WHY A PILGRIMAGE?
Irejoiced, when they said to me: Let us go to the House of the Lord! And now our feet are standing within your gates, Jerusalem!” – A song of Ascents, of David (Psalm 122)
What is it about this city that it has such a great attraction? What is it that makes a Christian pilgrim come to Jerusalem? Jerusalem is the heart of the Holy Land, the synthesis of the action of God for the good of the whole of humanity.
St. John Paul II expressed this in very moving words: “How many memories and images and how much passion and great mystery surround the word Jerusalem! For us as Christians, it represents the geographical point of union between God and men, between eternity and history.”
I. The pilgrim comes with an inclination for conversion
In antiquity, especially in the Holy Land, the pilgrimage had mostly a penitential function, also due in part to the difficulties that such a mission involved: long and difficult journeys, discomfort, political problems and so on. Pilgrims were animated by very deep faith and were even ready to die, which sometimes happened in the course of their journey. The pilgrimage was also an opportunity to expiate their sins, which was shown symbolically when they replaced their ordinary clothes to those of the pilgrim, the expression of their wishes.
Today, with the comforts of modern life, luxury hotels and fast means of transport, that external aspect of repentance has been lost and the pilgrimage is often converted into tourism, even for those who go on it for strictly religious reasons.
The truth is that being pilgrims is no easy task.
The most important thing of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem is the interior decision to answer the call of the Spirit in a personal way, like a disciple of Jesus.
Therefore, the pilgrimage is also “a path of conversion”: the pilgrim has the chance to live out the experience of the prodigal son, he who knows sin, the harshness of the ordeal and repentance and the sacrifice of the journey, but who also knows the embrace of the merciful Father who leads him back to life (cf. Luke 15:24).
In this process of “life change” to be oriented towards God, participation in the sacrament of reconciliation will be required, where the pilgrim realizes his sin, confesses his faults and receives the grace and pity of the Lord.
In such a context, the encounter with the Holy City should start from the Mount of Olives, more precisely from the Sanctuary of Dominus Flevit, the place where Jesus wept over Jerusalem, deaf and blind to the Savior and the symbol, for this reason, of our insensitivity: “If this day you only knew what makes for peace–but now it is hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:41-44).
Refusing Christ meant war and destruction for Jerusalem.
II. The pilgrim comes with an attitude of devotion
The pilgrim who comes to Jerusalem to pray and adore the Lord, confides in the fact that his prayer in the Holy Sepulchre will be particularly effective.
In this, the pilgrimage is a call and a preparation for prayer and can therefore take on various forms:
- praise and adoration for the Lord for his goodness and holiness,
- respect for the Holy Places sanctified by the presence of Jesus and the Virgin Mary
- gratitude for the gifts received (as a reason or a hope that gives a meaning to our lives)
- the request for grace necessary to live well
- invocation of divine pardon for sins committed or simply to carry out a vow
The symbolic place of prayer will be the Gethsemane, an intense and difficult plea as was that of Jesus: “He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.” (Luke 22:44)
III. The pilgrim comes in an attitude of listening to the word of the Lord
A fundamental experience of the pilgrim must also be listening, because “the word of the Lord [shall go forth] from Jerusalem” (Is 2:3).
The Holy Land is an integral part of the process of understanding the historic word of God, who impressed his tent in Jacob and took the inheritance of Israel, which became established in Zion, putting down roots in the midst of a glorious nation.
This word was converted into the Jewish flesh of Jesus and became Gospel, destined to spread, “starting from Jerusalem”, to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). All the territories of the Holy Land form the “geography of salvation” where God, through his son Jesus, made its history. The Holy Land is, according to the expression coined by Renan, the Fifth Gospel.
In the Holy Land, the pilgrim is in a privileged position to listen to the word of God, as these are the places where the word took shape. Blessed Paul VI said that the Holy Places are “the school where understanding the life of Jesus begin, or the school of the Gospel”, because they let the Christian make direct contact with the environment where “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). In the Holy Land the Gospel itself has a different echo.
The words of the “Russian pilgrim” fit both ancient and modern pilgrims: he said “by the Grace of God I am a man and a Christian, by my deeds a great sinner, by condition the humblest of pilgrims, a homeless person who wanders from place to place. My only property is a bag slung over my shoulder with a little dry bread, and under my shirt I carry the Holy Bible. I have no other belongings” (Diary of a Russian pilgrim).
The Bible thus has to be every pilgrim’s principal guide.
On his return home, the pilgrim becomes an evangelizer, a spokesman of the “Gospel of the Holy Land”– as Jesus and his disciples did when they traveled down the roads of Palestine announcing the gospel of salvation – he will be an “itinerant messenger of Christ”, repeating like Peter and John “It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20).
IV. The pilgrim comes ready to meet Christ alive in the Eucharist
If the Bible is the pilgrim’s book par excellence,
“the Eucharist is the bread that feeds him on his way”.
