A visit to the land of the Bible is a return to the origins, to the roots that continue to ground us in history and nourish us spiritually. It is more than a return to the spiritual homeland; it is truly a return home. Because of this, such a rich experience strengthens our most profound identity. Yet, such a visit is also a pilgrimage, a going forth on a journey of faith, in faith and for faith, so that with new vigor faith can produce abundant and lasting fruit. Because of this, such a dynamic experience empowers us for mission.
Pilgrimage in Scripture
The theme of pilgrimage is found throughout the pages of Scripture. Among the most well-known stories of journey are Abraham and Sarah’s migration to Canaan, the Hebrews’ desert wanderings on their way to the Promised Land, the holy family’s yearly pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Jesus’ itinerant ministry throughout the Galilee and his momentous journey to the holy city. Many psalms of the Bible attest to the burning desire to visit the holy places, and express the delight of being there: “I rejoiced when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord. And now our feet are standing within your gates, o Jerusalem!” (Psalm 122); “If I forget you Jerusalem, may I forget my right hand. May my tongue stick to my palate if I do not remember you, if I do not exalt Jerusalem beyond all my delights” (Ps. 137). Other psalms express this same passion, these same intense emotions, most notably psalms 68, 84, 87, 118, 147.
Pilgrimage in History
Across the centuries sinners and saints, conquerors and pilgrims, have been moved, surprised, transformed by this unique land. Even those modern hesitant tourists, who arrive with muted expectations, are wonderfully amazed by its stunning and diverse natural beauty, its varied microclimates, its ancient ruins coexisting with the modern abundance and forward-looking progress. They marvel at the integration of diverse peoples, languages cultures and ways of life, sharing a land that can be traversed in automobile from North to South in a mere six hours, and from East to West is about two. But they are even more startled at the unforeseen powerful, and lasting, effects this experience has on them.
The memory of what happened in Israel is fresh and palpable. It has been said that the word ‘here’ has a truly significant meaning in Israel. In Nazareth we read, “Here, from the Virgin Mary, the Word Became Flesh.” In Bethlehem we read, “Here, from the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ was born.” Upon arrival in Jerusalem often pilgrims pray the 122th psalm with stunning realism, “I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’ And now our feet are standing within your gates, o Jerusalem!” At Capernaum we can read about Jesus’ healings of the townspeople at the threshold of the door of Peter’s house, just a mere few feet away from the historical threshold. On a boat on the Sea of Galilee we read the story of the calming of the storm, and on its shores we can almost hear echoes of Jesus’ voice as he calls of the first disciples. These stories will never sound or be read the same way again by the pilgrim. They will throb with new energy and vitality. Every hill, river, desert, sea, flower and creature witnesses to what took place there. It is true that the Holy Land is exceptional and different. Before there was a Lourdes or a Fatima there was a Nazareth, before there was a Rome or Vatican there was a Capernaum, before there was an Assisi there was a Bethlehem. Indeed, the land of the Bible is not only the foundation, it is entirely unique.
This is a land where the most common souvenirs are the fruit of the land: wood, stone, soil, oil, and water. The land itself seems to beckon us as a mother yearning for her children. All who come to love this land can say aloud with the psalmist, “this one was born in Zion!” (Ps. 87). Like Moses we hear the words, “remove the sandals from your feet, for the ground upon which you stand is holy” (Ex. 3).
Experiencing the Pilgrimage – Feeling Faith
The Holy Land is a meeting place of cultures and peoples of different faiths, but it is also a meeting place – a place of encounter – with the divine, and with the deepest longings of the human heart. It is a place where blessings and signs are received in the meeting of locals, or with other pilgrims from around the world, or with unexpected little experiences along the way. The smallest sign can inspire the most heartfelt experience of God’s voice, God’s hand, God’s face, God’s heart. Indeed, this land has been called “the fifth Gospel,” because what the scriptures say with words, this land says with its landscapes, rivers, lakes, and atmosphere. Yet, this land is also a living sacrament, a graced and transformative encounter with God. As a friend expressed to me in simple words, but with profound emotion, “There is something there.” The peoples and cultures, the stones and structures, the ancient and modern, all pulsate with life. By touching these places, it has been said, we are touched by them. Like Moses we cannot return from the ‘mountain of the Lord’ the same. We are changed. We are transformed in the way we think, see, value, believe and live.
Pilgrimage as a family
I have been visiting Israel since 1979 at the age of fifteen. Since then I have visited Israel with church groups, and have led educational and pilgrimage experiences there. And this summer I had the blessing of visiting as a family with my wife and daughter. I can confidently attest that every visit is as the first, wholly unique, extra-ordinary and life-changing. This summer’s visit was possible because of the priceless helpful guidance, encouragement and professional help of Travelujah. With Travelujah we were able to plan our visit, book hotels, and drive on our own throughout the country experiencing it as natives. Travelujah’s experience and commitment to groups and to individual pilgrims and tourists is gold-star! As I continue to look forward to many visits home to Israel, I know that I have a family, the team of Travelujah, proficient and eager to guide me and those with me. I can depend on Travelujah’s outstanding organization, resources and service, so that our visit will be as wonderful and fruitful as every pilgrim hopes.
“Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths. For the law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 2:3)
“But go, tell his disciples…’He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'” (Mark 16:7)
“They asked him, ‘Lord, where do you live?’ Jesus answered, ‘Come and see…'” (John 1:35-42)
SHALOM! And…”May the Lord bless you from Zion!” (Psalm 128:5)
George Rodriguez, D. Min. is the chair of the theology at the Msgr Edward Pace High School in Miami, Florida.
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