstep walking.
The next morning, we set off for the one-hour journey to Nazareth, Jesus’s home for his so-called “Hidden Years” before going public at age 30. Known as “the Arab capital of Israel,” Nazareth has enjoyed a modest tech boom in recent years. The most striking structure visible from the bus was an R&D facility opened in 2016 by Microsoft.
For the most part, though, the bumpy roads and run-down buildings reflected the disparity of prosperity between Arab and Israeli areas. Father Martin noted that Nazareth was considered “a backwater of a backwater” in the first century, a reminder that Jesus’s alliance with the poor didn’t require much of a leap on his part.
Crossing into areas administered by the Palestinian Authority underlined the stark fissures in this land of 6.5 million Jews, 1.8 million Muslims, and 400,000 others.
As we breezed through the checkpoint en route from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, we observed from the comfort of our buses the long queue of West Bank residents awaiting clearance to exit territory enclosed by walls as high as 25 feet. Witnessing firsthand the Israeli domination of Palestinian populations — Christian as well as Muslim — became an unmistakable byproduct of the pilgrimage.
Not all of the popular stops along the pilgrim’s trail are as well documented as others. “Tradition may claim it,” Father Martin said of the spot where Joseph is supposed to have set up his carpentry shop, “but most scholars do not.”
Observing some of the most striking settings requires a bit of dexterity, especially the steep and narrow entrance to the tomb where the Gospel of John recounts Jesus raising Lazarus after he had been dead for four days. Other spots, like the so-called “sacred pit” where Jesus may have been held overnight before his crucifixion, don’t appear in scripture at all. But our quiet time there offered a glimpse of what death row might have been like at the time.
Silence is a hallmark of Jesuit spirituality, a blessing not always on offer as groups from the world over converge on popular sites. As we made our way down into the cave believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, the pushy leader of an Italian tour group right behind us seemed intent on breaking the mood. Thanks to the quick thinking of several in our group still in front of him on the stairs, it emerged that a little blocking (if not tackling) can do wonders in a holy place.
The trip served up some surprises. At the Church of the Annunciation, I found myself choking up as one of the Jesuits helping lead the pilgrimage, Cape Cod native Father Matt Malone, sang a rendition of Ave Maria so heartfelt that it left me feeling the presence of my long departed mom.
On the final day of the pilgrimage, we stood in line for two hours to visit what is often described as the holiest site in Christendom: the tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It’s the place where scripture recounts Jesus rising from the dead after his crucifixion.
As much as there was nothing holy about the unruly queue we endured to get in, fumbling our way through conflict in pursuit of the sacred seemed not unlike what we’re up to in the life of the church these days.
Once inside the tomb, we were hustled out after just a couple of moments. Exiting the place where Jesus is said to have done likewise seemed like a pretty good way to conclude a pilgrimage in the time of turmoil.
If you go . . .
It’s possible to visit Israel’s many holy sites on your own or as part of a tour or a pilgrimage. The only nonstop between Boston’s Logan Airport and Tel Aviv is operated by the Israeli airline, El Al. Elal.com shows round trip fares from about $1,000 for flights this fall. Less expensive fares are available on other airlines with a change of planes. Tour and pilgrimage prices vary widely, ranging from about $1,500 to more than $4,500 for a seven- or eight-day program, not including airfare.
Bill Mitchell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.