Like many of the faithful who live in the Western hemisphere, my imagination has often been drawn far to the east, where our Lord lived, died, and rose again. This is especially true around Christmas, when we celebrate what Kierkegaard called the “absurd” proposition of the Incarnation. In this season, we are called to literally “re-orient” ourselves by turning our attention east to where Jesus began his earthly life in the first century. In the life of Christ, we confront a present reality that affects every aspect of our daily lives, and yet is simultaneously so removed from us in time and space as a historical event that it can seem impossible to connect to it.
I had been looking for opportunities to engage with this reality by visiting the Holy Land on pilgrimage for some time, and finally was able to this November. I imagined myself walking in the footsteps of Christ—seeing what he saw, touching what he touched—and being profoundly transformed by the experience.
However, the modern Middle East is beset with its own problems that make such a trip difficult to commit to. While I had wanted to go to the Holy Land for several years, all I had to do was turn on the news to convince myself that “now isn’t a good time.” I was waiting for the right opportunity—the combination of an organized trip with a familiar group and (relatively) peaceful conditions in the Middle East. To those in a similar frame of mind, good luck with the latter!
This past summer, my desire to go on pilgrimage finally overcame my nervousness about travelling to the region. I had a great excuse to go to Israel, unrelated to pilgrimage: a seminar hosted by the Tikvah Fund on “God, Politics, and the Future of Europe,” led by George Weigel in Jerusalem. I resolved to attend, and then to visit some of the sites while I was there. When I told my family and friends of this plan, they were incredulous at best. They pointed me to the US State Department travel warning for the whole region of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. My parents nearly forbade me to go when reports of the stabbings of Jews by Palestinians were all over the news in October. (In the end, we compromised: I attended the conference and then my father joined me for the pilgrimage after.) With the anticipation that my trip would be characterized by fear for personal safety, juxtaposed with awe at the holiness of the place, I set off on my journey.
The Holy Land defied all of my expectations. I landed in Tel Aviv, which was as modern, sleek, and industrial an airport as I’ve seen. I met the guides—Gabe and Jack—at the baggage claim, and they both gave me a big hug, assuring me that I was now instantly part of their family. With my new Palestinian Christian and Armenian brothers, I felt completely safe, from start to finish.
Throughout the trip, I was not oblivious to the tensions that exist in the region. There are soldiers on patrol throughout Jerusalem, who include everyone from seasoned warriors to teenage girls on their mandatory service assignments, all with large guns slung casually over their shoulders. The Jewish quarter of the city is clean and bright; the neighboring Arab quarter is littered with trash on the ground, and there is laundry everywhere. (This has more to do with the way the government controls and ministers to the various populations than their respective habits.) Jews are not even allowed into the West Bank (where Bethlehem is, for example), and all cars passing through must clear a military-controlled checkpoint.
Despite all of this and my preconceived notions about the Middle East from alarmist media coverage, I never once felt physically threatened. I was clearly a tourist (sporting a backpack, tennis shoes, and camera) which meant that I was safe. The local economy relies so much on tourism that an “incident” would be disastrous for everyone. I hope that anyone who reads this and has been hungering for a trip to the Holy Land, but postponing it for safety concerns, will consider visiting soon. Barring some verified catastrophic event, it is safe for pilgrims, and tourism helps financially support our Christian brothers and sisters who live there.
So much for the assumption of danger. My second assumption, about the tangible holiness of the place, was also quickly dismantled. Though there are many examples, I will limit my discussion to the two most significant sites (and, fortunately, the sites best verified by archaeological evidence and supported by tradition): the Church of the Nativity and the Holy Sepulchre.
The former has the cave in which Jesus was probably born. After driving through the checkpoint and navigating the windy, shop-laden streets up into the hills in Bethlehem, we entered the church just as a group of Russian Orthodox priests was about to process through. Had we arrived five minutes later, we would not have seen the cave, since the Russians threw everyone else out of the church promptly after. As I took my five seconds to lean into the precious spot of our Lord’s birth and touch the stone that remained, a camera flash went off behind me. I rose back up, and unceremoniously smacked my eye on a tourist’s iPad, who unapologetically pushed past to get another picture of the cave without me in the way.
The next day, we visited the Holy Sepulchre, which Jerome O’Connor describes thus in the The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide: “One looks for numinous light, but it is dark and cramped. One hopes for peace, but the ear is assailed by a cacophony of warring chants. One desires holiness, only to encounter a jealous possessiveness… The frailty of humanity is nowhere more apparent than here” (49).
Here is perhaps the holiest place in the world—where Jesus was crucified, buried, and rose. To touch the stone on Golgotha, one does not simply approach, or even wait in line, but shoves into a religious mosh of different sects for 30 minutes or so. You finally get the glorious experience of placing your hand on the rock where Jesus died, for a couple seconds, and someone instructs you to move on. Anticipating our visit to the tomb, I had all of these intentions I wanted to pray for and articles for friends to be blessed. When I got into the small, dark room with a slab of marble (several meters above the true burial site) it was all I could do to shove my entire backpack on the slab, and quickly ask for God’s blessing on its contents and the people I promised to pray for.
In short, none of it ended up feeling very holy to me. At first, this was disappointing and confusing—I thought I wasn’t “doing it right,” and was missing out on what was supposed to be an emotionally intimate and life-changing experience. I found myself wishing that I could see things as Jesus saw them. The Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross, for example, is now a modern bazaar. Nevertheless, though the merchandise may have changed, perhaps the place is not so different from what it was in Jesus’ time. It was a chaotic, ordinary street that probably had vendors then, too.
I also wished I could pray quietly in these holy places, without the sea of tourists and pilgrims pushing each other around all the time. However, if you look at the Gospel accounts, Jesus lived in the midst of crowds. He spent much of his life in and among the people, caring for them because they were “like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 9:36). Of course, sometimes he had to get away from it all and retreat to a secluded place to pray (e.g., Mark 1:35). Some of the most beautiful moments of my pilgrimage were spent in Jesus’s quiet places, which remain largely the same as they were in his time—the Garden of Gethsemane, the Sea of Galilee, and the mountainous desert between Jerusalem and Nazareth.
Of course, my experience doesn’t speak for everyone. My mother went on pilgrimage to the same sites a few years ago with a tour group, and came back with a different set of impressions. They had Masses at each of the sites, which gave them time for some of the reflection that my trip was lacking. Furthermore, even in the midst of the chaos, I frequently saw people moved to tears. Like many other things in life, you can’t know what God has for you there until you show up.
Having reflected a bit more on my time there, I know the pilgrimage did change my life…just not in the way I was expecting. I thought I would be overwhelmed by the sites that have come to claim so much historical and global significance, and instead, I was reminded that God in found in absurd places. He defies our expectations so much that even a people waiting for him thousands of years could fail to recognize his coming. In this Advent season especially, it has been a beautiful privilege to reflect on my time in the Middle East, and appreciate God as he chooses to be found. He comes to us in ordinary human form, in an ordinary human place, and in ordinary bread in the Mass. From my expectations about physical safety to the emotional impact of the pilgrimage, I am grateful that God is in the business of the absurd—of making the ordinary extraordinary, and himself ordinary enough for us to experience.