Pastoral Perspectives

A Trip to the Holy Land

Was it a holiday, a pilgrimage or a spiritual journey? Right from the start, I emphasised to the participants that it must be more than a mere holiday although we would be visiting many sites and food and shopping were included in the itinerary. I refrained from using the word ‘pilgrimage’ although this was the standard answer we were supposed to give when the custom officer asked us why we were going to Israel. ‘Pilgrimage’ might give people the connotation that it is a compulsory thing to do. Otherwise, you are missing out on something in your spiritual life, but that is of course not true since in Christ, our salvation is complete. I was more comfortable with the term ‘spiritual journey’. We were indeed embarking on a journey and although we were visiting physical sites, these sites had spiritual significance because we read of them in the Bible, and covering approximately those places where Jesus in his humanity had walked is a means of grace for our faith to be strengthened.

Why approximately? One can never be sure. It’s interesting how different groups of Christians (Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian) venerate these places of significance recorded in the Bible by building a church over them and across the centuries, due to battles fought on those grounds, buildings were ruined and a new church could have been built over the original one. The differing layers of stones lying on top of each other attest to that fact. The confusion comes when two places claim the same significance, e.g. the Basilica of Annunciation, a Catholic Church, is built over Mary’s house in Nazareth (which looks more like a cave) and they even have a pillar in the cave to mark out where Angel Gabriel stood as he spoke with Mary! The Orthodox Church is built over Mary’s well which is nearby, and they claim instead that the angel Gabriel appeared to her there. They don’t have a pillar to mark out where the angel stood but the well has become a wishing well with the portrait of Gabriel and Mary hanging above it. Then there is the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem where again the church is built over the place where Jesus was born and surprisingly, it is different from where the manger is placed although both are very near to each other and housed in the same church. How strange that they are even able to distinguish between the two.

The place where Jesus was crucified and buried also has two possibilities. One is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which is really complicated to begin with because it houses a few churches belonging to different traditions. They have a statue of Jesus nailed on the cross which is supposedly standing on the actual rock where Jesus was crucified and of course tourists or should I say ‘pilgrims’ filed up to touch the rock which could be accessed only through a hole in the big casing which houses the rock. And then not too far away, a rotunda is built over the tomb which was identified as the burial ground of Jesus by St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, both of whom were Christians during the 4th century. Down through the ages, thousands of ‘pilgrims’ would have paid homage to the rock, the cross and the tomb without batting an eyelid on the authenticity of those places. At another location, the Garden Tomb has been identified as another possible place for the burial of Jesus. Protestants like us gravitate towards this place because as compared to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it is far less crowded (because of good management as one has to make a prior booking before turning up) and it is a garden (no church has been built over it) and the eloquent guide was convincing us that this was the place based on some archaeological findings. What was really significant for me was when the guide said that he wasn’t 100% sure either but he was alright with that. Otherwise, people would come to worship the place rather than the Person!   

I was blown away by the archaeological discoveries and almost everywhere we went we saw the ruins and the diggings and we often heard ‘they are still working at it’. Recently, archaeologists have discovered Cave 12 in Qumran. This was the place where 11 caves were previously discovered in 1947. In those caves resided jars containing scrolls of manuscripts known now as the Dead Sea scrolls. These manuscripts were copied by a community known as the Essenes (2nd century B.C. to 1st century A.D.) who retreated to the desert because they wanted to avoid the world’s sinful influence. The mostly fragmented texts are numbered according to the cave that they came out of. They have been called the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times. Fragments of every book of the OT have been discovered except for the book of Esther. The Isaiah Scroll, found relatively intact, is 1,000 years older than any previously known copy of Isaiah yet there are minimal deviations compared to the Book of Isaiah that we have in our Bible. For me, it proves the reliability of the Bible even after it has been copied over and over again (they didn’t have photocopying machines then).

I taught the participants Ignatius of Loyola Imaginative Prayer. Whenever we read a biblical narrative, we can place ourselves imaginatively in the scene and to help us tab into our imagination, we can ask the following questions based on our senses: What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you feel? What do you taste? So when we were at the place where Jesus fed the multitudes, we asked: (sight) ‘What does the crowd look like? What does Jesus look like? (hearing) Is the crowd grumbling about hunger? Can you hear the waves breaking on the shore? (feeling) How does it feel to sit on the green grass? Are you hungry? (taste) What does the bread taste like? The fish? (smell) Can you smell the fresh air coming off the sea?’ (Jesus: A Pilgrimage, James Martin, p267) Now that we have been to the various places in the biblical narratives, our imagination can be more accurate. As we place ourselves in the story, we allow the Spirit to carry us wherever he wants to take us and in so doing, we hear his still small voice speak into our lives. As I meditated on the text, I dwelt on the taste of the bread and fish. Were they stale or fresh? Were they bland or tasty? After a whole day, kept in the boy’s lunch box, shouldn’t the bread and fish be cold to say the least? But we are told that the people ate and were satisfied (Mark 6.42) and when I saw the word ‘satisfied’, I imagined the food to be very good; the people were not just full, they were satisfied! I praised God for being a generous God who feeds us till we are satisfied!

It was a hectic trip. This was somewhat ironic because at the start of the trip, I urged the participants to go to Jesus to take a rest (Matthew 11.28-30). Did we rest? Well, we had to wake up pretty early every day. There was a lot of information for us to process and digest. There was also quite a lot of walking and climbing. Someone said that she needed another break after the trip. Well, I think that our journey together over the 11 days reflected very well our lives back home in Singapore – hectic and busy and so in the midst of our busyness, how can we experience rest? How did we find rest during our frenzied time in Israel? We found rest through the spiritual disciplines we observed during the whole trip – morning worship and devotion, Lectio Divina, pausing to read God’s Word at different sites, hearing the preaching of God’s Word, saying the Lord’s Prayer together, praying the Jesus’ Prayer individually, sharing, fellowshipping over a meal. These were times of rest built into our spiritual journey in Israel and these will continue to be times of rest now that we have returned home to continue our ongoing spiritual journey to our Promised Land.

Rev Lee Kien Seng

March 5, 2017