The Diocesan pilgrimage to the Holy Land, led by Bishop Philip,on the theme of the Sacraments, was a wonderful unforgettable experience.
Salvation History is familiar to us, the stories from the Old and New Testament, but Salvation Geography, the places where these things really happened, is also important.
We said decades of the rosary at the places associated with the Mysteries. It is extraordinary that there is good reason to suppose that the cave one can see, inside the Church in Nazareth, is really the one where Our Lady’s family were living at the time, and so the probable place of the Annunciation and Incarnation. On the altar it reads “Verbum hic factum est”: “The Word was made flesh here”.
We went up Mount Tabor, the traditional place of the Transfiguration. In Capernaum, which was the base of Our Lord’s ministry in Galilee after he left Nazareth (“on the left of the coach you see the cliff they tried to push Jesus over…”) the foundation is still there of the actual synagogue that the centurion built for the Jews.
I had not known that the “gates of hell” which will not prevail against the Church was not just a metaphor but an actual deep cleft in the ground supposed to be an entrance to the underworld. This was a flourishing site of pagan worship, where there was an old shrine to the god Pan (with “a cult of dancing goats”, no less) and a large temple to the Emperor Augustus.
We also learnt much about the plight of Christians in the Holy Land, squeezed between the Israelis on one hand and the Muslim Arabs on the other, and becoming fewer every year. The Friends of the Holy Land, whose patrons are Cardinal Vincent Nichols and the Archbishop of Canterbury, urge us to support them by prayer, by making pilgrimages there, and financially. In this Diocese our Christmas Offerings at the Crib this year will do this, so please give very generously.
The places of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, outside the city of that time, but so close that they are now inside the much later walls, are covered by elaborate buildings, but still there. It was extremely moving to reach down and touch the actual rock of Calvary, and to go into the cave, “close by”, which is definitely a burial place of exactly the right time and place, and very probably indeed the real one.
We prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the Mount of Olives
We heard Mass in the open air with the Sea of Galilee in the background, at Tabgha, the probable site of the Feeding of the Five Thousand (though we were reminded that this only counted the men, and would have been more like 20,000 in total). We renewed our marriage vows in Cana of Galilee. We went to the place on the River Jordan which is the most likely site for the Baptism of the Lord, and renewed our Baptismal promises nearby.
This has been a war-torn part of the world for thousands of years and still is, but we never felt in any danger at all. When reputable companies like the reliable Tangney Tours feel it is safe, no one need be nervous. (Though our very well-informed guide Rami at one point said “and on the left of the coach we have the plain of Megiddo, Armageddon, where the final battle between good and evil an at the end of the world will traditionally take place”.