These were the first words our tour guide spoke to us. Ahhh… I let that sink in and it hit me hard. Here I was, in the very place where Jesus walked. The place where the Bible comes to life. What was I going to discover about the Bible? Learn about Jesus? About myself? I was very much anticipating the journey ahead.
Just a few short weeks ago, I was blessed to be able to take a trip to Israel with several colleagues. Nothing really prepares you for a trip like this, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Prior to leaving, I recall reading several paragraphs of the itinerary to my husband, then realizing that it was just Day One that I was perusing! It was as overwhelming (in a good way!) to take in on paper as it was in person. And being on the other side of the trip now, I can share that it truly felt like we packed one month’s worth of experiences in to one week! From Tiberias, the Sea of Galilee, Magdala and Capernaum, to Bethlehem, Nazareth, and the City of David; from the wilderness, the Jordan River, Jericho, and the Dead Sea, to several incredible days spent in Jerusalem, and much more in between. I loved it more than I imagined I would – the sights, the sounds, and the smells – all of it! Throughout the trip, and on the flight home, I found myself feverishly captioning my pictures and journaling the experience. I didn’t want to forget what I saw, what I learned, and most importantly, how I felt throughout the week as we went about our pilgrimage.
There was a moment early in the trip when our trip leader, Dean, asked a question that stuck with me. One evening as we were all sitting in the hotel lounge debriefing our adventures of the day, he asked, “What makes a place sacred? Is it the actual place, or is it what we bring to the place?”
There was no right or wrong answer here. I was immediately challenged as I reflected on what we had experienced to that point. We had been to many sights along the Sea of Galilee and throughout Bethlehem. Just that day, we had visited the Church of the Nativity, the very place where it is believed that Jesus Christ was born. This was one of the places that had a deep impact on me. There was something about kneeling in the very place where Jesus entered the world that was nothing short of overwhelming. Sacred? Absolutely. But I could not tell you that would be the experience for someone who is not walking with the Lord; the Holy Spirit was with us in that space but was the Holy Spirit dwelling in the shrine?
There were other places that we visited that weighed heavier on me, and surprisingly, most were not the shrines we visited. Rather, the spaces where I felt most connected to the Lord were open spaces – overlooking the Sea of Galilee, walking in the Valley of the Doves, standing on the Mount of Olives looking down into Kidron Valley and into Jerusalem. Sitting on a bench in the Bethesda Pools. Strolling down the streets of the Old City.
As we continued from one ‘sacred’ space to the next, places such as The Garden of Gethsemane, The Church of the Holy Sepulcher (where it is believed Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected), the Wailing Wall, and the Via Dolorosa – I found myself less emotionally and spiritually moved than I thought I would be. Perhaps it was because there were so many other tourists and vendors. Or maybe because we were hurried to get from one place to the next so I could not fully take in a space. Regardless, I had no expectations around how I would feel in these spaces. I just took it all in, as part of my journey felt more of an historical pilgrimage than a spiritual one, because I was also digging deeper and deeper into my ancestral roots.
We visited the Garden Tomb and the Tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (both are places believed to be where Jesus was laid to rest). While both spaces are considered Holy ‘must see’ sights, it was boldly pointed out by our guide that in the end, whether He was laid to rest in one or the other or a space yet to be uncovered, what matters most is that He is no longer in the tomb!
And that’s when it hit me. The answer to Dean’s question. As defined by Merriam-Webster, these spaces were indeed sacred, “dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity” and “worthy of religious veneration,” and “entitled to reverence and respect.” And we were also bringing sacredness to the places. My pilgrimage in Israel was made richer and more meaningful because my colleagues and I invited Jesus right along with us. He wasn’t just dwelling in each of those shrines, waiting for us to visit. He was dwelling within us. Walking in the Spirit, and abiding in the Lord will make ANY pilgrimage, or space, more meaningful.
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (emphasis mine)Acts 1:8
“By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.” (emphasis mine)1 John 4:13
Having the opportunity to travel to Israel was an experience that will leave a large and lasting imprint on my heart. But we don’t have to go halfway across the world to Israel to get or feel closer to Him, nor to understand our roots. We can invite Him to the very spaces we’re sitting in each and every day, and we can open our Bibles and be transported right over to Palm Sunday Road. That’s the Good News. Those are His gifts to us. We simply need to receive.
At the end of our trip, we were asked what the most meaningful experiences of our pilgrimage were, and what might we take home from the experience. That was an easy one for me. The lens with which I read the Bible will never be the same, and to walk where Jesus walked, and to gain contextual knowledge of so many events from both the Old and New Testaments are gifts that will last my lifetime. To feel and know that my identity is sealed in Jesus in the very place He was born, crucified, and buried is an experience I will forever cherish. But knowing that I can be just as close to Him here in Cincinnati, Ohio as I felt there in Jerusalem is new life breathed into me. It’s shalom.
Friends, as we approach Good Friday and Easter Sunday, let us celebrate that He is indeed no longer in the tomb! He is Risen!
Dear Lord, I’m so grateful for the opportunity to visit the very place where You walked as man on this earth. Thank you for teaching me new things about You and for leading me with Truth along the way. Heavenly Father, having the opportunity to be in the very place where You carried the sin of the world was also incredibly overwhelming to me. There are no words to express my sorrow for what You endured and my gratitude for Your sacrifice. As we look to Easter, I praise You and give thanks that You overcame death so that we could have life. May I be a faithful witness and may the experience I had in Israel be a blessing to others. In Your son’s name I pray. Amen.