Bernardo M. Villegas
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Following the Footsteps of Christ (Part 1)

          As I approach the age of 80, I feel the pressure of completing my bucket list.  On top of it was the desire of many Christians to visit the land on which the Son of God spent thirty-three years of earthly life, beginning with His incarnation and ending with His passion, death, Resurrection and Ascension to Heaven.  This unique opportunity finally came on my 78th year when last January 10 to February 2, 2018, I was blessed with the fortune of attending a three-week course on Biblical Studies and Christian Archaeology at the Saxum Conference Center in Jerusalem.  SAXUM is an international pilgrim’s center especially suited for spiritual retreats, workshops and conferences.  It receives groups of pilgrims from all over the world who come to visit Israel and the Holy Places, offering them accommodation and full board services.  It also offers classes and lectures on topics related to the Holy Land (www.saxum.org).

         With a little trepidation, I travelled to Jerusalem with a group of 28 Filipino professionals.  We were joined by fourteen others coming from Nigeria, Brazil, Sri Lanka, India and South Africa.  I said “with trepidation”, because we had been reading about the adverse reactions of the Palestinians against the declaration by U.S. President Donald Trump that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  We expected some turbulence.  We later realized how the press can exaggerate matters.  During our three weeks traveling all over Palestine, we did not encounter a single troublesome situation.  The “status quo” among the Muslims, Jews and Christians was completely peaceful.  After this unforgettable and unrepeatable experience, I resolved to encourage many more Filipino families to assign the highest priority to visiting the Holy Land in their plans to travel in the coming years.  For a Christian, the Holy Land should take precedence over such other attractive destinations as Japan, China, Europe and other places frequently visited by Filipino tourists.  In fact, I was edified to encounter numerous Christians from South Korea and China with whom we coincided in the Holy Places we visited.  We were also told by one of the Catholic tourist guides who spoke to us that since the Christians are a small minority in Palestine, they appreciate the visit of many Christians from all over the world. They feel accompanied.

         Needless to say, a visit by a Christian to the Holy Land ought to be much more than a touristic trip.   First and foremost, it should be a spiritual pilgrimage.  Those of us who traveled to Jerusalem were appropriately motivated by the following words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in the Apostolic Exhortation “Verbum Domini”: “As we call to mind the Word of God who became flesh in the womb of Mary of Nazareth, our heart turns to the land where the mystery of our salvation was accomplished, and from which the word of God spread to the ends of the earth.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, the Word became flesh in a specific time and place, in a strip of land on the edges of the Roman Empire.  The more we appreciate the universality and the uniqueness of Christ’s Person the more we look with gratitude to that land where Jesus was born, where He lived and where He gave His life for us.  The stones on which our Redeemer walked are still charged with His memory and continue to ‘cry out’ the Good News.  For this reason, the Synod Fathers recalled the felicitous phrase which speaks of the Holy Land as the ‘Fifth Gospel’.”

         Primed with these words, we constantly reminded ourselves of the primarily spiritual nature of the journey to Jerusalem.  We made an effort to control the urge of taking too many photos, trying to see as many churches, monuments and other historical buildings as possible in the limited time we had and much less to do a lot of shopping.  We maximized the opportunities to spend time in prayer in the various holy places we visited, attend the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass celebrated in some of the key destinations and in general savor the spiritual significance of each of the holy places.  To get the most spiritual benefits from our following the footsteps of Christ, tracing the “stones on which our Redeemer walked”, we tried to relate what we were seeing with the devotional practices that are common to us Catholics:  attending the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, praying the Holy Rosary and making the Stations of the Cross, among others.

         Without presuming to take the place of the tour guides that the readers of this column may hire in their future pilgrimage to the Holy Land, let me share some experiences with those who also want to maximize the spiritual benefits of the tour.  I fully realize that most tourists to the Holy Land will not be as lucky as we were in being able to spend three full weeks, during which every day we were able to visit specific sites (the typical daily schedule was that in the mornings we would be traveling to some of the holy places and in the afternoons we would have classes on the Life of Christ as narrated in the Gospels as well as on findings of archaeologists related to the sites we were visiting).  Assuming that a typical pilgrimage to the Holy Land could last anywhere from three to five days, I would suggest that the following priorities should be followed.  First and foremost, one whole day should be devoted to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the surrounding Via Dolorosa (Stations of the Cross), the Temple Area, the Pool of Bethesda (Church of St. Anne), the Garden Tomb and Bethlehem.  The second day should be devoted to the Mount of Olives (Place of the Ascension, Church of Pater Noster, Church of Dominus Flevit); Gethsemane (Church of the Agony, aka Church of All Nations, Tomb of the Virgin, Church of Mary Magdalene and Kidron Valley) and the Temple Area.  The third day would require a travel of close to two hours to Nazareth (Church of the Annunciation, Church of St. Joseph, Church of St. Gabriel, Mary’s Well, the Old Synagogue).  In the same area would be Mount Tabor (Church of the Transfiguration), the River Jordan, Mount of Beatitudes, Cana, Capernaum (Excavated Site, Ancient Synagogue and Church of St. Peter).  The fourth day could be a return to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (the very center of the whole pilgrimage because it has the tomb of Our Lord and the Rock of Calvary) and then a visit to the nearby sites of the Tower of David, the Wailing Wall, Church of St. Mark, Mount Zion, Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, Bethany, and Ein Karim (Church of the Visitation and Church of St. John the Baptist).  If there is a fifth day, the itinerary could include Jericho, Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls), the Dead Sea and Masada (the fortress built by Herod the Great.  (To be continued).