By Kristine Schroeder
Since recently returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the most often asked question has been, “Did you have a favorite site?” The answer is no. Everything we visited was interesting and spiritual – beginning with what is considered the site of Jesus’ birthplace in the Church of the Nativity, to attending Mass in Shepherd’s Field, the place believed to be where the first shepherds saw the star that announced the birth of the Messiah.
We viewed the archeological dig of one of Herod’s many palaces in Herodium National Park. Jericho, the oldest and lowest city in the world (10,000 years and 100 feet below sea level) was fascinating. Peacocks strolled on the grass as Father Sudhakar Bhastati celebrated Mass. Cages of parakeets were one of the many unusual items for sale in the marketplace. A boat ride on the Sea of Galilee (actually a freshwater lake) was especially meaningful when imagining Jesus walking on water during that storm. Fortunately, our day was sunny and calm.
Among the other places that brought the gospels alive were Capernaum (where ruins of St. Peter’s house and the temple Jesus taught in were visible); the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a capacious building in Old Jerusalem that houses the rock of Calgary, a replica of the anointing stone where Jesus’ body was prepared for death, and the holiest of all places, His tomb. Because we arrived early, our wait was a mere hour, which earned us brief minutes to pay homage for Christ’s great sacrifice (people often wait three hours). We visited the Garden of Gethsemane, attended Mass in Bethpage (the location from which Jesus rode his donkey into Jerusalem), walked the Via Delarosa (His ride to Calvary), and saw St. John the Baptist’s birthplace.
Visiting these sacred spots and many more helped put into perspective the knowledge that the events in the Old Testament and the four gospels in the New Testament basically occurred within an area with a radius half the size of Indiana. That David’s kingdom was based in Jerusalem is clear now. Or, that the temple Solomon built to honor God was also in that city. That Bethpage was a suburb to Jerusalem – similar to how the near Northside is to downtown Evansville – was enlightening.
However, an incident that occurred on our final day made an eye-opening impression. Standing near the site deemed to be the Upper Room (the place of the Last Supper), our guide Michael was speaking about the betrayal of Judas. A short verbal altercation, initiated by a Jewish man who was angry at Michael’s implications, broke out. That moment illuminated the tension in the Holy Land that has continued for centuries, even before Jesus’ time. Because of this friction, the land that seemingly should be a peaceful and loving place is a hotbed of mistrust, jealousy, and selfishness. It is ironic; or is it?
Christ warns of this unrest in Matthew 10:34: “Do not think I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I come to bring not peace but the sword.” Why is this so? Because peace can only be brought about if our lives are based in truth, and the truth is love, not philia, nor storge, nor eros love, but agape love. This is the love that desires above all else what is best for one’s fellow man. It is the love that answers the Catechism question, Who is God? The answer: God is love, agape love.
When our rituals and traditions interfere, overshadow or impede our ability to care for our fellow man of all nationalities, creeds or races, then we need to heed Jesus’ advice to the Pharisees and abolish them. Often we cling to what we know instead of striving to understand each other and therefore remain, first, isolated; but more importantly, stagnant – our souls unable to grow in Christ’s love. As I have read many times, we will learn more with an open heart and closed lips.
Seeing the distinct divisions in the Holy Land and feeling the obvious tension made the healing choice clear. Pray that we and all of mankind heed, believe and follow the words of Jesus to Thomas (the doubting apostle) in John14:6: “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Only then will the tensions cease and peace prevail.