Joan Buckley and I were both certain that if there was one place in the world that we should like to see before we died it was the land where Jesus walked and taught, and, with that in mind, we booked for the Lightline Pilgrimage with the above name, led by Bishop David Hope.
On our second day, I told Fr David that I was not pilgrim material and that feeling never left me, much as I was interested in most of the things we did. There were over fifty of us in the party, many of them elderly, and getting on and off the coach at every port of call was a major performance. Some of our fellow pilgrims were large bosomy women (I can say that with impunity because I am one of them, - only I am short!), with sticks which they brandished to knock others out of the way to ensure they got on the front row and could hear what Hassan, our delightful Palestinian Christian guide, was saying. I am sure that individually they were pleasant and even friendly people but collectively, to me, they were a nightmare.
The land, however, was something different. Because El Al had intended to levy an extra £147 per person as a landing and fuel charge Lightline Pilgrimages altered the travel plan and took us to Amman by Royal Jordanian Airways at the added cost of just £28 for a Jordanian visa. We began, therefore, by going to Mount Nebo and, just as Moses had done all those years ago, looked down on the Promised Land. It was a beautiful morning, rather hazy, but you couldn’t mistake the land flowing with milk and honey, particularly on the spectacular journey from the mountains to the Jordan valley. On both sides of the river the land is lush, and the crops wholesome and plentiful, but Jordan is poorer and less organised while Israel has a Germanic orderliness.
Fr Alan Brown had told me years ago how beautiful Galilee is and many of us would have liked to stay there for the whole of our eight days. You could sit by the Sea of Galilee in the evening and feel totally at peace in the quiet. The morning sail on the lake, even though it began with the raising of the Union Jack and the singing of the National Anthem and could have been thought of as naff except that it was meant to be a way of welcoming us, was almost indescribably lovely. We said Morning Prayer and sang, “O Sabbath rest by Galilee, O calm of hills above,” as we looked around at the countryside which can’t have changed very much since Our Lord was there. The Church of the Multiplication (or Loaves and Fishes) was tiny, with a magical stillness in its modern cloister, and on the journey to the Church of the Mount of the Beatitudes, where we had a memorable celebration of the Eucharist, you could visualise the crowds with their picnics listening to Jesus’ words. Whoever has the care of Capernaum should be congratulated for preserving its gardens alongside the numerous remains from both the first (black basalt) and fourth (white) centuries. A magnificent modern statue of St Peter greets you as you enter through the gateway festooned with bougainvillea, and you can see the house of his mother-in-law and picture all the sick people who were brought to Jesus after she was made well. Am I too fanciful? I think not, because the land spoke for itself.
Caesarea Maritima is now a fashionable place to live. It was the city built by Herod the Great, in Roman style, of course, and it had been covered by sand for centuries. As Hassan put it, “The Pioneers of Zion decided to break the silence of the sand dunes and begin excavating”, and what treasures they found! Herod built a fabulous palace for himself with a special anteroom in which he could meditate. He built a magnificent aqueduct too to bring fresh water to the town. The theatre, the baths, the chariot racing stadium and many other remains, all of them right on the Mediterranean, make you realise why Pontius Pilate resented having to spend four days a week in Jerusalem. The Crusaders built a fortress at the northern end of the old Roman town and, on a warm and sunny morning, with a cloudless blue sky, everything looked wonderful.
In Nazareth the modern Church of the Annunciation is built over the remains of Mary’s house. It has been the site of pilgrimage over the centuries and in the cloisters, as well as inside the church itself, there are mosaics in honour of Mary from all over the Christian world. Luckily for pilgrims (!), St. Joseph’s workshop and house are just a hop, step and a jump away and another lovely modern church has been built to preserve the remains. At present there is no mosque right next door. The current mayor of Nazareth is a Christian and he has held up the building of the planned mosque for the time being. Mount Tabor, the Mount of the Transfiguration, is an amazing natural phenomenon. It looks too perfect and regular not to be artificial. It is too steep for buses to reach the summit so a Muslim taxi firm takes pilgrims, eight or ten at a time, up the sixteen hairpin bends to visit the church with its beautiful mosaics. The village of Nain is no longer on the tourist route. You can see the church but it no longer has a congregation and if you want to go inside you have to knock at the door of the Muslim next door neighbour and she will open up to let you in. Hassan spoke with a passion about his faith but told us in no uncertain terms that when we, or our friends, come back in ten years’ time all the churches will be museums. Palestinian Christians are the lowest on the Israeli priority list and life is being made increasingly difficult for them. It was a very sobering thought.
