By Fr Jean-Noel Marie
Our pilgrimage began on November 9 against a backdrop of noise and violence between Israelis and Hamas.
We had set out on a journey of a lifetime, eager to walk in the footsteps of the prophets and Our Lord, Jesus Christ.
We were determined to cross into the land of the Prince of Peace – the land of the impossible.
We, too, had an army of people, at home, praying for us.
This was my third trip to the Holy Land but my first as a priest with a group of like-minded people.
The very thought of the opportunity and privilege of celebrating Mass for our pilgrims in the Holy Land filled me with immense anticipation.
Our first stop was in Amman, the capital of Jordan, also known as Philadelphia in Greco-Roman times, in the 3rd century BC.
We saw Madaba, on the way to Mt Nebo, where Moses was shown the Holy Land from a distance but was not permitted to enter because of his earlier lack of faith.
We stood right where Popes had stood as they too looked toward the Holy Land as the promise of a glorious future and I celebrated our first Mass in the little Franciscan chapel on the feast of St Leo the Great as we prepared, unlike Moses, to make our way down into Galilee.
We experienced heavy security at the Allenby Bridge along the way.
The war raged in Gaza and the atmosphere was tense but we were serene in prayer.
We boarded our bus, prayed the Rosary and sang many hymns.
We were greeted warmly by our Israeli tour guide, much like Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth.
We made our way in great haste to the ancient city of Jericho.
We paused at the Sycamore tree that Zacchaeus was believed to have climbed to catch a glimpse of the Messiah.
Three very special couples in our group were able to renew their marriage vows at Cana in Galilee, the site of the marriage feast where Jesus performed his first miracle.
I also had the privilege of celebrating Mass on a boat over the Sea of Galilee with Capernaum and Bethsaida in our sights.
The high point of the pilgrimage for me would have to be that afternoon we made a relentless ascent to Jerusalem.
The very glimpse of the Holy City, as the sun was setting, sent shivers down the spines of all of us.
As everybody scrambled for their cameras to capture the moment, I couldn’t help reflecting on what had caused that city to capture the imagination of so many generations, peoples and nations; nations such as the Assyrians and the Babylonians who, in the course of history, have fought over it, besieged and conquered it, and even to this day, it is being claimed as the eternal capital of both the Israelis and Palestinians.
As providence would have it, and unbeknownst to most everyone else on the coach, our bus driver began singing the beautiful and majestic hymn, Jerusalem, Jerusalem the Holy City. As the song reached its crescendo, “Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest”, the song with its rousing rhythm seemed to blend perfectly with the topography of the place itself.
You would have had to have been made of stone to not be moved.
It was almost like a mystical experience echoing the psalm (24): “who shall climb the mountain of the Lord … Who shall stand in his holy place” – a foreshadowing of our final destination, the Heavenly Jerusalem.
We walked the Via Dolorosa (the Way of Sorrow) and prayed the Stations of the Cross.
We visited the dungeon where Jesus was held overnight after his arrest.
It was there I was asked to read Psalm 88 – a cry of deep anguish, which concludes in utter darkness.
We also paid visits to the garden of Gethsemane, the Church of all Nations, and the Church of Dominus Flevit, where Jesus wept over Jerusalem.
We visited Ein Kerem and the church of the Visitation, where Mary met her cousin, Elizabeth.
There was no shortage of mountains and stones in the Holy Land.
Apart from Mt Nebo, we also made it to the top of the awe-inspiring Mt Tabor, the mount of the Transfiguration.
We climbed Mt Carmel where the prophet Elijah challenged the priests of Baal, and Mount Sinai in Egypt, where Moses received the Ten Commandments.
The relatively flat surface of Western Australia stands in sharp contrast to the geography of the Middle East.
The many churches we visited were dedicated either to Our Lord or to Our Lady, among them the Church of the Nativity, the only church that was not destroyed during the Persian invasion.
It is said that the church was spared destruction when the Persians saw the mosaic of three kings on the wall.
Our visits to the many holy places were constant reminders of our frail humanity, our limitations.
Long queues, and navigating through large crowds, tested our patience and our tolerance at times.
As we approach Christmas and the celebration of the Lord’s immersion into human history, we became conscious of the convergence of the secular with the sacred; humanity and the divine coming together so vividly in the effervescent atmosphere inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Climbing Mt Sinai was also an awesome experience.
Our climb will be remembered, not only as a test of our physical endurance, but as a triumph of the human spirit in its ability to reconcile cultural differences, ease negotiations with camel owners and help us to be thankful for the support we received from one another.
The bonds of friendship we forged are in themselves a summary of what the Ten Commandments are about; to love God, and to love our neighbour.
The courtesy and gracious hospitality of the people we stayed with was legendary.
Everywhere we went, we were treated with kindness and the utmost respect.
On occasion, we came face-to-face with poverty.
The daily struggle to survive and the thirst for justice and peace could be seen in the eyes of children everywhere, especially in Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Territory.
As we toured the ruins of the ancient Egyptian civilisation – the pyramids of the pharaohs and the treasures at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo – it became evident that only Christ endures. Sic transit gloria mundi – “thus passes the glory of this world”.
We are grateful to all those who prayed for our safety as we navigated our way through the tension surrounding the war in Gaza and the growing unrest in the Sinai Peninsula.
Soon after leaving the Egyptian capital, violent protests resumed in Tahrir Square, the focal point of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution against former president Hosni Mubarak.
Apart from the unique privilege of walking in the footsteps of Jesus and the prophets and immersing ourselves in the local cultures, we have returned to Perth energised, transformed and enriched.
By this, I don’t mean we are now covered with gold or drenched in the perfume of Arabia but we are richer and stronger because of the fellowship that we shared and the bonds of friendship that were forged in such a unique environment and historical context.
I believe it will take some time for us to make sense of this most moving journey.
Whatever our calling, whatever the mission entrusted to us, I am convinced our pilgrimage will serve a great source of inspiration and strength to face the challenges ahead.
It is now imperative that we share it with the rest of our community and not hesitate to tell the whole world what we have seen and what we have heard. Joyeux Noel!