An Ecumenical Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Thursday - Back down to earth, ready for the journey home

And so our pilgrimage comes towards an end, or is it just the beginning?

A very early start and our bags were taken to teh lobby at the back and checked on to the coach.

We were on the road by 7-30.

It wasn't long before we climbed to sea level and made our way to Mount Tabor.

One last opportunity to talk kplate tectonics with a responsive reading, in which I invited everyone to fill in the blank words here indicated in capitals!

We began with the call of the twelve including Simon, called peter THE ROCK

We went on to think of Simon Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi where Matthew tells us that Jesus said on THIS ROCK I will build my church.

And we finished by thinking of the climax to the Sermon on the Mount:  All who hear my words and act on them will be like the  Wise Man who built his house on THE ROCK.

Never let it be said Jesus was only interested in sowing seeds and harvesting crops in his teaching.   Rocks were just as important!!!

By now Mount Tabor was in view.

Last year it mattered.  Is this really the Mount of Transfiguration or is it just a convenient location on the pilgrim route near Nazareth?  Isn't it more likely to have taken place on Mount Hermon, north of Caesarea Philippi, from which point Jesus set out South for Jerusalem?

This year it didn't matter at all.

Last year was a conference.

This year we have been on pilgrimage.

"What does the word 'pilgrimage' mean?" asked Sarah over coffee.  The only way I could respond was by saying, 'it's what we have just done'!  And I wasn't being flippant.

It has felt like a pilgrimage.

The coach dropped us off and we boarded mini-buses to take us to the top of the mountain.

I found myself sitting next to a German called Jehoiachim.

He was from a rotarian group, an evangelical protestant, they were being taken round the Holy Land by a pastor who also belonged to their rotary club.

He spoke of having a mystical experience and coming to faith.  Then he spoke of Quantum Physics and the way it gave sapce for 'miracle' to happen and of the way many physicists come to belive in God.

I responded by pointing to my map and speaking of the geology of plate tectonics in teh HOly Land.

"There is no conflict between science and religion," he stated with conviction.  I agreed whole-heartedly.  Evolution is great and God is greater.  The time scale of geological time is greater still, and God is greater by far.

A few moments as ships passed in the night and email addresses were exchanged.  But they were precious moments!

Up to the top of Mount Tabour and another Barluzzi church, the first.  Mass was going on, a devout congretaion and a worship song I recognised.

With the transfiguration depicted on an apse roof and two side chapels for Elijah and Moses, there seemed to be an irony about the building.  Wasn't the whole point of the story that no booths should be built?!

We moved into the Byzantine ruins.

Jean Challen had passed me a wonderful reading hoping I would read it in our worship.  It made a most moving start to our final reflection and prayer time.

I began with Luke's opening words setting the scene in prayer, then shared Jean's prayer meditation.

We went on to a reading of the Transfiguration story in Mark and a comment on the Elijah link in the seond part of that passage.

What a mountain-top experience our pilgrimage had been.

But mountain-top experiences cannot last for ever, however much we join with Peter in longing for them to be fixed in stone.

Peter, James and John had to come down from teh mountain.

So do we.

They were not alone.

Neither are we!

Jesus is with us as much on the descent as on the Mountain-top itself!

And so the final reading of our pilgrimage was the next story in Mark, of the failure of the disciples to heal a young man.  The father, when challenged to faith by Jesus, says, "I blieve, help my unbelief.'

Those had been the words Robin had invited us to use as our response to prayer at communion.

They seemed important once more.

The passage finishes with a call to prayer.

Robert led us in a wonderful prayer reflection on the way our pilgrimage goes on.

By the time we had sung Brother, sister let me serve you for one last time I was choked up and had to ask Robert to lead us all in the grace.

We really had found ourselves not only laughing with those who laugh but weeping with those who weep.

Robert finished with that wonderful invitation to go in peace.

Those words had a special meaning as our pilgirmage came to an end.  Or was it just beginining?

We went on to the roof top observation platform for one more breath-taking view and the last of my video clips.  With only 2 minutes remaining on the camera's memory card our investment in a new 2 gb card had paid off.

Little did I know what was in store!

Joanne had one final surprise in store.

There was one place I had wanted to visit the previous day.

But Joanne was adamant there wouldn't be time.

She had the surprise up her sleeve and kept it to the very last.

We made our way down to the coast and found ourselves at Caesarea Maritima.  That triumph of civil engineering that Herod the Great had built in 12 years as the Roman capital for his Jewish kingdom.  In Jerualem he built a temple to the LORD God of Israel.  Here he built a temple to Augustus, Son of God.

I was in my element.

And having the Oxford Companion to Biblical archaeology with me in my day bag for the first time, as I wanted it for the homeward journey I shared as much as I could with everyone else!

