Reflections on Holy Land Pilgrimage 2017

During the second half of May, I had the privilege of leading an Eastertide Holy Land Pilgrimage. The group of 25 included pilgrims from both the United States and Canada, 11 of whom were from the Erie area. It was my fifth trip to Israel and Palestine, the first one in 1985 and then four since 2004. In some ways, the spiritual impact of journeying to the Holy Land had been accomplished for me in previous trips. However, leading a group, sharing their experiences and seeing things anew through their eyes was a blessing for me. And the itinerary included a few places I had not been before.

We began with three days in Galilee, staying at the beautiful and restful Pilgerhaus, a German Benedictine guest house. From that base, we saw Nazareth, Cana, and other sites near or around the Sea of Galilee. A particular joy was worshiping on Sunday morning at Christ Church, Nazareth, an Episcopal Church packed with parishioners and pilgrims for a Eucharist in both Arabic and English. In Galilee, I was especially aware that we were immersed in the sights and sounds of the places where Jesus grew up, and where his vision and mission were forged.

Our journey then headed south through the West Bank where we saw vividly the difficulties and challenges of what is often called “the situation,” that is, the continuing occupation of Palestinian territories. This includes the region of Samaria and the town of Nablus, where Jacob’s Well can be found, as well as an Episcopal parish and hospital. The Diocese of Jerusalem supports many such hospitals, clinics, and schools, often in places of great need. Further south, we renewed our Baptismal Covenant at the Jordan River and went on to two days in Bethlehem, arriving the same day President Trump had been there. In addition to the Church of the Nativity, we visited ministries sponsored by Roman Catholics and Lutherans. After a visit to Hebron and the Tombs of the Patriarchs, we made our way to Jerusalem for our final four days.

While in Jerusalem we stayed within the walls of the Old City at a guest house in the former seminary of the Latin Patriarchate. We visited all the holy sites one would expect including the recently restored Tomb of Jesus (Holy Sepulchre). We shared in joyous worship at St. George’s Episcopal Cathedral where I was invited to concelebrate with two bishops from England, one from Trinidad and Tobago, my colleague and co-leader the Dean of Hamilton, and the Dean of Jerusalem, who is an Arab Israeli. And this really was just another typical Sunday at St. George’s!

Along the way our group celebrated the Eucharist on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, in the Shepherd’s Fields in Bethlehem, and, on the final day, at Abu Gosh, one of the sites which recalls Emmaus. At each of these sites, the Roman Catholic custodians were most gracious in providing for our celebrations like any other group of pilgrims. As we were about to leave Abu Gosh, I noted that the statue at the Lady Altar looked like a modern rendition of Our Lady of Walsingham, the principal English image of Mary. As I drew closer, I saw a plaque with the Canterbury Cross on it beside the altar. Stitch by stitch, the broken Body of Christ is being repaired.

In the pilgrimage brochure, I had written, “A pilgrimage to the Holy Land changes things. Past and present, sacred and secular – these are seen in new ways, somehow not so neatly separated as we usually view them. To be at the great biblical sites and the historic holy places alongside the current life of Israel and Palestine is a singular experience which changes how we understand things, and often changes us.” Once again this proved to be true in the experiences of our group. Talk of the next pilgrimage is already beginning.

The Very Rev. Dr. John P. Downey, Dean, the Cathedral of St. Paul

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