ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

The God-Trodden Land

The history, philosophy and significance of religious pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

For nearly 2,000 years, countless numbers of Christians have followed in the paths of Jesus, making their way on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and the city of Jerusalem.

Pilgrimage is a deeply rooted religious tradition. For Jews, Christians and Muslims, Abraham is the prototypical pilgrim, obeying God’s call to “go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). Elijah provides another prototype: he “walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb)” (1 Kings 19:8). Pilgrimage is travel from the familiar, from our land to a holy land.

Yet this seemingly simple notion of pilgrimage masks a complex reality. Often it is only after a pilgrimage has been completed that one realizes what one was seeking and what one found.

I ask those whom I take on pilgrimage to the Holy Land what aspect of the pilgrimage they look forward to most. Their responses invariably fall into a pattern. Some say “to walk where Jesus walked” or “to be where Jesus lived and taught.” Some express the desire “to see the places I’ve read about in the Bible.”

If I were to probe a bit and ask, “Why do you want to walk where Jesus walked?” some might say they are setting out in the hope of encountering the holy – going, like Elijah, in search of God’s presence. Elijah went to the mountain where God had given the Law to Moses, but Elijah’s encounter with God was not what he anticipated. While there was wind and earthquake and fire, as had accompanied the giving of the Law, God was not in them. Instead God spoke to Elijah in a “tiny whispering sound” (1 Kings 19:11-12).

So too, in the course of their pilgrimage, many modern pilgrims do not encounter God in the manner they expected. The Holy Land is a land of surprises. While pilgrimages need to be carefully planned, God’s grace cannot be programmed.

A pilgrimage to the Holy Land is no guarantee of attaining holiness. St. Gregory of Nyssa visited Jerusalem in 380 and was not impressed: “If God’s grace were more plentiful around Jerusalem than elsewhere, then its inhabitants would not make sin so much the fashion. But as it is, there is no sort of filthy conduct they do not practice – cheating, adultery, theft, idolatry, poisoning, quarreling and murder are commonplace.”

Many come on pilgrimage in the hope of understanding Scripture better. St. Jerome could be their patron saint. Jerome moved to Bethlehem in 384 to study and translate the Bible. With a nod to Gregory he acknowledged that Jerusalem was crowded “with the whole variety of people you normally find in cities – prostitutes, actors and clowns.” However, he held that making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land helped one understand the revealed word of God.

Biblical passages take on greater meaning when they are read on site. Peter’s house in Capernaum, the Pool with Five Porticoes, Gethsemane, Golgotha and the tomb of Jesus – these and many other sites form a “fifth gospel,” which offers a unique testimony to the life of Jesus.

One example: it is only when one sees the topography of Gethsemane, situated on a path leading up to the Mount of Olives across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem, that one begins to appreciate a certain dimension of Jesus’ agony. A quick climb over the Mount of Olives would have allowed Jesus to escape into the Judean wilderness. Jesus carried out his father’s will by waiting in Gethsemane for the arresting party to arrive.

The reality that makes the Holy Land an aid to understanding also makes it far more than a Bible study aid. It is, in the words of a Byzantine inscription, a “God-trodden land.” It is where the Incarnate Word of God lived as one of us. To enter into human history, God had to enter space and time, at a specific time in a specific place. This place is forever linked with Christian faith. And as Robert Wilken observes in his masterful study, The Land Called Holy, experiencing the place where Jesus lived is “a way of renewing the image’ of what happened, that is, re-presenting the saving events of the past in the present. If there were no places that could be seen and touched, the claim that God had entered human history could become a chimera.”

Experiencing the holy places is at the heart of pilgrimage. St. Paulinus observed, “No other sentiment draws people to Jerusalem than the desire to see and touch the places where Christ was physically present, and to be able to say from their own experience, ‘We have gone into his tabernacle and worshipped in the places where his feet stood.’” For St. Cyril of Jerusalem, living in that city enabled one to “touch the truth each day with one’s own hands.” Wilken aptly terms this “tactile piety.”

Even Gregory of Nyssa acknowledged what might be termed the sacramentalism of the Holy Land: the places where Jesus lived are signs and memorials that the word indeed became flesh. Gregory wrote that the “holy places” were “saving symbols,” for they had “received the footprints of life itself.”

Yet the Holy Land achieved its unique identity not only from the fact that it is the land where Jesus lived, but also from the imprint Christians left on this land. The term “Holy Land” is distinctively Christian. Wilken traces the popular usage of the term to Christians living in Palestine. This occurrence came as a culmination of profound change in the wake of that catalyst of church history, the Roman Emperor Constantine I.

In 313, Constantine’s proclamation of religious tolerance, issued in Milan, allowed Christians to build public houses of worship without fear that they would be razed during a persecution. For two centuries prior to Constantine, Calvary and the tomb of Jesus had lain buried beneath a pagan temple built to blot out the memory of Jesus.

Constantine ordered the pagan temple razed and a magnificent church built at Calvary and over Jesus’ tomb. In a letter of instruction to the bishop of Jerusalem, Constantine said, “The most wonderful place on earth deserves to be made also the most splendid.” With Constantine’s funding, it was. Then, drawn by Constantine’s churches and imitating St. Helena’s journey to the Holy Land, pilgrims came in a flood. Jerusalem became the major church of the Holy Land, elevated to the rank of a patriarchal church by the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

The earliest physical evidence of pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a bit of graffiti drawn in charcoal on a foundation stone of Constantine’s basilica adjacent to Calvary. It is a drawing of a boat, with a Latin inscription reading, “Lord, we went,” apparently left by pilgrims from Italy. The mast of the boat appears broken, perhaps attesting to the hazards of travel on pilgrimage. Since this foundation stone was buried below ground level, the inscription was probably made while the basilica was under construction, around 330.

