Walking in HIs footsteps - a Wexford priest on his journey to the Holy Land
'... as many different choirs chant the psalms as there are nations..'
To the academics, it is the land of the Bible, to the Jews it is the Promised Land, to Christian Pilgrims down through the centuries it's always been affectionately been known as The Holy Land, that area of Israel and Jordan (Palestine) where the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ occurred and where pilgrims go to walk in His footsteps.
From earliest times, this land has always been remarked upon as a place of particular attraction. Writing way back in the 4th Century - St Jerome said of it -
'Illustrious Gauls congregate here, and no sooner has the Briton, so remote from our world, arrived at religion than he leaves his early setting sun to seek a land which he knows only by reputation and from the Scriptures.
'Then the Armenians, the Persians, the people of India and Ethiopia, of Egypt and of Pontus, Cappadocia, Syria and Mesopotamia!..They come in the throngs and set us examples of every virtue. The languages differ but the religion is the same; as many different choirs chants the psalms as there are nations..'
I was fortunate enough to have been invited to attend this pilgrimage by the pilgrims from St Therese of Carmel, a very vibrant parish community from San Diego (CA), a faith community led by a Wexford native Fr. Nicholas Dempsey, who comes from Davidstown.
A group of 72 pilgrims, the journey had the added attraction that not only did it cover the areas of Galilee (where Jesus ministered) and of Jerusalem (the stage on which the trial, execution and resurrection of Jesus occurred), it also crossed the Jordan river into areas of the Decapolis where Jesus himself walked, and it took in the ancient sites of Jerash, the Citadel of Amman and on to Petra, before heading to Mount Nebo (where Moses glimpsed the Promised Land) and on to the site of the Baptism of Jesus, viewed this time from the eastern side of the river Jordan.
Visits to the Holy Land for all the major religions are important as it's here that the shared roots of the sons and daughters of Abraham become very visible and very tangible - Jews, Christians, Moslems - religions that are very different, but religions who share common ancestors and in many instances, common beliefs and some broad similarities in terms of their codes of conduct.
For Christians visiting, it is important to search out fellow Christians who continue to live in the Holy Land - the 'living stones' - who are becoming fewer and fewer as the years progress.
Now down to less then 1.25% of the population of the Holy Land, it is no exaggeration to say that their future is under threat.
For reasons of politics and economics, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Christians to survive - the preferential option to shop in Christian shops and to speak with those who care for the holy sites is almost a must for us now, not for any sectarian reason, but quite simply to offer encouragement and gratitude and to assist in ensuring an element of increased economic viability for our fellow Christian disciples who reside in a land that poses for them very real and particular challenges.
Christians in the Holy Land mind the sites for the rest of us, a noble vocation and one worthy of our gratitude.
Overall the public mood is one of vigilance but calm.
A very imposing Israeli-built wall that separates is a strong player in enforcement at present. Differences and feelings of discrimination and loss on one side are matched with fear and anxiety on the other.
The search for peace in the Middle East has always been a mammoth task. That task has not gone away and there is today more than a whisper in the air of the need to address it again in a deeper way as mounting hurts unaddressed - on all sides - are something that are growing and they will ultimately reappear in ugly form in the future.
Much gratitude must go to the many people of peace on all sides in the Middle East, most especially the people who go about their daily lives as Jews, Christians and Moslems, rearing families, making provision, helping out neighbours and friends and seeking to remain faithful to the calling that is theirs in the particular branch of the religious family in which they have grown up since the time of Abraham, our father in faith.
The Holy Land is a most beautiful place. It is a holy and a sacred place; it is a vibrant place, a location where proximity to the earthly Jesus and all of the other biblical players assists greatly in helping the pilgrim to understand in more detail and colour the life and mission of the Master.
The Holy Land is also an assault on the senses. Nobody got this better than St Jerome to whom we will leave the last word:
'Here bread and herbs, planted with our own hands, and milk, all country fare furnish us with plain and healthy food. In summer the trees give us shade. In autumn the air is cool and the falling leaves restful. In spring our psalmody is sweeter for the singing of the birds. We have plenty of wood when winter snow and cold are upon us.'