Well this was the question posed by one of the pilgrims on Sunday night as we stood on the roof terrace of the Golden Walls Hotel, Jerusalem. We were just standing there, watching the traffic and the crowds coming and going near the Damascus Gate. And I had to admit that I would. Something about this immensely complex land compels me to share its realities, its archaeology, religions, communities, history and politics with anyone interested. It’s the land of the Holy One for Christians, and it’s holy for Muslim and Jewish people too. And if there could ever be peace in this small place claimed by Palestians, Israelis, Jordanians and Syrians too, there could be peace anywhere.
It was my fifth visit. Much has changed since my first in 1978. And now my approached has been honed to introduce pilgrims to the region through a two day visit to the Negev Desert, followed by four days in northern Galilee and five in East Jerusalem. An ambitious programme I admit. Tiring too. But with built in time to stop and stare as well.
But this time, having arrived virtually on time at Tel Aviv from Edinburgh via Istanbul, we were three hours sitting around in arrivals. One of our party has family in Beirut. Two passport pages with Lebanese visa stamps found him impounded by immigration officials. After a couple of hours I sent the bus off to Arad with the guide so I could join them later taking a taxi with our friend and two helpers. If you are a British passport holder and have such things it might be advisable to get a new one. There was one immigration official who queried the fact that there are Christians in Lebanon.
What else was new this time? Well there had been storms and flash floods in April. the Sea of Galilee was more full than last year, and clearly a viper had lost its home at Tel Sheva and gave our guide Samer a massive fright by hissing fiercly as he was about to lead us down to see the water cistern archaeology, past the serpent’s new sunbathing platform. We beat a speedy retreat to Abraham and Abimelech’s meeting place.
Also new: The visitor centre at the 4th century CE synagogue in Sepphoris in Galilee has been completed and was very impressive. One of the many improvements for pilgrim and tourist infrastructure in Israeli territory including the City of David excavations and Hezekiah’s Tunnel, which now makes the lack of investment in the Palestinian homeland very plain- just visit Tel Jericho and Sebastia, equally important sites, to judge for yourself.
It’s always good to meet up with friends we know who are working in Israel, and this time we invited the Rev Kate Macdonald, a SEC priest serving as the Church of Scotland minister in Tiberias to join us for supper and a conversation one evening. It was good to hear what it’s like there from someone who has been there for three years or so. And she seemed delighted to be with us all.
Heading for Jerusalem on the first Friday of Ramadan and the eve of the Jewish festival of the first fruits, Shavu’ot, especially after the protests and IDF killings in Gaza and the opening of the new Trump directed US embassy in south Jerusalem was always going to be a risk. But our journey in passed off fine. In fact I would recommend any ascent to the City just before sundown on a Shabbat eve. The roads were cleared of protesters, re-opened and virtually empty.
It was the first time I had been with a group on a Sunday in Jerusalem. It was Pentecost of course so after a dawn raid on the Holy Sepulchre & breakfast we all walked the 10 minutes down Nablus Road to St George’s Anglican Cathedral. There were a good number of pilgrims present form many continents and nations, but we were gladly outnumbered by locals as congregations from parishes in the diocese from Israel and Palestine were gathered for a united service and to hear their Archbishop Suheil Dawani preach. It was great for me that the liturgy was mostly in Arabic with Engish versions of the words and hymns available for the non-Arabic speaking. It was a hearty Pentecost, and we all spoke and sang in tongues.
Sad news. There were no camels for tourist snaps and rides and snogs at the usual places. It seems that either is was too hot (over 35 degrees C many afternoons) or more seriously for those dependant on the trade, there has been cancellations of pilgrim and tourist groups due to recent troubles.
It was great to lead a good group of 24. Pat Bennett was a brilliant assistant counting everyone into the coach, now known as Countess Pat. Two fellow priests joined me in celebrating the Eucharist: Moira Jameison by the Lakeside at Tabgha, Matthew Little at Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, and myself on our first day at the Byzantine ruins on the hilltop at Avdat.
Pilgrimage to the land of the Holy One has a powerful impact on those involved. Some just love it. Some have their minds and heart changed for ever. Some find their faith deeply challenged. Some find it profoundly uncomfortable. Others are uniquely inspired. And nothing has changed since Chaucer. Such is the process of preparation, travel outwith the safe and familiar, the formation of relatonships, the engagement with the God of Covenant, the Carpenter of Nazareth, the Spirit of Renewal.
“You’ll be coming back, won’t you?” Well yes, if I can help anyone make their own engagement with these places, their life and faith journey, the peoples whose home it is today. I’ve done this for 70 people in the last five years. That’s quite a thing. But I’ve done it principally for those we have met, really met, whose home is in Israel and Palestine, who say: “please come, and encourage others to come, we need people to see these places for themselves, so that they can know for themselves”.
And thank you Abha, for the photographs used in this post.