Some pilgrims remained, joining the ranks of local Christians. Some transformed their pilgrimage into a life of seeking God in the desert. Eventually, 73 monasteries and settlements of hermits dotted the landscape of the Judean wilderness. Jesus had gone into this wilderness to pray and fast; thousands imitated his example, making “the desert a city.” It was these desert dwellers, living in isolated proximity to Jerusalem, who began to refer to the land as the Holy Land. The monastic leaders Sts. Theodosius and Sabas, writing to the emperor on behalf of all the desert monks, spoke of themselves as “we, the inhabitants of this holy land.”

The Christian presence in cities mushroomed as well. By the early part of the seventh century over 500 churches had been built to serve the rapidly growing Christian population. The land where Jesus walked had become a Christian land.

The Church of the Holy Land made large-scale pilgrimage possible, erecting churches and hospices and providing guides. A sixth-century pilgrim from Piacenza, Italy, noted that the basilica of St. Mary in Jerusalem had guest houses for men and women, “a vast number of tables” to feed them and “more than 3,000 beds for the sick.” In turn the church of the Holy Land was nourished by pilgrimage, spiritually and economically. In a real sense, the Holy Land that pilgrims visit today is a creation of past pilgrims and of the Christians who once lived and now live in this land.

The fact that a living church was the midwife of pilgrimage is a clue to an important dimension of pilgrimage. Pilgrims normally travel in groups, not simply because of logistic and cost efficiencies, but also because of the communal nature of Christian faith and worship. It is not visiting a holy site but prayer at a holy site – and above all, prayer together at a holy site – that distinguishes pilgrimage from religious site-seeing.

Pilgrims in the Holy Land should not only worship together, but worship together with the local church. The presence of Jesus is encountered in the “living stones” (1 Pet. 2:5) of the church of the Holy Land as well as in the ancient stones of holy sites. It is a rich presence; the church in the Holy Land encompasses virtually all the diversity of Christianity today. There are Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox, and Greek-Melkite Catholics as well. There are Syrian Christians and Coptic Christians, Anglicans and Lutherans, Armenians and Maronites and a long list of others. The church in the Holy Land is an archeological trench through the history of the church, a tangible reminder of the diverse cultures, languages and nations that embraced it.

The church in the Holy Land makes a point of inviting pilgrims to meet its members and join them in worship. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, sent a letter to bishops in other countries as “an appeal to you, to encourage you to set off again on the road to Jerusalem: to come to pray in the holy places of the Redemption and get to know the local church, her pastor, her parishes, her works. Your witness will encourage the Christians of this land and be a source of spiritual enrichment for your own communities. The Church of Jerusalem has always taken care of pilgrimages. At the same time the continuous and numerous presence of pilgrims is a moral and a spiritual support for the Christians of this country who are undergoing such a hard trial at this time.”

The “hard trial” to which Patriarch Sabbah refers is rooted in the lingering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Christians in the Holy Land adopted the Arabic language and culture following the Islamic conquest of Palestine in the seventh century. These Christians make up the hulk of the church in the Holy Land. Wilken calls the indigenous Palestinian church “an irreplaceable sign of continuity with the first Christian community and with Christ.”

I include contact with the Church of Jerusalem on my pilgrimages. Sometimes we will go to a Latin church in a Palestinian village and join the parishioners for evening Mass and a potluck dinner. This provides an opportunity for American Catholics to meet at least a few of their Palestinian counterparts. On Sunday we visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for prayer at Calvary and the empty tomb of Jesus, and then celebrate the Resurrection by joining the Greek-Melkite Catholics of Jerusalem for liturgy, giving those of us reared in the Latin Catholic tradition an experience of the Eastern Church.

One pilgrim of antiquity who made a point of meeting the Christians of the Holy Land was Aetheria, a nun from the western coast of Spain. Aetheria kept a diary of her extensive pilgrimage, which she made around the year 400 A.D. Hers is the earliest pilgrim’s account of any length.

Aetheria was a keen observer, interested in the people she met as well as in the sites she visited. She carried an Old Latin translation of the Bible with her, so that the Scriptural passages pertaining to the sites could be read “on the very spot.” She noted, “Whenever we arrived anywhere, I always wanted the Bible passage read to us.”

Aetheria gushed over the splendor of Constantine’s basilica at Calvary and the tomb of Jesus: “the decorations are really too marvelous for words. All you can see is gold and jewels and silk: the hangings are entirely silk with gold stripes.” But she also recorded the concern of the bishop of Jerusalem for his people at the end of a tiring all-night vigil on Holy Thursday: “He speaks to them as follows: ‘Now off you go home till the next service, and sit down for a bit. Then all be back at about eight o’clock so that till midday you can see the holy wood of the cross, that, as every one of us believes, helps us attain salvation.

In Memoirs of a Medieval Woman, Louise Collins’ book on Margery Kempe, a 15th century pilgrim, the author observes that “on account of seasickness, overcrowding, rats, lice, fleas, maggots, foul air and general debility, travelers often fell ill.”

Pilgrims today have it far easier, with jet travel, bottled water and air-conditioned hotels. Perhaps it has become almost too easy, too much like tourism.

Yet the holy sites themselves subvert detached observation, if one keeps in mind the events that occurred at these sites. There will be moments of wonder: “It happened here! It really happened!” A pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a journey of seeing and touching that penetrates soul and spirit.

George Martin is a frequent contributor to these pages.

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español