The Holy Land, it is said, is a microcosm of the world. It is certainly a microcosm of the Middle East – but I’m willing to accept the idea that it is also a microcosm of the world. And if that is the case, then it is also a microcosm of the heart of man. It is in thinking about this that insights and revelations have come.
There is no denying the presence of the Holy in the Holy Land. Everywhere you turn, there is a sign on the road (just a normal road sign) pointing to something that you can also find in your Bible. It is, after all, a Biblical land. It also has all of the religious confusion that marks the world in which we live (and which marks our impure hearts as well). The Church of the Ascension was long ago destroyed (I cannot remember whether it was the Persians [probably] or later muslims [doubtful] for there is now a small mosque built over the site of Christ’s Ascension.) The stone from which He ascended remains open for veneration by all (Christian and Muslim alike, though there were no crowds the day I was there). There is an altar outside the mosque where the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem is allowed to celebrate the Divine Liturgy once a year (on the feast of the Ascension). I venerated both the rock where Christ stood and the altar outside the mosque.
But there is also the jumble of the Middle East everywhere you look. Shops, beggars, hucksters, people just trying to get by – the “tourist” aspect is always present, even when you’ve come as a pilgrim.
I wonder to myself how often my faith is more that of a tourist and less that of a pilgrim. To attend the Divine Liturgy as though it were somehow outside of me, something to be seen or heard, while I remain aloof. You may think it’s hard for a priest to do – but I assure you it can be done (I do not brag, but confess).
On such days, what is our communion? I know what it is from God’s side – it is His Body and Blood, a live-coal “burning the unworthy.” But a tourist remains unmoved by the mystic fire that burns his soul.
Traffic in Jerusalem is always amazing. There are general rules, but also large things like Tour Buses that simply do not fit on the streets and yet must. I think of the snarl of ideas and thoughts that do not course easily through my head as the traffic jam increases and the horns of buses shout for attention.
And all that we do – all that we think – all that we say or feel – all is done in the presence of the Holy. A great comfort came to me in Bethlehem (where I was almost mugged on the street except for the intervention of a kind police officer). The comfort was that the world was no better or different in any particular way when Christ was born. The city was crowded, the politics a mess, and yet angels were singing to shepherds and the very Word of God was entering our breathing world in the flesh. God who first breathed life into us, was now taking His first breaths of created air – and continued until “He breathed His last.”
In the course of those breaths nothing changed outwardly. The world was still a jumble and confusion only with a directed purpose to kill God.
But with that last breath everything changed and can never be the same. Whether the eyes of a tourist will ever understand, the pilgrim knows. The pilgrim bows. The pilgrim weeps and kisses, sings and prays. The pilgrim will enter the Divine Liturgy and recognize paradise and eat the Bread of Heaven.
O God, keep me a pilgrim.