I was blessed to be able to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, returning home only a few days ago. The trip is still very vivid and I am continuing to process everything we experienced. We visited many sites from Mt. Hermon in the north to the Dead Sea in the southern part of Israel. We stayed in Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem; we prayed at shrines in actual sites and at some which are commemorations of sacred events. But in all of it there was one overriding thought, or rather, one overriding reality. As beautiful as it was and as deeply grateful as I am to have gone, it became clear that there is only one pilgrimage that matters. It is a pilgrimage of the heart that is the most important of all, and one does not have to travel to the Holy Land to make this journey. That is because everything we need is found in the pilgrimage that begins and ends in the Eucharist.
The entirety of salvation history converges in the gift Jesus gave us when He left His own Body and Blood until He returns at the end of time. Jesus is the culmination of all the promises given by God because He is the one who saves us. If we look back to the book of Genesis we see that God promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that they would be the founders of a great nation of His people, ‘a nation peculiarly His own,’ as one translation puts it. Even though these great men interpreted what God told them, often making mistakes by trying to do things their way rather than waiting for God to direct them, they still had hearts attuned to God. God kept His promises to them, made through a covenant.
After the nation of Israel was formed, the people found themselves in captivity and so Moses was sent to liberate them. Though they wandered for a generation, God kept them alive with bread from heaven, manna, a sign that all journeys begin and end in Him and He is all we need. In the end, God kept His promise to give them a fertile land. But as the time went on the people had continuous temptations to fall away from God and the result was many ups and downs, captors and hardships, prophets listened to and ignored, freedom and the lack of it, covenants agreed upon and broken (by the people, never by God), until God decided the time was right to send His own Son to save His people.
God then took on flesh, coming as a baby, clothed in humility and humanity. Jesus, born in a cave and ‘serenaded’ by the animals that lived there, protected by His loving parents and greeted by shepherds and kings, chose to come among us so that we could have even greater intimacy. This is not to say that previously people could not talk directly to God: we have always had this magnificent gift. But now our God had skin. He was fully God and fully human, namely Jesus, who came in the greatest act of love and humility ever. When it was His time, Jesus called men and women to follow Him so that He could spread His message of mercy, compassion, and love, and to teach us to spread the Good News also. Finally, He gave us Himself even more deeply than by simply walking among us: on the night before He died He left us His Body and Blood. He gave access to Himself in a way that is beyond comprehension. He died, resurrected, ascended, and sent us His Holy Spirit, and we continue to have direct physical contact with Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. All journeys begin and end there.
While in Israel our pilgrimage guide spoke of a rabbi, a great Jewish scholar, who once said, “If I believed what you do, I would never leave the Eucharist.” This statement truly shook me because as much as I love the Eucharist, I realized how easy it is to take such a gift for granted. The gift of the Body and Blood of Jesus is offered to us daily, and yet it is easy to become ‘routine’ about receiving it, taking it without entering into exactly what it is we are doing and Who it is we are receiving. Therefore it is important to keep in mind the reality of this great gift. Though it is a blessing to do so, (and I highly recommend it if one can go to the Holy Land),* we do not have to make a pilgrimage to find Jesus because no ‘spot’ is holier than He is. While it was amazing to cross the Sea of Galilee by boat, be in Bethany where Lazarus was brought back to life, pray at the place where Mary was greeted by the Archangel Gabriel, touch the spot where Jesus was crucified, walk the Via Dolorosa, see the Garden of Gethsemane and other sites in Holy Land, there is one pilgrimage in which we can do all that without leaving home, and that is the pilgrimage found in the Eucharist. All the places we visited were places where important things happened, but they do not contain Jesus, nor did the place insure an experience of Jesus. As the saying goes, “if you go to Rome to find Jesus, you will not find Him unless you bring Him with you.” We do not have to go anywhere other than to the Eucharist to find Him whom we seek in the flesh: He is the bread and wine become Body and Blood.
The Eucharist is the food for our journey, but it is also the journey itself. Any relationship with Jesus requires that we take on the responsibilities that come with the gift. He calls us to be His disciples, which means that we are empowered by the Eucharist to spread the Good News through our words and deeds. If we believe, we are called to do the spiritual and corporal works of mercy: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the ill and imprisoned, have respect for and bury the dead. We are called to act with the same mercy which is given to us, which means to forgive those who have sinned against us and to pray for and reach out to our enemies, not just those with whom we are comfortable. If we believe, we are called to help the marginalized, give time, talent, and treasure to those who are without, to live with civility and respect toward all others, (not just the groups we like), and to value all life from conception through natural death. If we believe, we are to accept the gift of a relationship with God which means to pray regularly. To believe is to know Jesus is with us in our suffering; He understands it greatly since no one has ever suffered as much as Jesus did in order to give us every grace and blessing. To believe is to trust that we can ask questions when we struggle rather than blindly accepting something and never delving below the surface. All answers are found in Christ, even if we have to wait until we are in Heaven to fully understand. In short, our journey of faith begins and ends in Jesus and in the gospel He has taught. And all of that is contained in His Body and Blood which is offered to us in the Eucharist.
