Bernardo M. Villegas
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Following the Footsteps of Christ (Part 2)

             During those three weeks in the Holy Land, I must have walked a total of 100 kilometers, averaging about five kilometers a day in twenty days of visiting the holy places.  I was encouraged to do that much walking, despite suffering from arthritis of the knees, by the thought that Our Lord Himself must have walked thousands of kilometers during his lifetime, especially during the last three years of His public life.  The distance from Jerusalem and the Sea of Galilee alone is about 150  kilometers, a trajectory that Our Lord must have walked numerous times, first with his parents and later on with his disciples, not to mention His going around the Sea of Galilee, teaching from town to town, with Caparnaum as his home base after he was rejected by his fellow Nazarenes.

         In focusing on the spiritual dimensions of the pilgrimage, my companions and I employed as a focal point the advice that St. Josemaria Escriva to Christians as the purpose of one’s life on earth:  to seek Christ, to find Christ, to know Christ and to love Christ.   Going to the Holy Land was another step to seek, find, know and love Christ.  As the Preface of one of the most popular guides to the Holy Land by Norman Wareham and Jill Gill states:  “For every Christian, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land should truly be the journey of a lifetime.  To visit the country in which Jesus was born, grew to manhood, proclaimed His Gospel, was crucified and overcame the power of death, is not only a privilege but, at the very least, must be a gateway to a fuller understanding of his teaching.  The greatest insight is perhaps in actually seeing some of the things that Jesus saw and relating many of his sayings to the surroundings in which they were spoken.”

         To obtain a long-term spiritual benefit from this privilege, I used the method of relating the scenes and sites I witnessed in the Holy Land to devotions that are part of my acts of piety, such as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, praying the Holy Rosary of Our Lady and the making the Stations of the Cross.  It was providential that the very first site we visited, after coming from the airport of Tel-Aviv, was the Altar of the Crucifixion which is in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  This great Basilica encompasses all that remains of the traditional rock of Calvary and the site of our Lord’s tomb.  As Wareham and Gill wrote: “Both are at the very heart of the Christian faith—scene of the redemption of the human race, and the place were Jesus overcame the power of death.”  Since the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the re-presentation of the Sacrifice in Calvary, I can be helped to attend Mass henceforth with greater attention and devotion by recalling this Altar and the adjoining rock of Calvary and not too far away the tomb of Our Lord.  A special favor obtained, for which I am extremely grateful, is to be invited by some of the priests who were in our group to attend Masses they celebrated in both the Altar of the Crucifixion and the Tomb of the Lord.  Most pilgrims are allotted only a few seconds to kneel before these sacred relics since at any given time during the day there are hundreds queuing to kneel before them.  Our companion priests, however, got a special permission to celebrate Masses in these sites very early in the morning, before the sites are opened to the pilgrims.  I was one of the lucky ones who were invited by these priests to attend the Masses they celebrated.  The crucifixes I purchased for “pasalubong” for my relatives and friends were all placed on the tomb of Our Lord and the rock of Calvary.

         After the Mass, which is the highest form of prayer, another devotional practice I have that will henceforth benefit from having been in specific sacred places of the Holy Land is the Holy Rosary.  Starting with the Joyful Mysteries, I can meditate more meaningfully on the first mystery, the Annunciation, after having visited the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, reputed to be the largest in the Middle East.  The main feature of this church is the remains of an exposed cavern venerated is the place where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary.  Appropriately above the triple doorway to the Church is a quotation from John 1:14: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”  The priests with us concelebrated Mass at the main altar of the Basilica.  In perfect timing, the Mass finished just before 12 noon and we went to the Grotto of the Annunciation, the exact place where the Blessed Virgin gave her consent to be the mother of God.  As the clock ticked 12 p.m., some Franciscan priests started their daily rituals of praying the Angelus at the Grotto.  I have never prayed the Angelus with greater devotion.  The other sites in the vicinity were St. Joseph’s Church (also known as the “Carpenter’s Shop”), the Church of St. Gabriel. and the Old Synagogue where Our Lord announced to the Pharisees that He was the Messiah, after which He was violently brought to a precipe to be hurled down.

         Meditating on the second joyful mystery will be easier for me now that I have visited the village about seven kilometers west of Jerusalem called Ein Kerim which is the traditional home of the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth.  This is where the Blessed Virgin visited her cousin and it was the birthplace of St. John the Baptist, who is also venerated in a second church in the vicinity.  The Church of the Visitation was completed in 1955 and was erected over the remains of earlier Byzantine and Crusader buildings.  A most venerated relic in this Church is a rock known as the Stone of Hiding which, according to the second century “Testimony of James” is reputed to have concealed St. John the Baptist from the murderous soldiers of King Herod.  A real treat to Filipinos is to read at a very prominent place a ceramic plaque on which is written in Tagalog the Magnificat, the Hymn of Praise uttered by the Blessed Virgin when she greeted St. Elizabeth.  This prayer is displayed in 45 different languages.  The Church of the Visitation is considered by some as one of the most beautiful of all the Gospel sites in the Holy Land.  A special favor I obtained from one of my tall companions was a large olive branch that he picked from the surrounding gardens.  I brought it back to be placed in the private altar in the ancestral home of my late mother  whose name was Isabel, the Spanish equivalent of Elizabeth.

         We contemplated the third Joyful mystery in our trip to Bethlehem, some 8 kilometers south of Jerusalem and whose main feature is the Church of the Nativity built over the cave where, according to a very strong and unchallenged tradition, Jesus was born.  The existing structure dates back from the latter part of the sixth century and is the oldest complete church of Christendom.  It was Emperor Constantine who directed that a Basilica should be erected over the cave where Christ was born.  This magnificent building stood for two centuries before being extensively damaged in the Samaritan rebellions during the first half the sixth century.  Later during the same century, Emperor Justinian had a larger Basilica built on the site, incorporating part of Constantine’s structure which has survived to the present day.  We had another memorable Mass concelebrated by the priests accompanying us in the pilgrimage.  At the end of the Mass, we sang with great emotion the Christmas hymn “Adeste Fideles”, the Latin version of “O Come O Ye Faithful.”  We then visited the other sites in the vicinity, i.e. the Church of St. Catherine where Midnight Mass is sometimes broadcast on Christmas Eve and the Cave of St. Jerome in which in 404 AD St. Jerome labored to translate the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin.

         Finally, our visit to the Temple Area gave us a graphic view of both the fourth and fifth joyful mysteries, i.e. the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple and the Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple.  The Temple Area with its Western Wall is located in the south-east corner of the Old City of Jerusalem and comprises a fifth of the area.  This site encompassing the summit of Mount Moriah is sacred to the three great monotheistic faiths:  Jewish, Christian and Muslim.  Construction of the existing Temple platform was begun by Herod the Great in 20 BC and today bears witness to the outstanding achievements of his engineers.  Upon this platform Herod built the magnificent “Second Temple” which was still being completed during the time of Our Lord.  Here, Jesus was presented as a baby by his parents and also here, at the age of twelve, his parents found him expounding on the Scriptures to the Scribes.  (To be continued).