November 2010. Fe and I just came back from a wonderful pilgrimage. For those of you who have been to the Holy Land, you know what I am talking about in this article. For those who have not had the opportunity to go on this pilgrimage, I urge you to save up and make this once in a lifetime trip to Israel. I think that every Christian should make this trip at least once and walk the same paths where our Lord Jesus Christ once trod. As a bonus, we were blessed with having a wonderful priest and true servant of the Lord, Fr. Francis Gustilo as our leader for the pilgrimage.
I was the skeptic for many years whenever Fe asked me to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I offered many excuses, from Israel being a serious security risk considering the suicide bombings that were happening in that part of the world, to as mundane a reason as what will we really see there. There are better tourist spots around the world that we have not been to I reasoned. Today i realize how stupid that argument was.
To stand on Mt. Nebo where Moses was brought by Yahweh to look across to the Promised Land, to be at the river Jordan where John the Baptist “baptized” Jesus, to be where Jesus first performed his first miracle in Cana, to actually see the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus agonized over his impending death … I can go on and on with the places, or rather holy grounds, where Jesus, the blessed Mother, St. Joseph, and the apostles once were. To say that the whole experience was awesome is an understatement. It was certainly also a humbling experience. How true is the observation that when we go to the Holy Land, we start out as tourists but end up emerging as pilgrims.
The question I suppose is why do I say the pilgrimage must be an item in your bucket list.
Firstly, the reading of scriptures will now become very visual. To have actually walked the same route of Jesus on his way to Golgotha, carrying a heavy cross, makes very vivid in the mind the terrible agony, torture, humiliation and the deep pain our Lord must have gone through just for us sinners. I saw on Mt. Tabor how it was possible for Jesus to preach to at least 5000 people and be heard by everyone considering there were no megaphones then. It was because Jesus possibly stood at the foot of the mount and the crosswind carried his voice fully to the top of the mount. These and other experiences (which I will not describe for it will spoil the broth for those who plan to visit the Holy Land) make more alive the Word of God.
Secondly, it is a humbling experience and a privilege to be where Jesus once lived. This is where it all happened I told myself. Israel is not a big country but every site we went to reminded me of the presence of Jesus in these hallowed grounds. He started with a small band of apostles in a small country and yet his impact on the world continues to this very day.
The irony of course is that the holy places we went to were “controlled” by various denominations, very few by the Catholic Church. On top of that, mosques seem to dominate the skyline of Jerusalem. The confusion and mixed beliefs of humanity that faced Jesus during his own time continue to persist in our midst. Do not also be surprised by the many merchants along the routes we took, offering religious articles. Reminds one of the synagogue being turned into a marketplace. The more reason why followers of Jesus should continue to work doubly hard to spread His good news and evangelize the marketplace.
Thirdly, I recall John 3:16-17 : ” For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son to condemn the world but to save the world through him.” How awesome our God is to do this. Jesus became one of us and lived in the very place we now refer to as Holy Land. We who are sinners can not do anything to either add nor subtract to the attributes of our God who is perfect. In his perfect mercy, however, our heavenly Father chose to redeem us through the sacrifice of His only Son. By the victory of Jesus, He has given us hope.
Visiting the Holy Land reaffirms this truth. Jesus in perfect obedience to his Father chose to die for us sinners and suffer the ultimate humiliation of being nailed to the cross with criminals. He made possible our salvation which we do not deserve nor can we ever work for except as a gift by Jesus Christ. It became our inheritance as children of God. This pilgrimage will absolutely make anyone bow down his head in total gratitude to the love of our heavenly Father made manifest through Jesus Christ.
Fourthly, our pilgrimage also involved the praying of the rosary and celebration of the Mass daily, apart from the meditations and other prayers we did. Very true is the reflection of Fr. Francis Gustilo who said that it will be difficult to commit a sin when you immerse yourself in prayer and worship and more importantly the daily reception of the Eucharist. The whole experience is indeed transformational. It also affirmed the message of Fr. Herb during the recently concluded National Leaders’ Retreat that Jesus wants us to pray constantly. If we are to be Christ-like, constant prayer has to be our lifestyle. The pilgrimage is one of constant prayer. No tour can ever compare to the holiness of this pilgrimage.
There are many other insights during the pilgrimage but the bottom-line is that it has made me love Jesus even more. I now again realize the primacy of His person and that my life should reflect this belief. It is a connection we should never lose, the branch to the vine. Fr. Francis asked us in one of our moments of reflections – “Does your life reflect your faith?” Who we are, what we do, what aspirations we have, what relationships we develop, how we speak, how we relate to others will all stem from the answer to this question.
The pilgrimage raises many other questions: “Do I love as deeply as Jesus did, he who committed himself to the end because of his love for humanity?” “Will I follow the will of the Father unconditionally just as Jesus did all the way to the Cross?” “Having gone through the experience of the Holy Land, how will I spend the rest of my life? “Will I reflect the face of Jesus to the people I meet?”
In answer to these questions, I can only bow down my head in prayer and say ” Lord, reveal yourself to me each day and grant me the grace to follow your footsteps unreservedly. May this experience of your Holy Land lead me closer to you. May I never miss your visitation amidst the daily grind of life. May I always honor you with my words, actions and thoughts. Thank you Lord for this opportunity of a Holy Land pilgrimage. All praise and glory be to your name Jesus. Amen.”