A few days after our return from Israel and almost recovered from the hectic schedule and jet lag, I’ve had a little time to continue considering a question that Cameron Jorgenson, our tour’s co-leader (who teaches theology and ethics at Campbell University Divinity School), asked participants more than once.
Tourists mainly want to see and experience new things, but mainly in a surface manner. Pilgrims — at least those who fall under the category of religious pilgrims — want to see and experience things, too, but at a deeper level of faith and connection with God. They are in search of their deepest spiritual roots.
Sometimes pilgrims to the Holy Land end up disappointed, finding it difficult to get past the hawking peddlers on the Palm Sunday Road, the crowded Jerusalem alleys, or the sooty churches that cover holy sites. Sometimes tourists who realize they are standing where Jesus stood may come away surprised by pilgrimage.
I suspect our group experienced some of both. It’s hard not to feel touristy when traveling from one ancient site to another, marveling at the ancients’ engineering abilities when viewing an aqueduct at Caesarea Maritima or gargantuan stones fitted into the Western Wall without the benefit of modern cranes or a hint of mortar.
But it’s hard not to feel something of pilgrimage — at least for believers — while standing on a first-century pavement outside the Antonia Fortress where Jesus might have been held, or sitting on the very steps he might have climbed to enter the temple through the Huldah gate, or listening to waves lap against the sides of a boat in the Sea of Galilee.
The value of a pilgrimage is not in how much we see, but in how we are changed. Do the sights and sounds of the biblical stories draw us to deeper faith and renewed commitment to the God who made covenants with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; to the one who suffered in Gethsemane and died on a cross somewhere in the vicinity of the potential sites we saw?
Or do they fall into the category of items on a bucket list, things we want to see or do before we die?
Faith does not require a trip to the land so prominent in the Bible, and making the trip does not guarantee a sense of contact with Christ. Still, for those who have the opportunity to follow the footsteps of patriarchs and prophets, kings and priests, and even Jesus himself, the odds are good that they will never be quite the same.
[For an academic approach to understanding pilgrimage, especially the Protestant perspective, see my article “Walk about Jerusalem: Protestant Pilgrims and the Holy Land,” in Archaeology, Bible, Politics, and Media, ed. Eric Meyers and Carole Meyers (Eisenbrauns, 2012), 139-160].
Blogs from other tour participants may be found at:
David Stratton: davidsdeliberations.blogspot.com
Josh Owens: joshuakowens.blogspot.com
Susan Sevier: sevierlybaptist.com