It’s a simple enough question, if not always easy to answer. What are we looking for in Jerusalem and Nazareth? At the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher? Wading in the Jordan River and sailing on the Sea of Galilee? What do we want to find here and bring home?
We 25 Lenten pilgrims have been living with the question since January, when most of us gathered for dinner in Pasadena. We compared answers at our first group meeting Tuesday evening at St. George’s Pilgrim Guest House, Jerusalem, convened by our friends at Qumri Pilgrimages. You can imagine what we said. People want to go deeper in their faith, walk where Jesus did, and know him better. We want to learn more about contemporary issues — the bitter 56-year occupation of Palestine, the massive demonstrations against the Israeli government, the startling uptick in violence on the West Bank that will keep us away from churches and people pilgrims love in Nablus and Burqin.
We always sound pretty serious as a pilgrimage gets under way. We were tooling up for more of the same Friday afternoon as we walked along the Sea of Galilee to a lovely shaded spot for Holy Eucharist. Then a bird pooped on a pilgrim. Within seconds, six hands holding pre-moistened wipes thrust toward her. Someone took a picture. That’s good luck, of course, when a bird does that. A few minutes later, as another pilgrim read the gospel story about Jesus calling fishermen to be his disciples, an actual fisherman toting his rod and lures marched behind the altar. We hoped he’d have good luck, too.
Sharing our impressions is often the stuff of the homily time during pilgrim worship. Several of us mentioned the two revelations we had just received from our God of our not taking ourselves too seriously. By and large, most talked less about finding Jesus among the ruins than the joy of finding friendship, fellowship, and community among one another. We’re a harmonious, congenial group, freely sharing our stories, talking about our families and the future of the church, laughing easily and often.
Which does nothing to diminish our awe at what we’re seeing, in Jerusalem and Herodium, in Jericho and Capernaum, or our grasp of the risks this moment presents for the people of these lands. Everyone is on edge about politics and the potential for more violence. Meeting with us Wednesday morning, Archbishop Hosam Rafa Naoum of The Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem gave us a vivid sense of the tightrope he walks, keeping courageously to the via media in his dangerous neighborhood of angry extremes. Please understand that we are safe, and we feel safe. But our senses are finely tuned.
Walking in east Jerusalem yesterday, we heard an explosion behind us, near the Old City. A pilgrim looked into the face of a Muslim women on the sidewalk, who smiled reassuringly. “Fireworks,” she said. “Ramadan.”
Ramadan Kareem, we’ve learned to say — “generous Ramadan” — including to our bus driver, who is abstaining from food and drink from sunrise to sunset while his pilgrims do the breast stroke through oceans of hummus. So too many of those who are serving us.
We’re eating abundantly, yes, and also worshiping everywhere we go, with six brilliant Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles priests taking turns leading worship. The Very Rev. Kay Sylvester and the Rev. Jeannie Martz offered a sunrise service in the Judean desert on Thursday morning. The Rev. Steve Swartzell and the Rev. Susan Stanton presided this morning as we renewed our baptismal vows at the Jordon River. The Rev. Christine Purcell said the mass that featured the real live fisherman, and the Rev. Peter Kang will offer our closing service next Thursday at Emmaus.
We’re also singing up a storm on the bus each morning. After all, we can’t do our God in Christ any good if we stop celebrating our belovedness and laughing at our foibles. Amid persecutions, wars, and other calamities, our Arab Christian hosts have been keeping faith, hope, and joy alive in this place for 2,000 years. What do I want to bring home? Their example of not sweating the small stuff.
Please give us the gift of praying for you in this immense mansion of prayer by sending the names of those for whom you pray via Facebook Messenger. First names only, without the reason for your prayer. God knows. I’ll leave them in the Western Wall before we leave.