In the Holy Land, the Roman Catholic churches have a wonderful obsession with the word hic or “here” in Latin. (In truly Western fashion, I suppose, we like to be exact.) In several, you will find a specific spot underneath an altar with such an inscription. “The Word was made flesh here.” “He was obedient to them here.” “John, the precursor of the Lord, was born here.”
The same motif appears in the liturgies. At the various churches on the holy sites, you don’t celebrate the Mass of the day; rather, you celebrate the Mass of the place. In the church over St. Peter’s house in Capernaum, next to the synagogue where Jesus first taught about the Eucharist, we celebrated the Feast of Corpus Christi. In the chapel in the cave of the shepherds, we celebrated Christmas. In the chapel on Calvary in the Holy Sepulchre, we celebrated the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. And of course, in the tomb of Christ, we celebrated Easter.
Even in the Gospel readings for these liturgies, the Church reiterates the idea of “here” by inserting little points of emphasis: “in this place,” “on this mountain,” “outside this tomb.”
Some of these locations may be more exact than others, of course. One of my favorite places, and one that is about as accurate as you can find, was this rubble staircase:
These are first-century stone steps that Jesus climbed up from the Kidron valley on his way to Caiaphas’ residence, where he was tried, mocked, and imprisoned. You can see the mount of Olives on the left, in the distance. I imagine these stones cannot have forgotten the touch of his feet.
This pilgrimage reminded me how concrete and tangible the Christian faith is. It isn’t a vague, “spiritual” abstraction, or moral philosophy, a set of timeless principles that can apply anywhere, anytime. Christianity is rather stubbornly factual, historical, concrete. It is news, not literature or ethics. It insists on particular people in particular places at particular moments. It happened: here, here, and here. We don’t begin the story with a poetic “once upon a time” — rather, with mundane, journalistic precision: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…” (Luke 3:1-2). As Bishop Barron observed in a recent homily, it would be like saying, “In the first year of the presidency of Joseph Biden, during the second year of the coronavirus pandemic, when Kathleen Hochul had been governor of New York for fourth months and Francis the Pope for eight years…”
It’s bracing, because visiting these places, where things happened, where Mary said yes and Joseph sought shelter and the man stretched out his withered hand and the people ate their fill of the loaves and Peter walked on water, challenges me to consider how I have responded concretely in my own life. Faith, to be real, needs to take on flesh somehow. Where? Here.
I was talking to a friend who went on the pilgrimage, who said that originally she felt no strong desire to go because of her faith in the Eucharist. “Jesus is present in every tabernacle, in every Church around the world,” she told me — and she is right. She felt no need to go to specific places in the Holy Land. She said she had even been willing to sponsor someone else going in her stead. And yet somehow, the priest leading our pilgrimage convinced her to go.
Her perspective changed the moment she laid eyes on the sea of Galilee. It meant so much for her to be there.
True, God is present everywhere, and, for the ancient Churches East and West we know he is present in a particular, dare I say, localized way in the Eucharist. And I think that gift flows directly from God’s fondness for what some people call “the scandal of particularity.” C. S. Lewis explains it best:
To be quite frank, we do not at all like the idea of a “chosen people.” Democrats by birth and education, we should prefer to think that all nations and individuals start level in the search for God, or even that all religions are equally true. It must be admitted at once that Christianity makes no concessions to this point of view. It does not tell of a human search for God at all, but of something done by God for, to, and about Man. And the way in which it is done is selective, undemocratic, to the highest degree. After the knowledge of God had been universally lost or obscured, one man from the whole earth (Abraham) is picked out. He is separated (miserably enough, we may suppose) from his natural surroundings, sent into a strange country, and made the ancestor of a nation who are to carry the knowledge of the true God. Within this nation there is further selection: some die in the desert, some remain behind in Babylon. There is further selection still. The process grows narrower and narrower, sharpens at last into one small bright point like the head of a spear. It is a Jewish girl at her prayers. All humanity (so far as concerns its redemption) has narrowed to that.(From Miracles, Chapter 14)
Most people will not be given the opportunity to travel to the particular places in the Holy Land, and God in his mercy comes to us wherever we are. But whether one can go or not, it matters that he was conceived there, born there, grew up there, lived there, taught there, healed there, died there, and rose there. In some strange way, the omnipresent, omnipotent Lord makes himself close to us by embracing the limits of space and time. The one “whom heaven and earth could not contain” is hidden for nine months under the heart of a young girl from Nazareth, and then held in her arms.