Fr. Patrick Ragsdale
Please allow me to preface my reflections on the situation in the Holy Land. I am not, nor ever have been afraid to lead a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I am not afraid of dying in that place that was sanctified by Jesus himself. His very footsteps I have retraced many times without ever looking over my shoulder feeling my life was in danger. I would leave today despite all the events that have unfolded over the past several months.
I will give some reflections, which might appear to be quite different than those already shared with us this morning. I am not here to talk about the barricades or the trash on the streets, all of which is true. I want to try to get into the person of Jesus and reflect for and with you.
Of the six pilgrimages to the Holy Land, each has been unique as they revealed a greater understanding and appreciation of exactly what Jesus came to do when he walked that land. He came to bring a message of peace and love from his heavenly Father to a people who were lost within themselves. They did not know how to exist as brothers and sisters, to love side by side, to share this sacred land without infringing upon each other's rights, or better yet, to take or confiscate land that was not their own. If we look at this entire land that Jesus made holy by his very presence, we would clearly see that he came to make 'room' for everyone. He never spoke of division among people, but rather the importance of honoring one another as a Chosen People of God. This whole concept of being a Chosen People had long since been overlooked and ignored due to aggressive behavior on the behalf of the Israeli government and the militant Palestinians, as each has allowed terrorism to dominate their actions rather than love and respect. We have seen one attack after another by people who should be living as neighbors. We have seen lives lost and families fragmented by these attacks. We see this land of Jesus becoming a 'blood bath'. Peace is a 'vocabulary word' they use so freely at the table of negotiations, but never one that has become a living reality. There is confusion and turmoil one every street and marketplace. The ones who suffer these tragedies are the Palestinian Christians who are quickly exiting this land due to the acquisition of their homesteads and the inability to have a working permit to procure enough funds to maintain their families. Religious freedom is an 'unknown' in the Holy Land. One cannot go from one village to another. Homes are ransacked for no reason whatsoever. When I see and hear of these atrocities I can't help but see Jesus weeping over Jerusalem and the entire Holy Land. I can faintly hear the same words spoken from the Cross-of death and life on Good Friday, "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do". The most dreadful words I fear we will one day hear are, "It is finished"! May these words never become a reality, but may they be replaced with; "See how these brothers and sisters love one another!"
My first pilgrimage was one of taking in all the sights and sounds of this ancient land. As I entered the various holy sights the sacred scriptures came to life. I could visualize Jesus in his human person preaching, healing and teaching those who he had called to be his greatest allies in his ministry. I could not imagine a man of his magnitude being plotted against because of the goodness he represented. There were moments of tears and smiles as I paused in these sacred places to offer the liturgy and praise him. I thanked him for what he did in the past and continues to do to this very day, to demonstrate his love for us and challenge us to manifest that love through the actions of our lives for all of his people. I must confess that I was not so focused on the people as much as the sights. So, my first visit was not complete by any means. The subsequent visits began to take on a whole different perspective. I recall that I spent more time looking into the lives of the people who lived in the places we made pilgrimage to. I began to realize the pain and suffering inflicted on so many of the innocent inhabitants because they were Christian. I often, as a result of what I saw and heard, remembered the words of Martin Luther King, "I have a dream that all people will one day be free", and, "Free at last. Thank God I'm free at last!"
I was privileged to visit more frequently with the vendors in the City of Jerusalem and hear their cries for the right to work the right to move about freely, the right to build a home, and a right to worship. Oh, the anguish they bore, not out of hatred but out of necessity for the basic things they needed to maintain a sense of dignity. Every time they moved from one place to another they were in the grip of fear that at any time they could be arrested, beaten and left to die all alone. The very walls that surrounded their cities and villages became prison walls that held them captive. They would risk their lives to make a few pennies to put bread on their tables and clothes on their backs. They never knew when an Israeli would point a machine gun at them as if they were a 'walking target' to be gunned down for no reason whatsoever.
The visits that followed over a matter of time helped me to focus more on developing an understanding of this whole chaotic nightmare. I heard from the person on the street, the local clergy and the Latin Patriarch. I could see into the hearts of the suffering Christians. I paused. I prayed. I wept. I began to wonder if the Covenant God made with the Chosen People of the Old Testament era had been totally ignored as it was in the days of Moses? I wonder if the Covenant made with us by Jesus has not been totally ignored? The Israeli nation has done all within its power to treat the Palestinians as if they were not the sons and daughters of God.
Even here in America the Bible has become a weapon of condemnation of the Palestinians as interpreted by some TV evangelists, rather than an instrument of God's love for ALL God's people. Whatever happened to the scriptures where it says, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst?"
So, what is our responsibility in all this? We must, at all costs, support the Palestinian people and help them realize their rights to a land that was, and still is theirs by Divine right. We must help restore their freedom and right to work without being intimidated. We must allow them the religious freedom to practice their faith openly and without fear. They must have a right to an education of their choice. Their portion of the land that has been confiscated by the Israeli government must be released and returned to them. Palestinian Christians must not be driven out of the land Jesus made holy for them as he did for the Israeli people.
If the people were treated with the same awe, reverence and respect, as the holy sights there would be peace in the Holy Land forever! Thus if every Synagogue, Mosque and Christian church opened their hearts to the cry of the people there would be lasting peace. If the government would do its job to honor the rights of ALL peoples there would be peace!
The HCEF slogan of this gathering reads, The divine light still burns: The Holy Land Christians endure". Allow me to paraphrase this by saying, "The divine light (Jesus) still burns brightly. Let the Holy Land Christians endure, now and forever!