From Easter to Israel, a trip designed to explore Europe quickly turned into so much more. Itineraries changed and destinations were added landing us on another continent exploring lands only read about and seeing sights only dreamed of.
With the addition of unexpected religious experiences, a backpacking adventure morphed into a journey of personal growth and fulfillment. Exploring the Holy Land brings with it a weight of enormous magnitude begging that each morsel of knowledge be retained along with minute details of how biblical locations look, feel and smell.
In truth, time allotted, whatever it may be, will never be enough. History, legacy and sanctity are not carried home in souvenirs or photos. A magic is felt on the Mount of Beatitudes where scholars believe Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount; that feeling is not captured in words or images nor is the sight of pilgrims at the Wailing Wall or the aroma of flowers and olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane.
In two days, the sights and sounds of cities and villages common to Sunday school lessons flew by at a whirring pace as tours guided us through Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, his ministry in Galilee, Mary’s home in Nazareth and the city of Jerusalem where the judgment was cast and crucifixion carried out. With each stop along the way comes new perspective on the events of biblical importance.
At Golgotha, once a hilltop outside the city walls, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands within Jerusalem. Inside the walls are the final Stations of the Cross where Christian denominations lay claim to altars at each point of interest. Up a winding narrow staircase candles burn and crowds gather around the spot believed to have once held the cross while below, a rock holds the fervent prayer of pilgrims where Christ’s body was anointed with oil and spices before being wrapped in grave clothes. Just steps away, beneath the same roof, a small chapel within the church holds the altar of the tomb once loaned by Joseph of Arimathea for a brief burial before the first Easter morning some 2000 years ago.
Even outside the sites and monuments, the land holds a history too old to remember. By simply driving through the country of Israel, the imagination can place Abraham walking with Isaac or Elijah calling down fire on Mount Carmel. For Israelis, every stone is precious and each acre truly is Holy Land.
Although the experience of touring the Holy Land is indescribable, there is also a side of me quite disappointed with what has happened. Sites once home to miracles are now souvenir shops and atop each dwelling of Christ and station of the cross is a church. Nothing against churches, but despite their beauty I feel they serve only to mar the landscape in comparison to unbroken earth once tread upon by Christ.
Many of the churches found in sacred places throughout Israel were erected long ago by Helena, wife of the Roman Emperor Constantine, they are exquisite landmarks and ardent places of worship but Christ did not ask for cathedrals. The great commission does not demand a building but instead a body.
The Church is and should be first and foremost a body of believers and each monument crowded with tourists only deepened the yearning for my church family, my Sunday school class and sermons I can understand.
Further sea explorations on our sailing left us amid the wonderfully preserved ruins of Ephesus, Turkey where Paul spoke out against Paganism before being run out of town. Another port of call in Athens, Greece found us on a rock outcropping beneath the Acropolis where Paul again preached against polytheism in the shadow of the Parthenon.
Each location serves to shed light on the studies of scripture creating a reference point for future reading and meditation. Leaving the ship with a slightly larger waistline and a lovely tan, I must admit that despite all its conveniences in travel I feel it is a rare occasion in which a cruise may serve to deliver a proper pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Israel alone deserves much more time than a cruise will allow, time at each site was brief and often rushed. Only if already in Europe, as was our case, or in conjunction with further travels would I recommend the fast paced Holy Land tour experienced in a cruise itinerary.
We find that the unexpected experiences are often the most appreciated. Those moments making lasting impressions are not only life altering pilgrimages but daily surprises, whether it’s meeting a fellow traveler or trying to converse with locals through charades and broken languages. These memories last a lifetime and remind us to take notice of what is happening each moment despite the hectic pace and frantic lifestyles we lead.