Tuesday, December 29, 2015


Let me start by apologizing for the map.  I am working on a better presentation, but let me start with this one.

Some of you are aware that my spouse and I go to the Holy Land more often than most people.  At this point we have just returned from the Holy Land and I have been asked to talk about it for those who have never been and have no thought of ever being able to make it.
So, here goes, bad map and all.

We leave from Los Angeles airport (LAX) and fly for 14 hours straight until we touch ground again in Tel Aviv-Yafo.  This map shows the option of heading south to Jerusalem before turning north to Nazareth.  We prefer to go north first because that is where Jesus grew up and recruited his favored disciples.  It is also where He spent at least 80% of His life.  Then we head down the road that is on the western shoulder of the Jordan River until we get to Jericho.  From Nazareth to Jericho is a nearly 2 hour bus ride.  We spend sometime in Jericho (one of my favorite places) before heading up the hill to Jerusalem.  It is 16 miles and about 3,000 feet of elevation.  Jericho is 850 feet below sea level.  Jerusalem is at 2,500 feet above sea level.  Both cities are at about 31 degrees north of the equator.  For reference San Diego where we live is at about sea level and sits at about the same latitude (32 degrees north).

These are among the material things that strike anyone going to the Holy Land.
There are three categories of observation that the pilgrim to the Holy Land lives:
* Material - visual, touchable
* Traditional - landmarked up to several centuries ago
* Faith - Seen, accepted and believed, whether material or traditional
--Material - The locations named in the Bible...Nazareth, Cana, Nain, Capharnaum, Magdala, The Sea of Galilee, Samaria, Jericho, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, The Dead Sea and of course, the Jordan River.  Just seeing those signs is enough to get your heart racing.  You come to the immediate experience that this is real in more ways than one.  The one thing that always gets me is the sight of the remaining portions of the Synagogue in Capharnaum where Jesus and His earliest disciples worshiped.  It's real.

Other material realities and one that is very powerful is the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is the home of many traditional sites.  This is true because of the fact that Jerusalem was completely levelled by the Romans in 70 AD.  There are material remnants that point to the material facts, but there are also many buildings that commemorate the location of the material, historical facts. These are impressive and they strike the person of faith with great spiritual power.  The Way of the Cross, Calvary, the Holy Sepuchre, the pool of Bethesda, the remains of the Temple (Wetern Wall), the place of Peter's denial of Jesus, etc.  When you are there, you believe!  You do not doubt!  You know that this is the place.  After all centuries of faithful have been placing their faith here,why not me?

Bethlehem is the sweetheart of many pilgrims.  Why?  This is a happy place.  Jesus was born here.  David was born here.  The mother of Jacob and Esau was born and died here.  St. Jerome translated the Scriptures into Latin here.  This year, we were blessed with the priviledge of celebrating our daily Mass in a cave similar to the one in which Jesus more than likely was born.  This is the first time that I ever had this priviledge.  I'll never forget it.  The likely place where Jesus was actually born is covered over by a large church, one of the oldest Christian Churches still in existence in the world.  The spot is still marked but is not attainable by the ordinary person because it is beneath the floor of the church.

This year was special for us in two other ways.
1. The mayor of Bethlehem is a Catholic woman.  Since her election she has decreed that a Christmas tree would be erected in the central square of Bethlehem and a special lighting ceremony would be held every 1st Saturday of December.  We made it a point to be there this year.  Tens of thousands were there, in the territory of the West Bank.  There were no metal detectors at the entrance points of the square.  The military security personnel were apologizing for asking us to open our bags for them.  All the surrounding businesses, eateries and sundries stores were open and thriving.  The exceptional nature of this lies in the fact that 3% of Bethlehem is Christian and only 1% is Catholic.  

2. We were able to go to Nablus a hot bed in the West Bank.  There we were able to visit Jacob's well where Jesus had his famous conversation with the Samaritan Woman.  Of course, we drank of the water.  While there we stopped the bus in front of a local bakery and befriended the baker and his crew and of course bought some munchies for ourselves (42 of us).

I finish by saying that pilgrimages are one of the oldest forms of prayer known. They are not as solemn and somber as some people imagine them to be.  Every pilgrimage has its solemn moments and its wild moments.  Sometimes they happen together.  People take thousands of photos; they buy large quantities of souvenirs, they try to entice the "natives" into conversations; they get more adventurous with food than they ever thought they were capable of doing, and of course, they pray, they feel and they believe.
A pilgrimage is a hodge-podge of feelings that is difficult to sort out quickly.  A pilgrimage to the Holy Land doesn't just last for 8 or 10 days.  It starts long before a person puts the down payment on the table to reserve the ticket.  It slowly grows and mounts in intensity and doesn't ever wane into oblivion - never.  No person goes to the Holy Land and then gets over it.  It is a life changing experience.  It gives meaning to the Jewish saying, "See God and die."
The person who goes to the Holy Land dies to whom he/she was and is never the same.  

I pray that these few words have meant something to you all.

Peace and joy to you.  May you all have a very happy Leap Year.
And don't forget, there's no crying at my funeral.

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