The celebration of the Eucharist accompanies the various stages of the pilgrimage, because it has to reflect the Paschal events of the Exodus, but above all the Easter of Christ, at the end of his long journey towards the cross and glory.
It is only in this way that the pilgrimage will bear its fruits.
As St. John Paul II also said, “Each pilgrim, at the end of his journey in which his ardent heart aspires to see the face of God, is called to recognize the Savior …in the shared bread”.
Hence the ardent desire of the Pope to visit the Cenacle to celebrate the Eucharist.
“It was here that Jesus instituted the ministerial Priesthood… In this holy place he promulgated the new commandment of love. I wanted to return as the successor of Peter, to the sources of the Church, in the place of the Last Supper and the First Eucharist”.
This place was sadly forbidden to Christians with the expulsion of the friars from Mount Sion, in 1551, and even today the celebration of the Eucharist is impossible there.
V. The pilgrim comes ready to meet Christ in his brothers
Like the disciples of Emmaus who, thanks to their charitable insistence, received the gift of seeing Christ risen: “As they approached the village to which they were going, he gave the impression that he was going on farther. But they urged him, ‘Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.’ So he went in to stay with them.” (Luke 24:28-29) The pilgrim will also obtain the fruits of his journey only if it is animated by charity.
Charity is revealed first of all as God’s love: “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another.” (I John 4, 11) Charity must therefore be put into practice during the journey, helping those in need, sharing food, time and hope.
Charity is also practiced in offerings to the poor and in helping invalid pilgrims. The primitive Christian community had “only heart” and St. Paul helped “the poor of Jerusalem” making a collection for them. It is only with these attitudes of the soul that the pilgrim will have the chance to meet Christ in the Holy City.
This encounter is the very reason of the journey to Jerusalem, as well as the dream of every Christian. Only this way can we return to the roots of Christian life.
The Holy Sepulchre of Christ: the destination of the Christian pilgrimage
Christianity is not linked to any country or place in particular, but is based on a historical revelation and just as there exists a “history of salvation” there also exists a “geography of salvation”: the Holy Land.
This is how Blessed Paul VI described it: “The land where our fathers in faith once lived; the land in which the voice of the prophets echoed, the prophets who spoke in the name of God, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and above all the land which the presence of Jesus has made blessed and sacred for the whole of the human race”.
It is “the land of Jesus, the spiritual heritage of all Christians who desire visiting it at least once in their lifetime.”
Therefore, for every Christian, Jerusalem is the heart of the Holy Land, the synthesis of the action of God for the good of the whole of humanity.
For us as Christians, it represents the geographical point of union between God and men, between eternity and history. The preaching, passion and resurrection of Jesus, the Last Supper, the gift of the Spirit to the Church, the foundations of our faith are rooted forever, like rocks, on the luminous hills of the Holy City.
How many times has its name echoed in the historical books, in the Psalms, in the Prophets and in the Gospels! Jerusalem, always loved and desired, disparaged and lamented, trodden on and resuscitated, reproached, consoled and glorified. It is really a most unique city in the world!”
VI. The center of Jerusalem is the Holy Sepulchre.
This is where the salvific presence of God is revealed in a very special way, as is his love for all men. In the words of Paul VI, it is the “most beautiful sanctuary that exists for the heart of a Christian.” In fact, the passion, death and resurrection of Christ have always been the central mystery of Christianity and what gives a meaning to our life, with the liturgy that celebrates them on the three days of Good Friday, Easter Saturday and the Sunday of Resurrection. The primitive Christian community, here in the Holy City, commemorated them in three different places:
- the Calvary, the place of the passion and the answer to the problem of human grief
- Adam’s Grotto, the place that commemorates the descent of Christ to the kingdom of the dead and the meaning of our death as separation and suffering
- the Empty Tomb, the place of the victory of Christ over death and the tangible sign of Christian hope
It is only in the Holy Sepulchre that the land becomes liturgy and the salvific act becomes concrete in time and space. In many countries, the liturgy says “Today Christ is risen,” but it is only in Jerusalem that we can say “Christ is risen from this tomb” or “He was crucified in this Calvary.”
The Holy Sepulchre is the echo of the “good news” which is at the basis of all the rest: Jesus died, proof of his infinite love for men and was then resurrected as we will be resurrected for Christ, with Christ and in Christ. This announcement explains better the reasons why pilgrims come to Jerusalem; it explains why we celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ and why we profess our faith in a future resurrection of man.
It was exactly two thousand years ago that everything began, when some fishermen from Galilee went around saying that Jesus had died, was resurrected and that they had seen him. It is on this fragile and incredible testimony that everything is based: churches, cathedrals, the priesthood, missions, religious, Councils and theology.
The Empty Tomb is ground-zero from which all the roads in the world start from, “the navel of the world” as our ancestors called it, the center of our history.
