Youth Director, St. Lawrence Parish, Utica, Michigan
The unforgiving morning sun, already hot and relentless, burned away what remained of the cool night air and left a soft haze over the Sea of Galilee, which we learned is not a sea, but a very large and very deep freshwater lake.
The waters were almost glass-like, calm and mirroring the blue sky above.
We pilgrims in a reproduction 2,000-year-old boat sat in awe far from shore as the motor was cut and a velvety silence ensued. All we heard was the gentle lapping of water against the boat, the creak of wood and the song of birds.
It was here that Christ challenged Peter to walk on water.
It was here that he calmed a raging storm.
It was here that he directed the Apostles to cast their nets for a miraculous catch after repeatedly coming up empty-handed.
It was here. Right here. Not in a book that told the story, but here. And on that stormy night when Christ in his mercy controlled the weather, the sky and waves must have been a boiling black, and there would have been no cries of birds, but the cries of men instead choked with the kind of fear that often accompanies death.
The rock-strewn scrabbled hills to the west today, pristine and untouched, served as the same backdrop Christ would have seen 2,000 years ago.
He was here.
We are here.
And we will never be the same.
For two weeks we traversed the Holy Land in a pilgrimage planned and beautifully executed by the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation. The journey was spiritual, emotional and political. Like boot camp, we hit the ground early in the morning and fell exhausted, but peacefully into our beds at night.
Daily, we celebrated mass at memorable, jaw-dropping sites: The top of Mt. Nebo, where Moses was shown the Promised Land and then told by God he would never be allowed to enter; inside the chapel that house's Christ's tomb we gathered like those in the early church, truly shoulder to shoulder – one with the priests beside the altar, in a holy, true communion with God and each other; outdoors, under a tree, along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, where a flock of barn swallows swooped over the priests' heads as they chanted the Doxology – right there where Peter had an opportunity to redeem himself, and tell Christ three times that he loved him. Then our Lord cooked them all fish, over a charcoal fire.
The highlights would be different for each of us. What deeply touched one, might not affect the other and vice-versa. The Holy Spirit was almost palpable and the journey was like a roller-coaster ride of joy, tears, fears – and laughter.
We knew we were standing on holy ground.
What are the Mt. Nebo's in our lives? A woman who carries a baby to full term, only to lose it to sickness? A marriage that began with hope and ends with despair? A child raised right, who then goes miserably astray?
Where have we, like Peter, denied Christ? In the movies we watch? The gossip we share? The selfish I-Me attitude that we so easily and often embrace with wild abandon? When we have the opportunity to right a wrong do we grab it? Or walk away?
We knew Christ was with us, as surely as he was with those at the wedding feast when he changed water into wine, when he healed the paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda, when he invited Zacchaeus to come out of the sycamore tree, and join him for dinner. All of these were places we visited, and at which we prayed and meditated.
The fruits of this pilgrimage will be years in the knowing. Perhaps a lifetime.
Seeds were planted in soil that was fertile, and some that had become hardened, and needed tilling, water and care.
There will be quick, and obvious connections.
There will be sudden epiphanies that bring us to our knees when we least expect it and never saw it coming.
When we open ourselves to the Spirit and make this kind of a journey, there is no turning back. God's counting on it.
Next week: Holy Land politics and a weeping Christ.