By Chris Weldon
Many people who have been on pilgrimage to the Holy Land have told me that it makes the Scriptures come alive. I couldn’t have begun to imagine how true that really was until I was standing in the Garden of Gethsemane- at night.
Standing there amidst the ancient, gnarled olive trees, beneath a crystal-clear sky complete with a full moon, we read from the Gospel of Mark. “And they went to a place which was called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here, while I pray.’” (14:32) One cannot begin to comprehend how exhilarating that experience is until they’ve actually had it. Each of the pilgrims on the trip was quietly singing the Taize chant, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” Each also held a lit vigil candle. We left pauses for quiet meditation as we processed through the garden with the Blessed Sacrament. The priest held the monstrance high and we couldn’t believe that we were there, in the Garden of Gethsemane, at night, with a full moon, with Jesus! We were actually there with him!
Goosebumps are not an unusual experience on a pilgrimage, especially a Holy Land pilgrimage. Why not? Because each site brings the Scriptures to life. As my priest preached about one weekend, the Gospel is still relevant in our times. It becomes so even in a geographical way as pilgrims visit places like the Garden of Gethsemane, the Sea of Galilee, Bethlehem, Capernaum and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which happens to contain both the empty tomb and the crucifixion site.
Maybe a short story closer to home can better illustrate my point. I had a chance one day to visit the beautiful, gently-rolling countryside on Pennsylvania. Driving through this area one can barely believe that just before our country celebrated its 87th birthday, the single, largest bloodbath of the Civil War took place amidst these hills, fields, woods and boulders. From July 1 to July 3, 1863, Union soldiers clashed with Confederate soldiers in what today still holds the tragic record in which more Americans died in a single battle than any other battle in all of United States history. Teachers had taught us about this sad battle. They showed us maps, pictures and statistics. But it wasn’t until I was standing there in Gettysburg, on the actual battlefield, that it all became so real. It came to life. In my mind’s eye I could see soldiers with long rifles hiding behind rocks, trees and among the fence rows. I could hear the screams of agony and the battle cries. I could hear the rifles and canons firing and the piercing sound of clanging swords. I know I have quite the imagination. But the point is, by being there, the history lessons came alive. By taking a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the same thing happens but this time it’s the Scriptures that come alive.
There, in the Garden of Gethsemane, at night, one can almost see Peter, James and John sleeping under an olive tree. In fact, I felt if I just listened closely enough, I could hear their snoring. Just a glance to the nearby Church of All Nations, the traditional site where Jesus had fallen on the ground to pray, makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up as you see how close he was to the apostles, and yet, experientially, how far he was from their tired sleep. One begins to think they hear distant voices that grow louder and begin to see the light of torches through the olive grove. Judas and the temple guards have just crossed the Kidron Valley. They are climbing the Mount of Olives to arrest Jesus. “So Judas, procuring a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons.” (Jn 18:3) Do you see what I mean? It’s all there in the Scriptures. And it’s still there in the Holy Land, at least for now.