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Having seen some of the more important religious sites of Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism and Islam, the number of sacred Christian sites seen in my travels were very sparse. Considering that I grew up in a predominately Christian society and attended a Christian school, it was rather poor form on my behalf. But that would be rectified with a visit to Bethlehem, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, Nazareth, and Jerusalem – so much history contained within a few hours of each other.
The first stop was the hilly city of Nazareth, and of all the cities I visited, I warmed to this one more than any other. However, it was also apparent that the importance of religious sites is very much a subjective opinion. For example, within the city is the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation, the supposed place where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to proclaim her pregnancy that would bear Jesus into the world. However, a few hundred metres away is the Greek Orthodox St Gabriel’s Church where it is said that the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary at the site of a well to inform her of the same pregnancy.
Obviously, both stories cannot be
Service within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - Jerusalem, Israel
Near the 13th Station of the Cross, where Jesus was taken down from the Cross.
correct, but seeing numerous sites of disputed authenticity poses the question of whether a site is sacred because a religious event occurred, or is it sacred because of the energy invested in a place from generations of pilgrims? There is little doubt that some religious places have an incredible presence and power, but the origin of such power makes little difference for me, for it is the aura that arrests my attention. Israel was full of places of supposed Biblical events, such as a where Jesus preached or where he ate with his disciples, but for me the authenticity of the place was not as important as how the site felt within me. This is probably why I am particularly moved by places of all faiths, for though I may not understand its sacredness, I at least try to feel the energy it contains.
I decided to stay in a convent during my time in Nazareth and the small Spartan rooms with no telephone or television were perfectly suited for periods of reflection. If anyone was to travel to Israel for a pilgrimage, convents should be the first choice for any accommodation. Its proximity close to the Basilica of
the Annunciation meant that it was a short walk where I would sit and observe the different pilgrimage groups paying homage, most were from Europe, but there were also those from other regions, including colourfully attired groups from Africa and French Polynesia. The importance of this place was obvious from the emotions it evoked from its visitors, as many pilgrims would wipe tears from their eyes during a particularly moving hymn or prayer.
The next destination on the pilgrimage (what is known locally as the “Jesus Trail”) was to the Sea of Galilee, where the numerous religious sites were spread across a wide area, and the summer heat made walking between them quite difficult. Thankfully, a pilgrimage group from Nigeria kindly took me into their care for a few hours and shuttled me around on their tour bus in blissful air-conditioned comfort. There were visits to the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves & Fishes, a site whose importance is revealed in its title; and the Church of the Primacy of St Peter, the site where Peter was bestowed with the leadership of the nascent Christian church, and it was here that I was able to cool off
in the historical waters of the Sea of Galilee. I even paid a visit to Capernaum, courtesy of a friendly priest from New York who drove me to the ancient city. The kindness and love other people showed me during this part of the pilgrimage was uplifting; these were beautiful times.
My favourite site in all of Israel was the nearby Mount of the Beatitudes where the mourners, merciful and meek were blessed by Jesus. This was an incredibly peaceful place where most pilgrim groups came and went in fairly quick succession, but others would hold services or sing gospel songs in various parts of the garden. Inside the Church of the Beatitudes, which is supposed to be a place of quietude, was filled with hushed voices as people would natter to each other whilst inside. By waiting I was rewarded with an empty church to enjoy in solitude and absolute silence, which was eventually broken by the footsteps of a nun who moved into a pew to silently pray.
Next was Jerusalem which contained a plethora of sites, the Mount of Olives, Mount Zion and the Garden of Gethsemane to name just a few. One of these
sites was St Anne’s Church, the mother of Mary. Whilst walking past this church, beautiful singing captured my ears, and so I entered to hear more. This church, renowned for its acoustics, was playing host to a young soprano performing to a group of Polish pilgrims. Her angelic voice soared amongst the domed interior and echoed of the stone walls, and that singing will always be my most enduring memory of the sounds of Israel.
One of the most important events in Jerusalem is the regular procession along the Via Dolorosa (“Way of the Sorrows”) that occurs every Friday. This is the supposed path where Jesus walked to his crucifixion. The accuracy of the route is highly debated, but the symbolism of the event if of more importance. The Franciscan Fathers host the weekly procession and a large group gathered to hear the significance of the Via Dolorosa and this was reinforced at each of the 14 Points of the Cross where certain events took place – such as Jesus taking up the cross, meeting his mother or falling. Lingering at the back of the procession were armed members of the military in case anything untoward occurred.
procession ended in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the crucifixion spot and where Jesus was entombed. Within this large, dusky interior filled with lanterns and incense smoke, there were always large groups of people who visited to entreaty a higher authority for some cause or another. It was a sombre, austere place whose authenticity is also disputed by the nearby Garden Tomb, a peaceful and warm place that is the alternate site where Jesus was laid to rest.
There was an aspect of Christianity I learned amongst all of this, and that was the way it accepted diversity within its ranks. There were significant differences in the practices of the different denominations that staked claims to parts of the Old City – the Catholics, Protestants, Greek Orthodox, Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox strands of Christianity could be so contrasting that one would have difficulty picking some of them as belonging to the same faith, but they were all accepted as Christians. However, not all people calling themselves Christians are so welcoming of other denominations (let alone other faiths) and there are territorial disputes within some of the most important sites that are as petty as to who is allowed
Basilica of the Annunciation - Nazareth, Israel
Supposed location of spot where Mary was visited by Gabriel.
to clean the chandeliers; just one of the many issues emanating from the institutionalisation of faith. Thankfully, this seemed to be the exception rather than the norm.
Despite this, there is an undoubted universality of Christianity, and this was no more evident than a Sunday service I attended at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem. The church was filled with pilgrims from USA and Germany, and attended by local Palestinian Christians. The service was conducted in English, German and Arabic; even though there were differences in the language, there was a similarity in the purpose; which, as is the heart of all religions, reflects people’s search for meaning and salvation. Though Christianity is subjected to criticism nowadays, one would have little quarrel with aspects of the faith on display during this pilgrimage – that espousing the embracing of diversity and a love for all people.
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