Saturday, November 14 –Tuesday, November 24
Great promises accompanied my first pilgrimage to Israel 30 years ago. They told me that it would deepen my faith and change the way that I read the Bible. They told me that “praying for the peace of Jerusalem” would become a natural spiritual reflex within me after the trip (Psalm 122:6), that I would understand with my heart and not just my head why the Hebrew Scriptures extol the physical and spiritual beauty of Jerusalem (Psalm 48:1-3), and that I would appreciate why even the birds that nest in its portals are blessed (Psalm 84:3-4). I was skeptical. I thought it was hype. Oh, I was glad to be going. I like to travel. But I was pretty sure that the literature about the trip that I had been given was the work of marketers, you know, Chamber of Commerce hoopla. And so I had my expectations well in check as I boarded the plane in New York and began the long flight to Tel Aviv. 10 days later as I boarded the long flight home back from Tel Aviv to the States, I realized that if anything, all of those things that they had told me before I left were understatements.
There are very few things that I have done in my 50 years of being a Christian that have had a deeper and more lasting impact on my spiritual life than going to the Holy Land has. And so I am eager to invite you to go with me again this November in the two weeks before Thanksgiving. This will be the fourth Pilgrimage to Israel that I have made, the fifth one that I have planned. One was cancelled at the very last minute when tensions flared in the Region and the State Department discouraged travel. But all of the others came off without a hitch, and are still the talk of those who went. And while each trip is unique and has its own feel and “moments,” my complied “Top Ten” moments of Holy Land Pilgrimages would be –
Number 10 –
Communion in the arches of the aqueduct at Caesarea looking out on the Mediterranean Sea from where Paul began his last journey to Rome. This is one of the first things we do on our first day in Israel and it powerfully sets the tone for the rest of the Pilgrimage – a tone of gratitude for the faithfulness of those who passed on the treasure of the Gospel to us, and a recommitment to our own responsibility of passing on the treasure of the Gospel to others;
Number 9 –
Sharing the Lord’s Supper in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. This is the very first thing that we do when we get to Jerusalem. We climb the stairs to break the bread and bless the cup in remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice and in celebration of Christ’s real presence with us. For many, this is the highlight of the whole pilgrimage. As “Disciples” who are a people of the Lord’s Supper, this is a powerful experience.
Number 8 –
Reading the Sermon on the Mount together in a garden on the Mount of the Beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee. This is one of the more spectacular sites in all of Israel, and the setting is the perfect place to hear again Jesus Christ’s most important teachings. The pilgrims on the last pilgrimage each claimed the Beatitude that most spoke to them and for them at that moment – it was a powerful and personal time of sharing;
Number 7 –
Picking up a rock in Caesarea Philippi where Peter told Jesus that he believed that He was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and Jesus told him that this was the rock on which the church would be built;
Number 6 –
Praying in the ruins of the synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus prayed. For me this is where I most get the feeling of “walking where Jesus walked.” I just like to sit quietly in this ruin along the wall and meditate on what it would have been like to have been there on a Sabbath with Jesus. This is the power of the pilgrimage and how it changes the way that you read the Gospels;
Number 5 –
Renewing my baptismal vows on the sandy bank of a bend in the Jordan River;
Number 4 –
Seeing the skyline of the old city of Jerusalem from the church on the Mount of Olives where it is said that Jesus stopped to weep on His way in on Palm Sunday. This is my favorite vista in all of Israel, and knowing that it is on the path that Jesus would have taken into Jerusalem in those final days makes it holy ground. I love to sit in this chapel quietly and think about how God so love the world that He gave His only begotten Son;
Number 3 –
Singing Christmas carols with Christians from Nigeria, Poland, Brazil and Japan at the Shepherds’ church in Bethlehem. They echo off the walls and fill the space with such joyful celebration;
Number 2 –
Walking the Via Dolorosa through the early morning streets of Jerusalem, reading the story of Christ’s passion and singing hymns about the cross. This is the reason why you go make this pilgrimage;
Number 1 –
Like most pilgrims, I much prefer Gordon’s Calvary with its Garden Tomb even though it is highly unlikely that it is the real location of the events of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher has the greater historical claim but less emotional resonance. Nevertheless, on a previous pilgrimage I got shut up in the Tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem for an extended period of time while the priests outside changed the oil in the lamps. This was an absolutely unprecedented experience. Usually you are hustled through sites like this because of the crowds. To be able to stand quietly and uninterruptedly in the place where tradition says that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead ranks among my life’s best very moments.
Now, I don’t know what your top “moments” will be if you make this trip; what I can promise is that you will have some. A pilgrimage to the Holy Land is one of those things where everything is better than you can imagine, and where each day is better than the one that came before.
Tel Aviv – Joppa – Caesarea – Haifa – Mount Carmel – Meggido – Tiberias – Sea of Galilee – Caesarea Philippi – The Mount of Transfiguration – Nazareth – Capernaum – Cana – The Jordan River – Jericho – Qumran – En Geddi – The Dead Sea – Masada – Bethany – Jerusalem and Bethlehem before going back to Tel Aviv and heading for home. The food and hotels are great. Our Tour Guide and Bus Driver are incredible. The weather in November is cool. It is an off season for tourists, and so the sites, while still crowded, and not overcrowded. And security has never been an issue. I have felt more uneasy in some American cities than I have ever felt anywhere in Israel on any of my trips.
Call me if you have any questions about where we will go and what we will see and do. Barbara Saffle at Strong Travel Services (8214 Westchester Drive, Suite 670, Dallas, Texas 75225) is our local partner for Pilgrimage arrangements. She can tell you all about the costs and the specific details of the trip, and she can be contacted at 214-361-0027 or at http://www.strongtravel.com
I want to invite you to join me on this trip in November. We limit it to approximately 24 people, give or take a few, and so now is the time to start get on the list to go. I expect the trip to fill. I would love to share this experience with you, and I can promise that if you do, that it will be one of big events, not just of your spiritual life, but of your entire life. DBS+
For anybody who might be thinking about making this pilgrimage with me, let me highly recommend Ft. James Martin’s wonderful spiritual journal of his trip to the Holy Land – Jesus: A Pilgrimage (HarperOne – 2014). An excellent writer, Fr. Martin is also a very fine spiritual director who knows how to skillfully lead people into deeper experiences with the holy. This book is the very best introduction to the how’s, and the what’s, and the why’s of an Israel Pilgrimage that is out there. But be warned, if you are on the fence about making this trip, this book will be the tipping point in the decision. If you read it you will want to go, and I really hope that you do.