Thursday, October 23, 2008

Pilgrimage may be a life changing event

Special to the Post and Courier
By Fr John Parker

I am going on a journey across time and geography. As you read this column, I am making my way from Charleston to Newark, N.J., to Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In July, I received the most amazing gift: a two-week pilgrimage to the Holy Land, led by the most well-known Orthodox Christian bishop in the English-speaking world — His Eminence, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. We are not going on a tour; a pilgrimage is substantially different. Yes, we will travel with cameras and MP3 recorders and notebooks, but these we bring along in order to share the pilgrimage upon our return with those who cannot physically go. We go to the Holy Land to experience the life of Christ in the very places he was born and lived and walked and died — to pray in the holy places, to reflect on the holy moments, to venerate the sacred relics.

Last week, while surfing with a friend, I learned that he had taken a trip to the Holy Land. He described with such palpable joy standing on a certain mountain and being able to point from there in the panorama, to these holy sites — places most of us have seen only in pictures and located only on maps in the appendix of the Holy Scriptures. His greatest impression was that "Jesus was clearly human to me now." Having walked on the roads where Christ walked and been in a boat where Jesus walked on water, Jesus was "more real" to him.

I had lunch with another friend who took a similar trip more than 40 years ago. He had a reaction which I hadn't really anticipated: it was hard to focus at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — the Holy Tomb of our Lord — since there were so many tourists: folks who were only interested in getting a snapshot of the tomb of Jesus (as if it were simply an artifact in an old museum) before moving on. Yet this is the site of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ — the most significant moment in the history of the world! I don't look forward to that particular juxtaposition.

Still, I hope it will be more like when I visited the Byzantium exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York about five years ago. While every other gallery was filled with tourists gabbing about art, the section containing 500 years of Christian icons, mosaics, and vestments was nearly silent.

One knew this was a holy space, even in the middle of one of the most well-known treasure houses of art in the world.

Our pilgrimage is an intimate family visit. A living connection to relatives on the other side of the world. On Tuesday, we'll be honored to visit with and receive the blessing of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, the successor to James (the first Bishop of Jerusalem, who presided at the first council of the Church, as described in Acts 15). We are in communion with the Patriarch to this day, and will have the opportunity, most likely, to serve and receive Communion at the tomb of our Lord.

As a parenthetical note, for us Orthodox Christians through nearly two millennia, the various sacred sites are not "supposed." We know the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to be the tomb of Christ. We know Mount Tabor to be the Mount of Transfiguration. We know these things because our relatives were there — just like Charlestonians know that Edgar Allan Poe was stationed at Fort Moultrie and as the English are certain that William Shakespeare wrote all those great plays — some of our relatives knew him, too. This pilgrimage is a visit to living relatives whose relatives' relatives' relatives built these places in Jesus' honor — and their Christian kin before them walked with the Lord himself.

In the wider religio-political sphere, I seriously wonder what we will encounter. There is always the threat of missiles. The region is not the most stable place. And what of the presence of the evangelical Christian Zionists who have such a heavy influence in Israel? (These folks believe that the Jews should "get their land back" in order that Jesus can then return to judge the Earth. Their ideas about this link between the land and the final judgment are based on personal interpretations of Scripture which find their roots only in the last century or so in North American Christianity, and nowhere else in Christian history.) What place will they play in the landscape there? Do they improve or detract from the reputation of Christianity in Israel?

Add to all of that the fact that this is my first visit to a non-Western culture. One semester of Hebrew and several years of seminary cannot truly prepare one for even two weeks in a society entirely different from ours, with a language read and written opposite ours, and with a vocabulary base almost fully unrelated to the romance languages and Greek that I have studied.
Mercy — this is quite a pilgrimage, a stretch in virtually every facet of my life.

A few weeks from now, I will follow up with a column describing the reality of that which I can only imagine right now. I'll also be pleased to share with all who are interested our pilgrimage in photographs and MP3s on Wednesday nights beginning in October. Your prayers, please! And send me your names and the names of friends and relatives for whom I should pray at these holy sites!

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I'On. Reach him at He will contribute to a blog while on pilgrimage: page 8.htm.

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