*I wrote this article in February of 2013 and it never got published…until now. I will be returning to the Holy Land in January of 2014, so I decided to bring this article out of hiding in preparation for my trip.*
As we journeyed down the Via Dolorosa, our tour guide Deeb described in detail what happened at each station of the cross. “According to tradition,” he said, “the fourth station of the cross is where Jesus would have met his mother on the way to the place of crucifixion.” After a few quick pictures, Deeb continued, “today, this also marks the spot where we will be having our lunch break. You may choose shawarma or pizza.”
This symbolic clash of old and new was not lost on our group, because after a week travelling in the Holy Land, we had witnessed the contrast that had become the modern pilgrimage to Israel. Old combined with new. Tradition clashed with modernity. Science conflicted with faith. Sacred space became unrecognizable at points amidst the crowds and street vendors. Yet despite these challenges, we found a story there that was worth telling.
Thirty-two young clergy and spouses (including Bishop Goodpaster) from the Western North Carolina Annual Conference traveled to the Holy Land in early February for a seven day pilgrimage retracing the life and ministry of Jesus. It was a journey that included stops in Bethlehem, Jericho, The Sea of Galilee, Tiberias, and Jerusalem. It was also a journey that included stops at places that cannot be found on a map. Scenes that cannot be taught in seminary. Stories that are timeless. Old combined with new.
We got the sense that this journey was more than simply a tour of holy sites during our first day in Bethlehem. The weather was cold and rainy and we found shelter in a cave at the Shepherd’s Fields, the place where the angels would have traditionally visited the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus. There, away from the crowds, we imagined what it would have been like for Mary and Joseph to seek shelter in a nearby cave 2,000 years ago. As we sang, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and read from the birth narrative in Luke 2, we began to catch a glimpse of what our time in the Holy Land would be about. We saw that perhaps this journey was less about being a tourist and more about being a pilgrim. That we were part of an unfolding story, not just another tour group.
The goal of tourist, as we would come to understand, is to take. In contrast, the goal of a pilgrim is to give. Tourists ask the question, “what can this trip offer me?” while pilgrims ask, “what can I leave behind?” As Drew McIntyre (one of the pilgrims) professed, “pilgrims have skin in the game. Tourists don’t.” Pilgrims are open to experiencing the presence of God in the midst of a rainy day in a cave in the middle of a field. Tourists are there to take pictures.
This contrast became even sharper as the pilgrimage continued. We left the bright lights of Bethlehem and Jerusalem behind and traveled north to the region of Galilee for a night in Tiberias. After taking a boat ride across the Sea of Galilee, we found ourselves at the top of the Mount of Beatitudes, near where Jesus would have delivered the Sermon on the Mount. We briefly toured the church which adorns the top of the mountain (along with several other tour groups) before hiking down the mountain back toward the Sea of Galilee. We made it to the shore to find that we were the only ones there. The crowds were gone. The sun was setting. Some touched the water, while others waded in. No one spoke a word, because we didn’t need to speak. We needed to be still. And listen.
As we left Galilee and traveled back south, we made a pit stop at Jacob’s Well in the modern-day town of Nablus. We were reminded of Jesus’ visit to this same Samaritan well in John 4. As we drank from the well via an old winch, rope, and bucket, we couldn’t help but feel the connection to all of the thirsty people who had come to this well before us. Perhaps some, like the Samaritan woman in John 4, were spiritually thirsty. And perhaps some of these pilgrims took Jesus up on his offer for living water. This old, ancient source of water served as a new source of life. And we left replenished.
We traveled from there back to Jerusalem for the final two days of our pilgrimage, this time visiting the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Western Wall, and the Dome of the Rock. And as our pilgrimage came to an end there on the Via Dolorosa, the contrast once again came into focus. We understood that the task upon our return was the same challenge we had just experienced: How could we take an old, timeless, historic lesson and transform new lives? The story has always been worth telling, the challenge is taking an old message and bringing it to new people in new ways. And this new pilgrimage is just beginning.