People go on pilgrimage for many reasons and our group of 27 probably included most of them. There was the simplest one of getting away for a break, through a lifelong wish to walk on the same ground as Jesus all the way to thanksgiving for life, recovery and health. One pilgrim when asked why she had come said ‘to meet Jesus’ and I thought that summed up our trip. We came from all over the Diocese and whatever brought us together I can say that we were all blessed. We were blessed by each other, the people we met and the places we visited, by Bishop Ralph and Deacon Philip Rogerson and especially by our local guide.
I was warned before setting out to expect some early morning starts and in this the pilgrimage did not disappoint. We started as we meant to carry on with most of us setting off from home by 6.30am, if not the night before. Everything on the tour went smoothly; we didn’t worry about a thing; all our meals were arranged and were either in our hotels or in lovely local restaurants. All the hotels were very comfortable.
We began in Bethlehem. This was not the Bethlehem you’ll see on Christmas cards but if you imagine the political world Jesus was born into you might think of the situation that the Palestinian Christians of today face. We were all affected by what we saw of their life. This included going through a military checkpoint at the wall separating Israel from the Palestinian territories. The holy sites we saw are in the main now commemorated by churches and it was for me initially difficult to appreciate their spiritual significance. Having a mental image of these scenes from the biblical accounts and the many illustrations we encounter was at first disconcerting. As the pilgrimage progressed, however, I began to understand and to feel the weight of the centuries of pilgrims who had trodden the ground ahead of us. The fact that they have been visited now for 2000 years began to bring them alive for me.
The tour included Bethlehem, Bethany, Jericho, Tiberias, Nazareth, Cana, Capernaum and Jerusalem. We also visited the Judean desert and the Mount of Temptation, the river Jordan site where John baptised, we floated in the Dead Sea and sailed on the Sea of Galilee. In Jerusalem we walked the Via Dolorosa as well as visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The highlights for me were the beautiful Chapel of Angels in the fields where it is believed the angels announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, the large modern Basilica of the Annunciation, the ruins of an ancient synagogue in Capernaum, the Church of the Beatitudes set in beautiful gardens, the views of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives and the peaceful Garden of Gethsemane. John the Baptist was born and raised in Ein Kerim and the gardens there were a contrast to the busyness of Jerusalem. I was very impressed to see the Macabee Steps and to learn that these steps were the steps Jesus would have used to cross the Kidron Valley as he travelled between the Temple and the Mount of Olives.
I particularly appreciated our time in Galilee. It was possible here more than anywhere to imagine the life of those first followers of Christ called from their nets, their lives never being the same again.
We met local priests and heard of the hardships of the Christian community and while in Bethlehem we visited Martha’s House. This is a day centre for needy women supported by the Hallam Bethlehem Fund (http://www.hallambethlehemfund.co.uk). The visit emphasised both the importance of supporting Palestinian Christians but also the friendliness and generosity of the people.
The holy sites, the growing friendships in the group and Mass every day meant that we could say at the end of the pilgrimage we had met Jesus.
Having seen the Holy Land, the Easter readings came alive. We stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee at the site of the fish breakfast with the risen Lord; we sailed on the same Sea and ate the same fish as he did; we experienced the desert and imagined 40 days fasting in such an inhospitable place; we walked on the ground he trod and we are blessed by the experience.