Well, we’ve launched. We gathered very early Wednesday morning at Edmonton International for our journey to the Holy Land. In spite of the sleepy eyes and frequent yawns, what possessed us was a deep excitement at what was about to take place. No wonder. We were about to embark on a journey to places made holy by the very presence of Jesus himself.
I believe it was that excitement the sustained us during the long journey. Well, that and the Eucharist, of course, which we were blessed to be able to celebrate at the Toronto Airport chapel.
There are no two ways about it: the first leg is brutal. A four hour flight to Toronto, followed by a twelve hour overnight run to Tel Aviv. That’s not the end of it. No sooner did we pick up our luggage than we were whisked off to the buses to begin our series of visits! Rest? We don’t need rest!
The first site was Caesarea Maritima, an hour or so north along the Mediterranean coast. This is the place of an ancient city and fortress complex built by King Herod the Great between 22 and 10 BC. However, one can only imagine (with the help of a short film) what it had been like, because now it is all in ruins following centuries of natural disasters, wars and neglect.
From the point of view of the pilgrimage, there is an important observation to be made here. The ruins are, well, ruins. That is to say, they testify rather eloquently to the transience of human achievement. Looking at ruins here in the Holy Land puts one in mind of the teaching of Jesus: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (Matthew 24:35). What endures eternally is the living Word of God. While human edifices fade away, what God chooses to build by the power of his Word will last always.
That “edifice” is the Church, the Body of Christ, the Temple of “living stones,” founded on the witness of the apostles. We have journeyed to the place where that foundation was put down; travelled, in other words, to our beginnings as the People of God called together by Baptism to be a community of disciples and living witnesses to Jesus Christ.
It was in this context that we turned to a beautiful passage from Sacred Scripture. This first day in the Holy Land was the liturgical Feast of St. Andrew. This led us to read and ponder the account of Andrew’s encounter with Jesus Christ, from which he went in haste to his brother Simon Peter in order that he, too, might meet the Messiah (cf. John 1:35-42). Inspired by this event, we prayed to St. Andrew that he will lead us by his prayers to a renewed encounter with our Lord during these next few days. Specifically, we shall ask him to pray that Jesus will both pose to us the same question he addressed to Andrew (“What are you looking for?”) and draw us to find in Him the answer to all of our deepest longings.
Caesarea Maritima is also the place from where experts believe St. Paul set sail under guard to meet his destiny in Rome (cf. Acts 23-27). Sobering, that. Witness is costly.
Yet, we are clear that what we are undertaking these days is an “itinerary of conviction.” This is a phrase borrowed from the late Fr. Luigi Giussani, founder of Communione e Liberazione. Through the various ways they were enabled to walk the itinerary of Jesus, St. Paul and the Twelve Apostles were led to the unshakeable conviction that Jesus is Lord and Saviour of the human race. Such conviction issues is steadfast witness, whatever the cost. The circumstances of St. Paul’s departure from Caesarea reminds us that the price of faithful testimony may, indeed, be high. We are praying that our own itinerary of conviction these days will deepen our resolve to be witnesses to the love of God revealed in Christ.
From Caesarea Maritima, we travelled northeast to the Sea of Galilee, where we will lodge for a few nights on its shores in a hotel in the city of Tiberias. You know, I’ve been to this area a number of times now, yet the first sight of the “lake” never fails to awaken in me deep wonder and awe. Here is the locale of the call of the first disciples, of the miracles of healing and multiplication, of the Lord’s wondrous teaching, such as the Beatitudes, and much, much more. But visiting the sites associated with all of that will have to wait a bit. For now, we are exhausted from the long journey and are looking forward to a good night’s rest.