There was the theatre he had built that doubled up for racing and chariot races too.  There was the Tiberium that Pontius Pilate had dedicated.  And the plaque linking him with it and honouring Tiberius as 'divine'.

This was the kind of place that to me gives an insight into the very nature of the world Jesus came to, the ugliness of its sheer power, and the power of Jesus' alternative.

But the best bit of all was the beach we found ourselves on under the arches of a wonderful Roman Aqueduct the like of which I had never seen.

It was sandy!

Very sandy!!

Not a few people had their shoes and socks off and were paddling in the brilliant blue Meiterranean sea.

I could feel the sand between my toes for the rest of the day!

Could there be a link?

I wonder.

The one who hears the words of Christ and acts on them is like the Wise Man [Solomon] who built his house [the house of God] on the rock [in Jerusalem]

And everyone who hears these words of Christ and does not act on them will be like the foolish man [? Herod ?] who built his house [down in Caesarea by the Seaside].

Who knows!

It's a nice irony that when Herod laid the foundations for the great sea wall that was the pride and joy of the harbour that was a key part of the Romanisation process of commercialiation in this part of the world, he decided not to use great stones.  Instead he filled rectangular boxes or barges, with lots of loose stones.  He then poured in a newly discovered powder that would set under water [Herod the Great pioneered the use of concrete that would set under water].  The barge was sunk in situ and simply rested on the floor of the sea.

Jerome Murphy O'Connor reports in the Oxford Companion to Biblical Archaeology that within a century the harbour wall was beginning to move so much on the shifting sands that it became more of a hazard than a refuge for ships in a storm!

The stoy is almost too good to be true.

That Caesarea Maritima was symbolic of all that Rome stood for, while the Temple of Solomon's day, not Herod's monstrosity, was symbolic of all that the Jewish people stood for is beyond question.

Just as Jesus invests the 'temple' with new meaning, so he offers a new way of being 'kingdom' under God's rule in place of the Roman way of Herod the Great and the Herodions.

It was wonderful to finish there!

A sandwich lunch, we made our way to the airport, said our farewells to Joanne and boarded our light home.

Stunning views of the Greek islands, the dolomoites, the alps and the Swiss lakes kept our geology theme going for a few hours more.

We landed back half an hour late, and with one final prayer as we were approaching Cheltenham our pilgirmage really did come to an end as we arrived home at midnight.

A big thank you to Joanne and to everyone who came.  Thank you to Becky for uploading the texts.


  1. A note from Joanne. Thank all those who have written to me about our Journey together. I had some lovely letters / cards when I got home at 11pm last night,15th. I had a restful week, and missed your company, and the instructions about 'techtonic plates'!!
    I did manage to get to the Pope's Mass in Bethlehem, though I was at the back and couldn't see very well. Best wishes to you all, Joanne

  2. Jean C shared a lovely prayer meditation during our final act of worship at the Mount of Transfiguration.

    Here it is.

    Listen now child while I speak:

    People are troubled by many things. Pain from the past and fears for the future – these both rob the present of its joy. Resting in my presence you can feel these things fall away from you, being replaced by stillness, rest, peace. To be at peace in all circumstances is not beyond you.

    Taking much time aside to rest in Me you can be assured of receiving all you need then for the coming hours. All hope, all comfort, all joy, all strength, all sustenance is yours, freely given by Me to all who acknowledge their need of me. You were not meant to live without My Resources. You can so easily be left drained and discouraged by life if you’re not being restored and refreshed by Me.

    The enemy will try to keep you so busy that you have no time for Me. It is always your highest priority to make much time for the communion of our spirits. As your spirit rests in mine, all you need naturally floods in. How long would you expect to drive your car without fuel? You may see a warning light reminding you that you’re running low, you may remember in good time and plan to buy it before your next journey, or you may set out and just grind to a halt. Too late then to wonder how this could have been avoided!! Wisdom is to keep fuelled up, always have more than you need and then you can know with certainty that whatever twists and unexpected diversions along the road, your safe arrival is assured.

    How I long to hold you and pour out all you need without seeing you wrestling to move on!! Learn to be still. It is a learned discipline but it is essential for your wellbeing:
    ‘Be still and know that I am God. Be still and know that I am still here, loving you, providing for you, desiring the interaction of our spirits. Be still and be filled. Be still and be at peace. Be still and find rest for your soul, rest for your body. Be still and find your heart’s desire. Be still and find Me, the Great Lover of your soul. Be still and let Me love you. I am yours and you are Mine.

    Be still and know that I AM GOD.
    I know you and I know what you need.
    I love you My precious one.
    Let go of all false guilt and all fear – these are not from Me.

    Let Me love you.