David Wilson goes on Pilgrimage to The Holy Land with Bishop Norman of Richborough
As we weaved through the burning tyres, a loud thwack unnerved the shocked pilgrims at the back of the bus. One of the kufiyah–muffled teenagers, agitated at Friday Mosque prayers to lob rocks at the Israeli checkpoint, was counting coup before his friends. Fortunately the stone didn’t come from his sling or there might have been damage. Our guide, Sam, at the front of the bus, heard nothing and assured us that pilgrims were never targeted. Of course not. Later, we were told that some of the boys had been shot. Welcome to an everyday Friday in Bethlehem.
We had started the day in a dream – Mass led by Bishop Norman at the Shepherd’s Field, where the Angels had declared peace and goodwill. There were Christmas presents – a rosary and chocolate money – and laughter in the warm November sunshine, the smiles shortly knocked off our faces as we arrived at the Church of the Nativity and a long queue. For some 3 hours we were caught in a seemingly endless, chaotic crush of fellow pilgrims from every corner of the world, all desperate to venerate at this holiest of Christian shrines. As we slowly wound through ancient mosaics, past wondrous icons, and the scaffolding erected in a frantic effort to preserve this World Heritage treasure, there was time to ponder. Could this really be the actual place where Jesus was born? St Helena visited the Holy Land and established the Christian shrines in ad325–326 on the basis of already long-established traditions of the early Church. It seemed highly probable that oral tradition in such a time-frame was reliable. I concluded that there were broadly three types of shrine in the Holy Land: the almost certainly accurate, often upheld by modern archaeological work; traditional sites accurate to within a few hundred yards – good enough for me – and the certainly fanciful. It is a tribute to McCabe Pilgrimages and Bishop Norman that we mostly avoided the preposterous. My thoughts on the veracity of our pilgrimage were constantly interrupted by queue jumpers, some of them quite aggressive. Then with a final last push down some stairs, we entered the cave which had once served as a simple stable.
I have never really wanted to think about the physical birth of Jesus, bursting into the tomb-like grotto in a flood of pain, blood and water. He entered the world much as he later left it on the cross. Yet here was the spot, off in a corner and marked by the famous 14 pointed silver star, whose theft had once exacerbated the tensions which led to the Crimean War. Not very Christmas card. A few feet away was the site of the comforting manger… angels, shepherds, magi… No words can express the overwhelming preponderance of this place, this meeting point in time and space where The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Right here. Right then. Right now. We were pushed on in seconds by the ‘keep moving’ guards, yet those few seconds engulfed an eternity. Leaving the grotto proved as vexing as entering, as we encountered crowds coming in counter-flow through the only exit. It seemed that if you slipped a large enough ‘donation’ to the Church, or were ‘devout’ Orthodox, or for whatever reason, you could jump the queue of other mere mortals and enter and leave via the exit, holding everyone else up, by hours, in the process. So the rich or pious believe they are blessed and the heart of the Church is corrupted. Blatant injustice was a theme of the day.
A late lunch giving support to the Christian hospital conferring medical care to Bethlehem, including the rehabilitation of bullet-damaged teenagers, was typical of our pilgrimage, designed to actively support the Christian communities of the Holy Land along our way. We returned to our hotel near the Damascus Gate of the Old Walls of Jerusalem through the concrete conglomeration that renders Bethlehem a modern suburb of Jerusalem, the last green spaces between the two rubbed out by Israeli settlements. Like the wise men, we returned by another way, avoiding trouble along the wall which protects Israel from troublesome Arabs, yet tears apart the Holy Land as brutally as a butcher’s cleaver. Early Christian maps show Jerusalem as the centre of the world. So here we were at our planet’s bitter heart: sought after; torn apart; contested; bigoted; bitter; conflicted; despairing; brutal; corrupt and unjust; riven by religion, poverty, power and wealth. This is the Holy Land today. This was the Holy Land in Jesus’s day. Little has changed in two thousand years.
