I will be flying to Israel tomorrow for a seven day educational trip. The journey will begin tonight when I pick up my mom and head out to Philadelphia where we will met other team members for this tour of the Holy Lands. I am really looking forward to time with my mom. And I am really looking forward to a break. But I have to admit that I am a little ambivalent about traveling to the "Holy Land." Is it a pilgrimage? Should we think of a particular land as being more holy?
The idea of a pilgrimage to a holy land is woven into the fabric of many world religions. It reminds me of the Middle English classic, the Canterbury Tales. Geoffrey Chaucer's imaginative tale about religious pilgrims in 14th century England is required reading for many students. It begins:
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote...
And specially from every shires ende, Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
(When April with its showers sweet, The drought of March has pierced to the root...
And, especially, from every shire's end, Of England, to Canterbury they wend,)
Chaucer's pilgrims were journeying to see the shrine of the martyr Thomas Becket. They believed that his bones would make the place holy and give them special access to God's power. As Chaucer wrote, "the blessed martyr helped them when they were sick." But Protestants have always been cautious about the idea of calling a certain location "holy." In the Old Testament God's Spirit was present in the temple in a particular way, especially in the Holy of Holies. However, at death of Jesus the veil of this inner sanctum was torn in two and 50 days later the Holy Spirit was poured out on the church at Pentecost. Instead of emphasizing the presence of God in a physical building, the New Testament speaks of the people of God as being a new "living temple." (I Peter 2:5, Eph 2:22) God's Spirit is tied not to a geographic location, but to people who call on him through faith in Christ. Jesus promised that his Spirit would be present when two of more of his followers gather in his name. (Matt 18:20)
I can remember, years ago, a former pastor saying about his trip to Israel, "I would rather be where Jesus is than be where Jesus was." Since Jesus dwells in his church, it is appropriate to remember that we are best able to draw near to God ... not by traveling to a historic location, but by drawing near to Christian fellowship.
But. That is not all. While it certainly more important to be where Jesus is, there is significance to the geographic locations where Jesus was. Once I get over my initial cynicism about pilgrimages, there is a great deal that is exciting and helpful about a trip to Israel. I am reminded that Christian faith is centered around the idea of Incarnation. God came near and revealed himself through the person of Jesus Christ. And Jesus was a particular person who lived in a particular place. This is what some theologians have called the "scandal of the incarnation." That is, Jesus did not live everywhere. He lived in a specific place -mostly Galilee, and died in a specific place - outside of Jerusalem. He spoke a particular language - Aramaic. He was Jewish. He traveled (and walked) on particular waters - the sea of Galilee. He told stories to people embedded in the first century middle eastern world of fishermen, farmers and scoundrels.
I am growing increasingly excited about seeing those places. I am thankful for the incredible privilege I have to make this trip. I plan to share pictures and reflections during my time there. If you are interested in following along, keep an eye on this blog over the next week or so.