Pilgrims who come to Jerusalem do everything they can to visit the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest place in Christianity, as soon as possible. On arriving in the Holy City, pilgrims repeat the words of the Psalm “I rejoiced when they said to me: let us go to the House of the Lord” (Psalm 122:1) as they go towards “Christ’s Tomb”.
However, not everything is so easy. Today, the Holy Sepulchre of Jesus is in the middle of the buildings of the Old City, surrounded by markets, souvenir shops and minarets. Pilgrims wonder where the hill, the garden and the tomb are, wishing that the principal sanctuary of Christianity stood in majestic isolation from the rest and that natural light illuminated it all, far from the crowd and darkness. They would like peace and quiet around them, but they feel the confusion amongst the five groups that occupy it – the Franciscans, the Greek Orthodox, the Armenians, the Syrians and the Coptic Orthodox – who jealously guard their right of being there. It is actually the only place in the world where love for God is manifested in the clearest and deepest way, but so is the human weakness of wanting to monopolize that same God.
It is therefore important that the pilgrims, who feel bewildered, allow themselves to be embraced by the mystery and understand that like him, thousands of other pilgrims considered it worth risking their lives to adore our Savior. Only kneeling on the Empty Tomb and forgetting everything that surrounds him, will the pilgrim be able to hear the words of the angel “He is not here! He is risen! Come see the place where the Lord lay.”
In the description of his “ascent” to the Holy City, Luke shows a resolute Jesus who in a hurry: “he proceeded on his journey up to Jerusalem” (Luke 19:28); tense and anguish-filled: “There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:50).
The destination of Jesus’ journey is Jerusalem, the city “who kills the prophets and stone those sent to you” (Luke 13:34), because “it is impossible that a prophet should die outside of Jerusalem” (Luke 13:33).
It is the Messianic journey par excellence, the “march” of the Messiah King on the capital of his kingdom to take the throne, a throne of ignominy which will be transformed into a throne of glory with the resurrection.
The disciples, during this journey to Jerusalem with Jesus, were prey to fear: “They were on the way, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus went ahead of them. They were amazed, and those who followed were afraid” (Mark 10:32).
The same tension was also shown by Paul in his last journey to Jerusalem. “But now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem. What will happen to me there I do not know, except that in one city after another the holy Spirit has been warning me that imprisonment and hardships await me” (Acts 20:22).
This was Paul’s last journey to the Holy City and, to those who tried to dissuade him with prayers and tears from his decision to go there because he would be arrested, he answered: “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? I am prepared not only to be bound but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 21:13).
We can say that this attitude has been constant amongst pilgrims in the Holy Land.
For example, for Judeo-Christians, Jerusalem was the place exercising the greatest attraction; the Christians (once freedom for Christianity had been granted, from the 4th century) returned en masse, making it a Christian city; St. Jerome, like Origen, stayed there to live; lastly, the Crusades were above all on a pilgrimage to the holy city and, after its conquest, the Crusaders entered the Holy Sepulchre in tears, singing the Te Deum.
The purpose of St. Francis’s journey to the East, according to some sources, was “to visit the Holy Places, preach the faith of Christ to the infidels and earn the crown of martyrdom”.
Following the example of their Father, the Franciscans, for almost eight centuries, died and suffered the unspeakable to recover the Holy Places and make them accessible to pilgrims from all over the world.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, as soon as he heard the call from Jesus, also set off for Jerusalem in 1523 and would have “liked to stay there all his life” so strong was his love for Christ. Like them, many other men and women decided to live and die in Jerusalem to quench their thirst for God.
During his journey to the Holy Land in 2000, John Paul II was overjoyed at having fulfilled his desire to make a journey to the places of the salvation, following in the footsteps of the countless pilgrims who had preceded him, “it was,” he said, “like a return to the origins, to the roots of faith and of the Church.”
What is it about this city that exercises such a deep attraction on everyone? What is it that makes the Christian pilgrim come to Jerusalem?
Since the start of the Christian era, believers have turned to the “terrestrial” Jerusalem to see with their own eyes and touch with their own hands the Word of the Life that was manifested there. As well as being the place of the encounter with Christ, Jerusalem is the place of the birth of the Church, our Mother, and where the figure of Mary is understood better.
This is where we meet our other Christian brothers, who separated from us and who only in the Holy City feel at home; Jerusalem is the meeting place of all believers in a single God and the heritage of humanity, because God is the father of everyone; lastly, it is a symbol of peace and concord, a living emblem of the great ideal of unity, brotherhood and convergence between peoples which makes us all only one family. It is for these reasons that Jerusalem must stay “a city open to everyone”.
Fr. Artemio Vitores ofm
PILGRIMAGES TO BENEFIT THE HOLY LAND
A pilgrimage to the Holy Land enables you to experience first hand the beauty of the land where Jesus walked, and the sufferings of the Christians who live there. Below you can find upcoming Holy Land pilgrimages that benefit the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land. Pilgrimages you can join that also benefit Christians in the Holy Land.
Holy Land Pilgrimage with Fr. Peter Vasko, OFM – 2020
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