I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land from November 26 to December 5. Going in the midst of a pandemic was a strange experience—Israel shut its borders the day after we arrived—and the sites that usually are swarmed by long lines of pilgrims were almost empty. It was a huge gift to be in those sacred places with space and time to sit and to be.
A few people have asked me, “What was it like to be there?” I’m still trying to answer that question. But something that comes to mind is an experience I think many of us have had in our every day lives. Remember what it was like to make a new friend, who became a good friend? Perhaps it was your roommate in college. You spend lots of time with that person, you have wonderful conversations, you go to class together and stay up late writing papers and studying for exams, and after a while you get the sense that “yes, I know her really well!” But then, your friend invites you to her house for a holiday. You meet her parents, talk with her siblings. You see where she grew up. You walk around her neighborhood. You see old photos on the walls, or childhood drawings. You see whole other sides to her personality emerge while she is around her family. She is still the friend you know, but you suddenly realize how much more there is to her that you did not know.
That is what it was like to be in the Holy Land. I felt this in Galilee especially, but also in Jerusalem. Of course, in some ways, I was already familiar with Jesus. I grew up Catholic. I studied theology in college. I have even spent a lot of time reading and rereading the Gospels. One of my favorite hobbies is to look up research on archeological excavations about biblical places. I pray. But to wake up in Magdala itself, right next to a first century synagogue where Jesus very likely preached, to watch the sun rise over the sea of Galilee where he calmed storms and upon which he walked (and where Peter walked, too, for a few brave moments!), to hear the soft waves on the shore and hear the birds calling overhead, to walk through Capernaum and glimpse the ruins of Peter’s house where four intrepid locals once let down their paralyzed friend on a mat through the roof, and stand on the site of the synagogue where Jesus shocked everyone with talk of gnawing on flesh and drinking blood (John 6), to see the rubble of Chorazin on the lonely hill (“woe to you…” Mt 11:21), to look down from Mount Tabor where Jesus climbed up with Peter, James, and John, to gain a real sense of the distances between places, how long it took him to walk from town to town, to take in the landscape and the hills, to hear the voices of the people speaking Arabic and Hebrew, to see the ancient olive trees in Gethsemane, a sycamore in Jericho like the one Zacchaeus climbed… all of this seemed to make Jesus seem both more real and more mysterious to me. It’s hard to explain, but I do think it is rather like the experience we sometimes have with our good friends. We think we know them well, even if on a vague, abstract level we accept the fact that there are whole parts of them and their history we don’t have the slightest inkling about. But then if we see them suddenly in some new context, strange to us but integral to them, in which a wry humor or fiery temper or local accent suddenly appears that we had never known in them before, we at once experience a deeper understanding of and a greater unfamiliarity with them, a new closeness as well as a greater distance.