Before we left Galilee we visited Yardenit, possibly, though not certainly, the site of Jesus’ baptism by John. It lies near to the spot where the River Jordan leaves the Sea of Galilee and a beautiful area has been created where pilgrims can renew their own baptismal vows and then buy souvenirs to take home. Notices warn you not to go into the somewhat uninviting water but we were followed by an exuberant group of Nigerians who quickly took off their trainers and paddled happily. I was touched by their spontaneous enthusiasm.
The speedy journey through Samaria and Northern Judaea brought us to Bethany where the Franciscan friar in charge had kept the church open for us. I was very amused to see the sign “Lazarus’s Tomb – Enjoy the Visit”, a sideshow run by the Muslim firm next door to the beautiful Martha and Mary church. Sadly we had no time to view the tomb but had to move on to Bethphage, the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane before arriving at our hotel in Jerusalem. We passed through the New Gate into the Christian quarter and our bedroom in the late medieval Knights Palace Hotel overlooked the basketball court of the de la Salle Boys’ School, not beautiful but interesting.
We visited the Western (Wailing) Wall on the Sabbath and witnessed the segregation of the sexes at worship. I was fascinated to see earnest Jewish women, some wearing wigs, reading the Torah in the shade of the Wall, while Auntie Leah, Auntie Miriam and cousin Ruth all sat higher up the slope in the sun with the children and waited for their menfolk to finish their rituals. Our hatless men had been provided with cardboard skull caps for the occasion. St Peter in Gallicantu, built over the house of Caiaphas, is a four tier church the lowest level of which houses the prison in which Jesus was kept overnight. People were able to experience the windowless dungeon after Fr David read the relevant section of the trial and the lights went out. Bethlehem followed, including visits to a maternity hospital where the Church is ministering to its community, over 90% Muslim, with its motto, “The Poorest Deserve the Best”, and to a Lutheran Centre where the morale of Palestinian Christians is being raised by work in a wide range of the arts, drama, art, sculpture, music and embroidery so that, in spite of the many restrictions imposed upon them, they might remember that Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly. The Church of the Nativity has a very low doorway, designed deliberately so that Muslim soldiers of long ago could not stable their horses there, and, as Hassan said, “If there is any building in the world where you have to bend your head in order to enter, surely this is the perfect place, where Our Saviour was born.” Manger Square was bustling and we spent the last hour in a Christian co-operative, owned by a Syrian Christian who speaks Aramaic and who greeted us by saying the Lord’s Prayer in the language Our Lord used. He was a magnetic character who enjoyed telling us he had been “talking to Rowan the other week and knew George Carey well.” They specialised in olive wood artefacts and most of us bought many souvenirs there.
Sunday morning began with a celebration of the Eucharist in the hotel and we followed the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Coptic Christians were celebrating noisily and the Syrians finished on time with a splendid procession as the Patriarch, flanked by wardens clad in long black cassocks and banging their staves loudly on the ground, blessed everyone as he went out. The spiritual part of the journey ended there. Twenty of us went to the Holocaust Museum while others had a quiet afternoon or looked round Jerusalem. Having spent much of my working life teaching the Holocaust I wanted to see whether those telling words that lodge in our archives of the 1940’s, “The Jews always exaggerate,” were obvious in that museum. An hour allows you merely to scratch the surface but I found the whole presentation restrained and professional. They have, of course, a mass of material by now and it speaks for itself. There is no need for exaggeration there.
Visits to Jericho, Qumran and the Dead Sea allowed us to see the desert and the wilderness at its impressive best. Did I really see the sycamore tree into which Zacchaeus climbed to be able to see Our Lord? Was the Mount of Temptation really the one on which the Devil tested Jesus? Certainly I succumbed in the Temptation restaurant and in its emporium when I really had no need of anything else. As Joan and I were pouring out our tales to my son on our journey home from Heathrow, he, having been in the travel business for the early part of his working life, asked a pertinent question, “Did you go on a pilgrimage or was it a tour with a few prayers thrown in?” I know how I answered, but I wonder how the rest would have done.