A Pilgrimage to the Heart of the Gospel

I recently returned from ten days in Israel. Since returning, I have told everyone I’ve spoken with to go whenever they get the opportunity. The trip was especially moving for me only a few months out from ordination to the priesthood.

My friend, Father Ryan Kaup, wrote a reflection on his journey to the Holy Land when he was a seminarian. He talked about the “reality of the Resurrection” as well as the Incarnational experience of Israel. Both of those hit home with particular resonance for me. In Nazareth, at the Basilica of the Annunciation, we prayed the Angelus at noon with the gathered pilgrims. Hic Verbum Caro Factum Est: Here the Word was made flesh. I cannot adequately describe how I felt at that moment. To pray that prayer in the place where God’s definitive intervention in history took place was a moment I will never forget.

Equally moving was a minute or two of prayer at the site of Calvary and especially in the empty tomb. How marvelous that the most famous tomb in the world is empty! There in the quiet and powerful space, I prayed that the Lord would empty my tomb and those of the people I love one day. The definitive intervention of the Annunciation at Nazareth truly anticipated this second intervention: the raising of Jesus Christ from the dead.

It is not an accident that these two realities – Incarnation and Resurrection – are the most contested aspects of the Christian claim. Few would disagree with the assertion that the Beatitudes are a beautiful code of human action. All will politely acknowledge Jesus as a good role model, a kind teacher, or a wise sage. But unless these two events are real – Incarnation and Resurrection – we Christians are incredibly foolish, as Saint Paul correctly understood. Only if the Beatitudes are not just good advice but the life of happiness offered by the Incarnate Son of God does awe at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre mean anything.

The experiences in the Holy Land – at silent Nazareth, at the tranquil Sea of Galilee, serving as deacon on Mount Tabor, touching the rock of Calvary – have implanted themselves in my memory and have changed by prayer and preaching already. But what stays with me more is the fact that these are not mere historical events. The Incarnation and Death-Resurrection of Christ are trans-historical realities. They are rendered present sacramentally at every Mass. For this reason, it should not be a surprise that the theology of the Eucharist is a third major point of contention between the world (and other Christians!) with the Church’s teaching. Yet for me, the Eucharist is the necessary link in the whole chain. Christ did not come so that we could dodge souvenir purveyors on the land where he walked. Rather, he came so that we might have life in abundance. He is the God who comes to us on every altar in the world as he came to his own in the womb of his Mother and in the land of the promise.

As I venerated the site of the Crucifixion and touched the rock of Calvary, I heard the words of consecration spoken at a Mass right next to me in Spanish: “Tomen y beban todos de el: porque este es el cáliz de mi sangre, sangre del alianza nueva y eterna. Que será derramada por ustedes y por muchos para el perdón de los pecados.” Here: here is where Christ’s blood was poured out for the many. As I heard these words, I placed my hand on the stone under the Greek Orthodox altar. In that moment, I was renewed in my conviction that the Lord had chosen that very mission for my life: “Do this in memory of me.”