It’s difficult to believe that on Monday morning I was walking around Herod the Great’s palace on the banks of the Mediterranean in full sunshine and enjoying 26 degrees of heat!
My week in the Holy Land was an amazing experience. To walk the narrow streets of the Old City, Jerusalem, to place my hands and head against the foundation wall of Solomon’s temple in prayer, in fact just to be present at such an important place in Jewish and Christian and Muslim history was quite breathtaking. For the great monotheistic religions of the world Jerusalem is really the centre of the world – it feels like it. To walk the streets Jesus walked, the steps he ascended to enter the city, the sea he sailed on, taught from, the shore he cooked on, is incredible. At each and every site we visited I was brought back to a Gospel passage I have considered, or read aloud in church. Yes, the bible came to life in a way I have never experienced before. I recommend the experience.
Last week I wrote to you from Jerusalem, where I was on pilgrimage with a group from churches in Chiswick and Bristol. We are now all safely home again after continuing our journey, visiting many well-known Biblical sites in Bethlehem, Samaria and Galilee. But the purpose of a visit to the Holy Land is primarily to deepen our understanding of the incarnation. The Holy Land is a place where Jesus is present, not past. We are reminded that the birth of Christ is more than just a historical event: in the life of the Church it’s a contemporary reality. So it’s good to remember that Jesus walked along this road, and taught on this particular beach, but only if it reminds us that Jesus still walks, still teaches and still locates himself amongst the poorest and most oppressed. The dead stones are dumb without the living stones, the hard-pressed Christian communities of the Middle East. Last Sunday we celebrated the Eucharist with the congregation of Christ Church, the Anglican church in Nazareth, using a combination of Arabic and English liturgies, which for many of us was a very moving experience.
However, we were not merely religious tourists. We visited the Bethlehem Arab Society for Rehabilitation, founded in 1960 as a Leonard Cheshire home, where we met Mary, a wonderfully articulate Palestinian Christian. The notorious Security Wall, adjacent to the hospital, means that she cannot expand the vital work undertaken by her team. This is a great frustration for them in that desperately poor city where increasing numbers of people are seeking medical care. It is people such as Mary who brought to life for us the real Bethlehem, where God’s grace meets human need. Such meetings are difficult to experience, but that’s the point. It’s this tough, sinful, broken world that the incarnate Christ touches and changes, not one dreamed up in our Western imaginations. Jesus was born in an occupied nation, amongst an oppressed people, so it’s no surprise that this is where we find him.
I can heartily commend a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, It’s a wonderful experience and we receive different insights and experiences on each visit. But it’s not a trip down Memory Lane, it’s a place where we encounter the Risen Christ amongst the living stones.
With every blessing