Since arriving in Tel Aviv on Friday, this reluctant pilgrim has visited a number of religious sites associated with Jesus’ early ministry. Each encounter has been accompanied by a reading of the relevant scriptural text with subsequent reflection. The composition of this particular group of pilgrims is such that the calibre of historical explanation and theological reflection has been particularly challenging and insightful.
The methodology underpinning this pilgrimage allows one to enter into the complex and messy neighbourhood in which Jesus lived. By drawing near in one’s relationship with Christ one is at the same time challenged to reflect on how his teachings speak into the contemporary neighbourhood, whether that is the Holy Land of today or one’s own home reality in the UK.
A visit then to the Monastery of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha becomes more than an occasion to stand in silent awe on the alleged site where Jesus fed the five thousand. It is also to be reminded of how Jesus speaks to those who are dispossessed, the marginalised, the infirmed and the aged. One is left hungry for justice.
Visiting the baptism site of Jesus on the banks of the River Jordan one is hit by a series of juxtaposing images. Winding slowly south, this small bulrushed stream of a river links the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea and in so doing it acts as a natural boundary between the East Bank of Jordan and the West Bank of Palestine.
If baptism is the act of being made human as God intended then it is somehow strangely odd – maybe even oddly appropriate – that this particular baptismal site is approached through a militarised zone. Sitting by the water’s edge, with Jordan but a few elusive steps away, the wholeness of what it means to be truly human as Christ intends contrasts sharply with the fragmented and contested surrounding environment.
Standing on the edge of Wadi Qelt looking out across to the Mount of Temptation one is reminded that we all have our weaknesses – that’s after all an essential part of what it means to be human. Listening to a Palestinian Arab Christian – who also happens to be an Israeli citizen – grapple with the biblical text concerning the temptation of Jesus, is to be reminded of how even in the most pressing of circumstances the Christian virtues of love, faith and hope can help in resisting an all too tempting spiral into despair. This is not passive collusion with the status quo but a subversive act of rebellion against natural behaviour.
[As an aside here, did you know that the Greek term for robber also translates as insurgent in which case the crucificion scene takes on a whole added meaning. Thank God for New Testament Scholars]
Seen from this perspective, the role of the Church is one of living out these virtues in a Christ like way such that it nourishes and supports those most in need. There have been opportunities along the way to see some of this work in practice whether that is the community health care centre attached to St Margaret’s Nazareth or the rehabilitative and restorative work of the ancient monastery of St Gerasimos. Such work merely reflects back on what it means to be made human as Christ intended.
None of this I dare say is original stuff – not least because it merely draws on the insightful reflections of others – but it might go some way in explaining how one can visit the Holy sites in a way that makes it impossible to be divorced from the current reality.
As our happy band of pilgrims journeys south to Bethlehem and then on to Jerusalem I suspect that this understanding of Christian discipleship that has emerged these past days is likely to be tested to the full.