As the aforementioned rabbi implied, if we really believe, we should have a hard time tearing ourselves away from the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. But I think the opposite is also true: because we believe, because we do know that He is present in the bread and wine become His Body and Blood, we take Him with us. This is the one pilgrimage that is not a destination to which one comes and then goes. This pilgrimage is one where we arrive at the Eucharist to adore, worship, praise, plead with, rest in, and be amazed, but then we take His presence with us out into the world. We bring Him with us into our lives and the daily journey. If we do not take Him with us we have missed the greatest part of the gift. We take Him with us to adore, worship, praise, plead with, rest in, and be awed as we experience Jesus in the beauty of creation, in the people whom we encounter, in the needs which are pining to be met, in those who cannot find rest, and in those with whom we share the journey who are seeking Him even if they do not realize it yet. We become Christ to them, as they become Christ to us. Without the pilgrimage to the Eucharist, we cannot carry the Eucharist to those who may be lost and who need us to show them how to come on the pilgrimage with us. All the holy sites in the world are nothing without recognizing the pilgrimage to and with Jesus in the Eucharist which is offered to everyone. Everything is found in the Eucharist. I invite you to meet me there.
May we come to recognize the great gift given to us in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ! May we find spiritual food and drink in Christ, so that we have the strength to live the life of faith to which we have been called! May we become as Christ for others and let them become as Christ to us! And may we have the courage and the faith to make the pilgrimage to the Eucharist where everything we need may be found! Let us meet in the Body and Blood of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Next entry is November 21.
* If one wants to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land I highly suggest that they do it with the Franciscans since they have custody of all the sites and are therefore very knowledgeable with both the history and the spirituality. Our trip was through www.franciscanpilgrimages.com. I cannot say enough about how fantastic the trip was.
Images: All the photos are mine.
The first is a photo was taken while we were on a small boat crossing the Sea of Galilee. It was amazing because I knew that what I was seeing, Jesus once saw. The Sea was like glass at this point in the crossing and therefore it was very moving to imagine Jesus walking on the water, such as was recorded in the Gospels. It was hazy because it was a hot day. I chose to use this photo because it was the spot I was most moved during the pilgrimage.
The second photo was taken in Emmaus, a place most pilgrims do not go because Emmaus sits in the middle of a Palestinian area which is not the safest place in the world. This life-size bas relief is above the altar in the Church of St. Cleophas. (Cleophas was one of the two disciples who were on the road to Emmaus after the resurrection and did not recognize Jesus until He broke the bread.) I chose this photo because it shows Jesus breaking the bread which He had blessed, and had become His Body. The account states that no sooner did He break and share the bread that He vanished. This is because He was already present in the bread and did not need to be present twice!
The third photo is of the spot where Jesus was born in Bethlehem. This holy site is now "housed" in the Church of the Nativity. You can see a pilgrim venerating the spot; the spot where the manger lay is about 6 feet away. I chose it because this photo was taken in the cave where the Word became flesh, the fulfillment of all the promises of God in Jesus, the Christ.
Next is an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called The Black Madonna Your Lap Has Become the Holy Table. I chose it because without Mary, there is no entrance of Jesus in the world. Mary was the first tabernacle, so to speak: she had the Savior of the World within her womb for nine months. She brought forth the Body of Christ, whose blood was mingled with her own. Therefore it is she who is Mother of the Eucharist. If you are interested in purchasing a copy of this icon it can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-black-madonna-your-lap-has-become-the-holy-table-060-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
The next photo is of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, the building which houses the place where Christ's tomb is located. One can also visit Calvary, the spot where Jesus was crucified and died, within this site. It is one of the most amazing places I have ever been. It looks rather dingy and run down, and it is indeed getting a face-lift inside. The Edicule, the structure which was built around the tomb, is being refurbished, something which is long overdue. But also within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher are found many of the altars and chapels used by the Armenian Christians, the Greek Orthodox, and the Roman Catholics.
The final photo was taken at Mt. Hermon in the far north of Israel. This photo is of the source of the Jordan River. Though it is crystal clear here, as one goes further south the river becomes green and mucky due to the runoff and residue from farming. I chose this because even with all the pilgrimage groups converging on this spot, it still maintained a feeling of peacefulness and beauty.
Heart Speaks to Heart