It is sometimes said that the geography of the Holy Land constitutes a “fifth Gospel.” Having followed in the footsteps of Jesus last month—up high mountains with breathtaking views, across the barren desert and the lush Galilean countryside—and having sailed on the Sea of Galilee and gazed at the wonder of the Dead Sea, I have a whole new understanding of what “the fifth Gospel” means.
Since the beginning of time, men and women have searched for God on mountain peaks and in arid deserts. The Gospels tell us that Jesus spent a lot of time by himself, away from the crowds, in the presence of his heavenly Father. He prayed, he fasted and he overcame temptation by giving himself completely to his Father’s will in these moments of silent prayer and meditation.
But as Pope Francis tells us in his Lenten message this year, God is never aloof from his people. The time that Jesus spent alone in desert or mountain retreats prepared him to be fully engaged with the people he loved.
Our recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land took us to many of the places that witnessed Jesus’ interaction with large crowds. For example, we visited the mountain where he fed more than 5,000 people with just five loaves and two fish. We toured the town of Capernaum in Galilee where four men lowered a paralyzed man through a hole in the roof of the house where Jesus was teaching. We also walked through the ruins of a local Capernaum synagogue where Jesus proclaimed himself to be the bread of life.
It’s amazing how the geography of the Scriptures can augment the story of God’s love for us in the most concrete and vivid detail. The Scriptures come alive in new ways as a result of the illustration provided by the places where Jesus’ teaching and his miracles actually took place!
Picture yourself in a small boat on a large body of water during a sudden storm. One word from Jesus, and the raging sea is calm, the crisis is averted. All of nature is humbled before the mystery of the Creator God. But God is not distant or aloof. He is one with his creation. He is present with us no matter who, what or where we are—and regardless of the internal or external forces that attempt to pull us away from the power of God’s love.
Pope Francis’ theme for this Lent is overcoming the temptation that the Holy Father calls “indifference.” Life’s challenges, personal hurts and disappointments, and the unfairness we often have to endure can cause us to build protective walls around our hearts. Being closed in on ourselves, we think we are safe from what Shakespeare’s Hamlet called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” But this safety is only an illusion, the pope tells us. Only by opening our hearts and casting off our indifference can we be truly happy and fulfilled.
Our Lord was never aloof or indifferent to the suffering of others. He fed the hungry, healed the sick, and even raised the dead. Why? Because he cares deeply about us and is deeply engaged in our lives.
The geography of the Holy Land gives witness to God’s personal involvement with all his creation—wind and sea, deserts, mountains and fertile valleys. This is the kind of testimony regularly given by St. Francis of Assisi, who insisted that God’s glory is revealed in Brother Sun and Sister Moon and in animals wild and tame who praise God in all that they do.
My fellow pilgrims and I experienced firsthand the miraculous truth that the land where Jesus walked underscores how much he cared for others, especially the poor and suffering people who sought him out precisely because they knew how much he loved them.
This Lent, let’s thank God for the wonder of all creation. And let’s also pray that we will be able to open our hearts to others as Jesus did whether he was teaching on a high mountain, cooking breakfast for his disciples beside the Sea of Galilee, or passing through the locked doors that prevented his followers from “going out to the peripheries” (as Pope Francis would say) to become fully engaged in the lives of the Jews and Gentiles they were called to evangelize in Jesus’ name. †