When our group set out on our pilgrimage to the Holy Land a few weeks ago, we each had our own ideas about what we would get out of the trip. Some of these ideas were vague, some specific, but all were more or less centered on the theme of walking in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. This is the natural direction our thoughts take when we contemplate visiting the sites where the events of the Gospels took place.
And so we began our journey on the Feast of the Epiphany, staggering jet-lagged and bleary-eyed into Bethlehem. The wise men who had also traveled from distant lands to see the Christ child no doubt knew something of that exhaustion as well. Each of us has likely felt at some point that our life-long journey through this world can be tiring. But all the fatigue, the crowds, the seemingly endless waiting that we pilgrims were met with that evening culminated in silent veneration in a little grotto. To see, to touch, to kiss the place where our Heavenly King was born – this was worth all the difficulty of getting there.
“But why,” I couldn’t help thinking, “was the King born? Why did he come?” And knowing where and how our journey would end in Jerusalem, I could answer my own question, “He was born so that he could die.”
This would be the theme of my own reflection at every place we visited – Christ’s life as a journey towards his death. He took on flesh in his mother’s womb, in a little house in Nazareth, so that he could suffer in the flesh for our transgressions. Mary nursed and cared for her little child so tenderly, Joseph protected him so fiercely, so that he could die an ignominious death at the appointed time. He called his apostles on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, worked his miracles in Capernaum, and taught the people throughout the region the ways of the Lord, all so that they might believe, take up their crosses, and follow him, being baptized into a death like his.
Jesus Christ came into this world in order to die. If we are to follow in his footsteps, that means following him into the depths of darkness and suffering. It means following him into the tomb.
Which is exactly what our little band of pilgrims did as we came to Jerusalem at last. On Thursday we visited Gethsemane, the place of Our Lord’s agony and of his arrest, where the Passion began. We saw the ruins of the high priest’s house as well, the place of Peter’s denial, and we descended into the cistern where Jesus was held prisoner overnight, to meditate on the words of Psalm 88: “Thou hast put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep. Thy wrath lies heavy upon me…”
But we were in that pit together, fellow disciples following our master, and there was comfort in that. We Christians have the consolation of suffering together as members of the Church. We have the consolation of knowing Our Lord has gone before us into the darkness, and accompanies us in any trial. He took that wrath upon himself. When we follow him into the tomb, we do not go alone.
Friday morning we walked the surprisingly short Way of the Cross, from the site of Christ’s condemnation to death at Pilate’s palace to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where he was crucified, died, and was buried. Each of us carried wooden crosses as we went – little ones that were easily held in one hand, but symbols of greater things. Each of us shared a reflection on one of the stations as we walked in Our Lord’s footsteps to Calvary, together.
When we came to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre it was only mid-morning, and the church was relatively uncrowded – so different from our experience in Bethlehem mere days earlier, in so many ways. But one had led to the other, for Our Lord and for us. We had walked with him from the crèche to the cross. Somberly, quietly, we processed from the hill of the crucifixion to the stone of anointing, and at last into the tomb itself.
The Dominican friar who served as our guide that week had referred to the tomb as “the one place in the world where Jesus is not”. And in a sense that is very true – because the tomb, of course, is empty. It is the unique place where Our Lord’s absence is more significant than his presence. Christ did not remain in the tomb. It was not the end of his story, and neither was it really the end of our journey.
When all of us had gone into the tomb, and come out, we went to the little side chapel and celebrated Our Lord’s resurrection with the Holy Mass. St. John Paul II famously said of the Church, “We are an Easter people,” and it was that Easter Sunday joy that we proclaimed on a Friday in ordinary time.
Jesus Christ did not remain in the tomb, and if we are to follow in his footsteps, then neither can we. We must enter into it together, acknowledging our sins and enduring our trials, but together we must also come out again. We are baptized into Christ’s death so that we can share in his resurrection. We step out of the darkness of sin into the light of grace, pass through death into a new creation.
And then the journey really begins.
By: Catherine Costanzo, Holy Land Pilgrim