14I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.
John 17:14-19 (NRSV)
We have now been home for three days and life is slowly returning to a sense of normalcy. The familiar routines are returning so that the rhythms of my life are once again aligning with the community I serve. Sleep is slowly returning; no more waking up at 3:00 or 4:00AM and feeling exhausted at 6:00PM. While we will shortly be leaving once again on another pilgrimage, albeit a very different kind of pilgrimage, I am grateful for these past few days to reflect upon my experiences in the Holy Land.
Before I offer some of my personal highlights, I feel the need to put this pilgrimage in context, or at least the context for me personally. As many of you already know this was my second pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I have been once before in 1999 when I was 17 years old. In preparation for that first pilgrimage I was told repeatedly that this would be some sort transformational experience. People had hyped it up so much I was expecting the heavens to open up with a light shining down upon me.
Needless to say, that did not happen. I was affected by the trip because I have some very clear memories of that trip, yet I must not have connected with all the sites because some memories are gone. I think I struggled with maintaining the balance between tradition and historical fact. During my first pilgrimage my expectations were put through the wringer as I encountered the landscapes of the narratives and heard how archeology and science have cast doubt, not disprove but doubt, on the historicity of the holy sites in the Holy Land. I came home confused and frustrated.
Now fast-forward 16 years, and with that all the events of my life that have shaped my faith and worldview, and I have now been to the Holy Land twice. This time was completely unlike my first experience. I did not have an epiphany in any fantastic way, but I am changed. I am continuing to be formed in many different ways and I am so grateful that I had this opportunity. This time around I acknowledged how science has helped to uncover facts, but I allowed the deep mystically spiritual nature of the sites to help me uncover the truth about Jesus Christ.
One of the high-water marks of the pilgrimage was my visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was such a deeply moving experience to be on the site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus; especially because for me Holy Week is so deeply moving. When I first entered the church there is a long stone embedded into the floor. Above the stone hang six very large and beautifully decorated lamps. The stone is called the Anointing Stone and it is believed that Jesus was laid upon this stone, anointed and prepared for burial. As Lauren and I approached the stone I could barely utter a few words about the stone before choking up. I had seen a stone like this before, though it was not a stone but a hospital table. Upon that table laid my father, and I remember how we prayed over his body and anointed him for the journey ahead. So as I laid my hands upon the stone and prayed I could feel the energy flowing from the stone. I was comforted that even Jesus had to die, the fate that awaits us all. However through his death and by his resurrection we have been given hope that death is not the end, but the beginning.
Lauren and then moved towards the Altar of the Crucifixion. We had to ascend a staircase of steep and smooth steps. These steps have borne the footsteps of pilgrims for centuries. As we approached the altar, under which one can touch the rocks that held the cross, I could not help but feel the emotional weight of that part of the church. The altar is covered in fine linens with many hanging lamps surrounding the area. Rows upon rows of icons are perched on the walls behind the altar. The space is definitely ornate but it reflects the spiritual expression of the Eastern Church that maintains the space. Once again I knelt under the altar and touched the rocks. Once again I felt an energy flow from the rocks.
After making our way down an equally scary staircase we came to the sepulchre itself, the Tomb of Jesus. This is the holiest site in our faith; it is the Mecca or Western Wall of our faith in Jesus Christ. I cannot even begin to describe the experience. It moved me to tears. As I knelt inside his tomb praying I felt a presence, a closeness that I never experienced during my first pilgrimage. It was that thin place when realm of God and the realm of creation become one. It was amazing, powerful, and transformational.
As I walked out of the tomb a verse of scripture kept rolling around in my mind; “in the world, but not of the world” from the Gospel of John. That verse comes to us as Jesus is praying to his Father for his disciples after the Last Supper and before his arrest in Gethsemane. (All places we visited!) I was thinking of this verse because it reminds me of how my faith is to inform my actions and words, but also reminds me that if I am truly following Christ and not my own desires then I will at times be at odds with the world. We are called to live our lives according to the teachings of Jesus; to love God, love our neighbors, love ourselves, to pray, to teach, to serve, and to give of ourselves. As we live out these teachings we will indeed find ourselves swimming upstream against the current of our culture and society. That is as we attempt to bring about the Kingdom of God in the here and now. I know that we as disciples are not of the world, and we cannot escape being in the world, so why not make the biggest impact we can with the time given to us.