Since writing my last Reflection, “Let Us Go to Bethlehem to See,” I have gone to Bethlehem and seen. I also went to Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, the Mount of Transfiguration, the place where Jesus celebrated the Last Support with his disciples, the Garden of Gethsemane, the site of Jesus’ condemnation and Peter’s denial, the Way of the Cross, Golgotha, the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus rose from the dead, and the Mount of Olives where he ascended.
I had the literally wonderful opportunity to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where the eternal Word of God dwelt among us. Being there – on the shore of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus walked and taught and healed, in the tomb where Jesus rose to glorious new life – was an experience that defies words. Moments there were among the greatest of my life and, in many significant ways, I don’t think my life will ever be the same. I would love to go back some day, and perhaps I will. But part of the wonder of my experience in the Holy Land was realizing I don’t have to.
Being in the Holy Land, one is struck, not only the holiness of Jesus’ living and dying and rising in that place. One is also inescapably aware of the holiness of that place to Muslims and Jews and, with much sadness and regret, of the conflicts between them and with Christians in the past and in the present. I tried to learn and better understand the ways my Jewish and Muslim brethren regard that land as holy and experience God’s presence there. I don’t, and probably can’t, understand that well, and I do not intend to judge what I do not understand. I do find it significant, however, that of the three major religions that call this and other lands holy, Christianity is the only one that has never made pilgrimage a universal requirement.
Individual Christians have been required, sometimes as penance, to go on pilgrimage. But pilgrimage has never been required of Christians in general. Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land are numerous and our ubiquitous presence and the money we spend at gift shops and restaurants make for big business. But we don’t have to go on pilgrimage. Maybe it is ironic that I more fully realized that as a pilgrim in the Holy Land.
I am thinking, specifically, about my experience at the holiest site of all: The Holy Sepulchre, the tomb that Jesus left empty after he rose from the dead. I celebrated the Eucharist there and it was not empty. It was not just that I was there; Jesus’ body was there. The body of Jesus that was so wonderfully not there after he had risen from the dead was there again. He was there in the Eucharist and in me and my fellow pilgrims who celebrated and received the Eucharist there. He was there, not as he had been when he was laid there by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus after his death on the cross. He was there as he was when he rose, teeming with a glorious, new, and everlasting life unaccountably beyond anything human beings had yet imagined. He was newly and boundlessly alive in that place on that first Easter morning. What a joy it was to know that he was there again, in the Eucharist, in me, in us.
Jesus lives. And knowing that life if the place where it first burst forth was an experience like no other. But Jesus lives there in the same way he lives here and everywhere: in the Eucharist celebrated on all the altars and present in all the tabernacles in all the world, in the Church that is his body, in his word proclaimed to all the earth, in his Spirit in whom we live and move and have his being. Jesus lives here because he first lived there. That place is holy because, by rising in that place, the life of the living God has arisen in this place and every place where His word has gone forth and His Spirit has moved.
Our places may not seem like much. People from far-off lands may not be flocking to our homes, workplaces, classrooms, or hospital beds. Pilgrims may not be coming to us and we may not be going on pilgrimage. But Jesus is here, as much and as sure as he was there. We can go and see and, if you can, I highly recommend it. But you don’t have to. You can go to him by knowing that he comes to you, in all the splendor and wonder of his risen and glorious new life.