By JACKIE KENNEDY, Special to the Bulletin | Published June 7, 2018
Ever since my Great-Aunt Gladys rode a camel in the Holy Land when I was a kid in the 1970s, I’ve wanted to visit the places where Jesus lived and died.
Upon her return from that trip, Aunt Gladys took her show on the road, packing and unpacking her slide projector and screen at churches throughout west Georgia to share pictures from places others only dreamed of going.
I held onto that dream myself for more than 40 years and, in February, finally made the trek to Israel.
Along with friends, I joined pilgrims traveling with The Georgia Bulletin. One of five Methodists in the group, I felt comfortable during the 10 days with my Catholic sisters and brothers in Christ. Our similarities far outnumbered our differences, and our differences often came in handy, especially at our first Masses when only the Methodists knew the words to the praise hymn Father Michael Silloway chose.
We Methodists have been singing “Sanctuary” for years. So, while our Catholic friends received the Eucharist, we raised our voices, filling in for them until they learned the lyrics.
While I had friends at home who questioned with fear and trepidation my decision to travel to the Middle East, the 29 pilgrims journeying with me shared my desire for adventure in the most adventurous land imaginable—the place where angels from on high heralded the birth of a new king, where our Savior was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, where Jesus walked on water, was crucified, buried and rose again. And we were there.
In Bethlehem, we see the same night sky that Joseph and Mary saw some 2,000 years ago and walk the path they may have taken to the cave where the Son of Man was born. We light candles that burn as the stars might have that night, and we spontaneously join voices to sing a Christmas hymn while fellow pilgrims kneel at the spot believed to be where Jesus made his entrance on earth.
At Jericho, I ride a camel and remember my precious aunt whose devotion to her Lord remains a model for mine. Standing on the patio at a souvenir shop across the way, I look to the Mountain of Temptation where the con artist Satan pulled his most wicked tricks on the Master—but to no avail. Despite that devil’s futile attempts to make him sin, Jesus came down from this very mountain, weary and worn—but free from sin and prepared to make himself a sanctuary to protect us from ours.
Outside of Tiberias, we board a boat early one cool morning and float along the Sea of Galilee, just as Jesus did so many times with his fishermen friends, the disciples. On this morning, the horizon is difficult to detect as the sea and sky fade into one another. I imagine that this vision of absence, this majestic yet peaceful view of his Father’s sublime creation, must have provided calm for Jesus.
On the same boat ride, while contemplating that calm, I imagine peace interrupted when a howling storm came from nowhere, frightening fishermen. On this sea, the size of a Georgia lake, a monster storm was tamed when Jesus walked on water.
Looking out to where the sea meets the sky, I imagine Jesus walking on not just any water—but on this very body of water. I imagine Jesus looking toward not just any shore—but to this shore at Capernaum. To ride this water’s ebb and flow in a wooden boat, just as my Savior did here, is almost too much to comprehend.
In Jerusalem, we visit the holy sites, from the Garden of Gethsemane to the Upper Room. We rent a wooden cross and take turns carrying it along the Via Dolorosa. At each Station of the Cross, through Old Jerusalem to Mount Calvary, Father Michael stops, reads Scripture and prays as we contemplate the Passion of Christ.
Finally, we reach the venerated Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which encompasses both the site where Jesus was crucified and his tomb. A magnet for Christian pilgrims throughout the world and across centuries, this holy site attracts thousands daily. Originally a set of abandoned stone quarries, the nondescript Golgotha became the cornerstone of Christianity after Christ was crucified there and buried.
Inside, we view the Rock of Calvary under glass on either side of an altar. Under this altar is the spot believed to be where the cross was raised. One by one, we kneel and bend under the altar to touch the ground where our Lord gave his life for us. We pray at the site where sin was defeated.
Then, just yards away, we stand in line for an hour, waiting our turn to enter the rock-cut tomb that Joseph of Arimathea provided for our Savior’s burial. A small but elaborately adorned building covers the tomb, which serves as the centerpiece of this church where humanity flows in and out each day, sunup to sundown, with pilgrims paying homage to Christ.
At times, the constant commotion makes it difficult to contemplate the significance of this place. For me, it is easier on the Sea of Galilee to consider Jesus in Israel. But a prayer for peace, with eyes closed and heart contrite, makes the commotion manageable and reverence possible.
Three at a time, we enter the small tomb where Jesus was laid to rest. We kneel, we pray, we touch the new stone that protects the ancient stone bed below. We try to absorb the wonder that this is not only the site where Christ’s body was placed; it is where he took his first breath of new life. It is what happened at this spot that makes me believe new life awaits me, too.
As can be said of all great journeys, it ends too soon, over before we know it. Even before the plane takes off from Tel Aviv, I begin to ponder a return visit to this most holy of lands where the words I’ve read since childhood leapt off the Bible pages and into my mental travel journal.
The best experiences in our lives change us for the good and strengthen the connection we have with our Lord. I returned from the Holy Land with almost 3,000 photographs captured on my Samsung cellphone and more pictures etched in my memory. I hope and pray that through this experience I’ve become better prepared to serve as Christ did, as a sanctuary.
By the time our 10-day journey ended, our Catholic friends had learned the words to the praise hymn. I consider it our theme song, the tune that reminds us of our time in Christ’s homeland and compels us to proclaim his love and saving grace back home in ours:
“Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary,
Pure and holy, tried and true.
With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living
Sanctuary for You.”
Jackie Kennedy is a freelance writer and photographer who journeyed to the Holy Land in February with The Georgia Bulletin’s pilgrimage group.