To be able to visit and to pray with our Jewish cousins at the West ‘Wailing’ Wall of the old Temple on the Sabbath the following day was a privilege to remember. A sea of chanting and singing endlessly rolled through the hatted remnants of the tribes of Israel, rocking in prayerful crescendo. Here is the closest point the Jews of today can reach to the ‘Holy of Holies’, the inner Sanctuary of the Tabernacle buried deep in the centre of the 2nd temple (of Jesus’s time); every Jew since the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in ad70, stepping on a glass on his wedding day, with the vow that his happiness will never be complete until the Temple is restored. On top of the Temple Mount late seventh century invading Muslims built mosques, the 3rd most holy in Islam, with restricted access to non-believers. It is all that is stopping Jews from getting to the ruined heart of the Temple and restoring it. Here is the epicentre of conflict in the Middle East, with the ever diminishing Christian community caught in the vortex.
Having worked our way through the Jewish Quarter and into the Christian and Arab Quarters, via a profound Mass of Healing by the remains of the Pool of Bethesda, we lunched at the Ecce Homo Convent, built above the Lithostrotos, the Roman pavement where Jesus was sentenced by Pilate. I could not bring myself to eat in such a place, so fasted and explored the rooftop terraces overlooking the Old City. Behind the scenes, the barbed wire, surveillance cameras and signs pointing to a ‘Safe Place’ spoke volumes of the everyday risk our Sisters take living here. After a service on the ancient Roman paving, we followed the Via Dolorosa, the Stations being an approximation of the way followed by Jesus, the actual route long buried under the re-built layers of successive invaders since the destruction of ad70. So we arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Anyone for the queue to Golgotha? We went instead to the tombs… not yet the tomb… but the ones next door. Any wealthy Jewish family of the time had several tombs in their mausoleum, in case of multiple deaths. Each body was laid in a tomb for a year whilst the flesh mouldered, aided by burial herbs, and the bones were then removed to an Ossuary to await the Last Day. The tomb was then re-used. The huge crowds and the rudeness of other tour groups led us to flee back to our hotel. Somehow we didn’t lose anyone in the crush.
We came again in the quiet before dawn the next day. We ascended the stairs which now lead up the hill to Calvary, the conglomerate rock of the remnant hill still visible, all that was left by the quarrymen building the first Temple of King Solomon. The stone which the builders rejected forming a skull-shaped mount outside the walls of the Old City, which the Romans used for execution. Enclosed within this church and the expanded city walls by the Emperor Constantine, following the pilgrimage of his mother, Helena, the place now glitters with the gold and silver of numberless shimmering icons, wall paintings and mosaics.
It is this physical reality of the Holy Land that is perhaps most shocking to the first-time pilgrim. In our heads we know that the places of the Bible stories are real but to encounter them as real, physical places, crafting the narrative of events and the consequent liturgies of the Church, is both illuminating and profoundly moving. Many of us were regularly in tears, as the pennies dropped. Here Jesus walked.
Our final few days were spent by the Sea of Galilee. It was as tranquil and refreshing as Jerusalem had been chaotic and draining. Amongst many others, truly remarkable visits were made to the Syrian border in the Golan Heights where we prayed for peace whilst looking over the United Nations lines to distant Damascus; and to Caesarea Philippi where Christ cast down the pagan religions of Greece and Rome and where we renewed our baptismal vows at the source of the River Jordan.
One evening, we arrived back at our hotel early, so I stepped out onto the beach and bathed in the warm waters of the Sea of Galilee, which forms the widest point of the river Jordan. Quietly singing ‘All for Jesus’ I fully immersed myself. As I emerged I cheekily muttered ‘Come on, Lord, where is the dove?’ There was none, of course, but three species of kingfisher appeared within the next minute. It seemed to be a blessing of some description. The birds along the way were generally wonderful, from fields full of cranes to the iridescent flashes of the Palestine Sunbirds.
In ten days, we journeyed to the centre of the world; we journeyed to the bedrock of our Church; we journeyed to the heart of our faith. Bishop Norman; thank you.