The return home from pilgrimage is a time of digestion and deep reflection. Like the apostles who have descended from Mount Tabor to the plain, having witnessed Christ’s glorious transfiguration (Mark 9), the pilgrim inevitably experiences a sense of anti-climax as they are thrown back into the frayed ordinariness of daily life. This is doubly, triply so when the pilgrimage has been not to Canterbury or Compostela, not even to Rome, but to the Holy Land itself: Nazareth, Bethlehem, the Jordan, Jerusalem. For Christians, this is as big a pilgrimage deal as you can imagine. Coming back from here is to leave behind not just places where prayer has been valid, but places where in ancient time, the divine feet did undoubtedly walk; and even if individual holy sites cannot guarantee in a modern, forensic way that they are places intimately associated with the earthly life of Jesus, they are nonetheless places that from earliest times have been hallowed by the building of churches and the worship within them. To be in them is to experience the ripples of the Christ-event with greater clarity and intensity than anywhere else, to be able to dive into them like the most agile of those seeking healing at the pool of Bethesda (John 5).
I had expected to be deeply unimpressed by the whole enterprise. I was clear that there could be no absolutely reliable linking of location with history; and that even if some of the earliest Byzantine churches were in fact built on sites that had been accurately identified as significant by reliable tradition, it was just as likely that some of them had been provided piously for the confirmation of the faithful, or more cynically to relieve them of their money.
In the end, such considerations evaporated. To stand among the archaeological remains of first-century Capernaum, to walk by Galilee Lake, or to shake from your shoes the dust of the Judaean wilderness, evokes the presence of Jesus and provides a place of encounter with the risen Christ. This Christ is the one we know through prayer, scripture and sacrament, wherever in the world we are. In the land of his birth (even when modernity is intrusive, as when one walks down the Mount of Olives on a steep and slippery concrete road), the names listed in a pilgrim’s itinerary, known from scripture, take us back to the time of Christ. Back home, the names of the towns encountered in scripture take us back to our time in the Holy Land. In this way, a virtuous spiral of association develops, through which we move more deeply into an awareness of the presence of Christ, and into a more serious engagement with our own life lived in the Gospel.
And it is not just the gospel of which we are aware. Jerusalem is (for good and ill) one city with three faiths and we were more than usually fortunate in being able to engage to some degree with all three of them. When we engage with other faiths back home, it is within the synthetic smiling of Christian Unity week, or the slightly forced goodwill of an interfaith event. Here we were not so encumbered. It was simply as honoured guests that we visited the Muslim Haram al Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary; what the Jews call the Temple Mount). We even entered —an immense privilege for non-Muslims— the Al Aqsa mosque (the third holiest site in Islam) and the Dome of the Rock, the iconic mosque with the golden dome. Here in these empty spaces, beautified with all of the intensity, but none of the superabundant decoration and rococo ornament that mark Orthodox churches, it was clear that we were in a place for people who, just like us, were serious about the search for God through reliance on a particular religious tradition. With the imposed humility of those who have removed their shoes because they are on holy ground, we were dwarfed by the spaciousness and sanctity of the mosques, and were reminded of the vastness of the theological project to which all our lives are committed.
The same was true when we followed the indirect route that took us down to the Western Wall (the holiest site of Judaism). Although just a few metres below the Al Aqsa mosque, the two sites are immeasurably distant from each other in terms of history, culture and politics: in this visceral antipathy and ineradicable suspicion resides the dark side of religious devotion that occurs whenever human beings are unable to recognise in each other’s spiritual pathway the same quest as their own for holiness. Or, as Rabbi Sacks puts it, when we cannot see in the face of the other, the face of God.
You approach the Western Wall (known better by tourists as the Wailing Wall, from an unfortunate inability to describe the practice of Jewish prayer), having first washed your hands and taken one of the kippahs or yarmulkes provided. You then walk down to reach the wall, surrounded by men in all kinds of different dress from the accoutrements of the Orthodox Jew to the high fashion of the secular. You may then begin to pray by resting your palms and head against stones that have stood there for perhaps two-and-a-half millennia. It is (and I apologise, but there’s no getting away from the cliché) as close as you can get to actually touching history, as you take your place in a line that stretches as far back as most of us can conceive. And immediately you know that you are not alone, as you see the evidence of those who have prayed there before you, their scraps of paper, each one a written prayer, pushed into the cracks between the stones, the longings of the unknown brought to the God who knows and loves them infinitely.
From other gaps grow tufts of dry grass, like hair from an old man’s ears; still larger gaps provide a house for the circling sparrows and ‘a nest for the swallow, where she may lay her young’ (Psalm 84). Even though the altars of the Temple are no more, the birds continue as before, a beautiful, whirling reminder that while all the divisive shenanigans of humanity run their course, the natural world continues on its way with or without us. I had felt this forcibly on seeing a kitten outside the church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. I felt it in the gnarled trunks of the olive trees in Gethsemane, themselves grown from seed produced by predecessors which might have been old enough to shelter the Saviour the night before he died. I felt it most forcibly in a gentle gust of wind that barely brushed my cheek: the same air the Lord breathed; his humanity mine; my condition his. Incarnation made palpable.
The returning pilgrim is committed afresh to the vast and serious nature of the life to which the children of God are called. The pilgrimage itself reminds us that here on earth we have no abiding city (Hebrews 13.14), but are always directed towards the source of life we came from, in search of the identity given us by God, from within the tradition in which we have been placed by circumstance or, perhaps less likely, choice.
I have certainly found that this gift of serious engagement has been (and, I pray, will be) the greatest consequence of my visit to the Holy Land. For although such a pilgrimage inevitably has moments of great excitement and newness, it is by no means a holiday romance, a temporary brush with love that comes to a swift and inevitable end, significantly affecting no-one. Pilgrimage is instead a prolonged and undiluted immersion in the beloved, an opportunity to renew that which has grown stale; to consider again beliefs and practices that may have been worn away to almost nothing; it is to ‘put out into the deep’ (Luke 5.4) and to find afresh the love of the one who calls us always, and to respond to him with love.
And because I can no longer touch the stones and see the wilderness and water that Jesus saw, I must return to the text of Scripture with renewed faithfulness and rigour, embracing with joyful commitment the task of being part of the body of Christ and living out the Eucharistic sacrifice day by day. Like every pilgrim, I return home to the challenges of life on the plain, steeped in grace by the transfigured and risen Lord so that I might pursue the mystery of God, persevere in prayer and persist in the practice of charity and the call for justice. It is a vocation to be lived in neighbourly collaboration with those of other faiths and cultures, a necessity made altogether more urgent in a time of unalloyed vileness in which high office is given to unashamed racists, and xenophobia is encouraged by the thoughtless prosecution of insular political agendas.
So pray for pilgrims everywhere, that the love of God will renew and restore them. But pray more earnestly still for those who have come home, that our insights will not blur, our resolution falter or our joy diminish. For we have been to the mountain top and seen the glory. And now, let us bring the good news to the plain.