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A journey of faith
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Greetings and Salaam Alecum from the banks of the Dead Sea.  Across the mineral-laden waters, lights shine from the ancient city of Jericho.   From the lower pool area, sounds of Arabic music and rhythmic clapping rise up to fill the humid air.  Before me lies the upper pool, agate blue, surrounded by palms and tropical shrubbery, reflecting seven fountains and the rising crescent moon.  This truly is a blessed place to be, even if the sea is dead.

In fact, as we’re discovering once again, this land is full of contradictions.

But what’s new in this tiny segment of God’s immense expansive universe in which black holes coexist with red giants and birthing galaxies, tragedy with victory, dying with being born, and the shadow of unspeakable evil alongside the bright light of Christ shining in his faithful ones?  If we felt profound joy in renewing our baptismal commitment (to live as children of the Father and ambassadors of Christ), we also traversed the desert of sin.

Most Christians dream of someday visiting the Holy Land.  Some fear that the wounds of two millennia, the current political tensions, the risks and discomforts of travel, or simply the advance of modern civilization might somehow ruin their experience.  They prefer to live in an idealized dream-world of how things must have been, referring to scripture, scholarly studies, and movies made about Jesus Christ.  That’s O.K.  There’s no guarantee that one’s pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine will be a wonderful experience.   But for those who make the journey with faith, nothing brings home the reality of all the Bible describes more than being there yourself.

The fact is, it all happened there.  From the far-flung corners in which the prophets raised their voices, to the concentrated intensity of the city in which the temple stood, the nations gathered in sacrifice, and the Lord Jesus Christ endured his passion and death, this “Holy Land” encompasses all the public ministry of the God-man Jesus Christ, all the historical figures and events which preceded him, and the aspirations of all those to follow.

Having hopped on board a parish pilgrimage from St. Joseph’s in Modesto, I looked forward to renewing my own spiritual convictions and reconnecting myself with the truth about who this man Jesus was, and is.

Let me share two simple stories to remind us all of how Jesus accompanies us on our pilgrimage of life, and how stepping out in faith allows Him to work.

The first little miracle took place the morning I arrived in Jerusalem.  I’d flown in alone via London.  The Al El Israel flight to Tel Aviv got delayed two hours due to equipment malfunction.  I’d also put up with a thorough process of screening at the gate.  So all I wanted was an opportunity to catch up on lost sleep and a good confession before reaching Jerusalem.

Though I saw no one from the USA on board, a group of 100 pilgrims from Northern Ireland surrounded me.  To my right were three priests.  And for the sake of humor, the Lord provided for me an entertainment movie which had been set in, of all place, Modesto, California.  I had just been there myself the day before.  So Monsters v. Aliens reminded me that, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant, the little worlds in which I have been serving have eternal value in the mind and heart of the Almighty.

Reaching the hotel at 2 a.m., I dropped off my bags and headed straight for Jerusalem’s Old City.  There, Muslims and Jews alike were circulating early and there, near the Damascus Gate, Israeli soldiers welcomed me and offered their favorite candy.  At the Wailing Wall, I was surprised to see so much coming and going – even schoolchildren were arriving at 4 a.m.

My video camera battery died just as I began recording the remarkable scene of so many people in prayer and in mourning.  They long for the third temple to be build, so that prophesy might be fulfilled and the True Messiah might appear.  Meanwhile, Muslims circulate on the way to work.
They mourn, too, because the rebuilding of the Temple would necessitate the destruction of two of their most important mosques.     From one of them they believe that the Prophet Mohammad rose, like Elijah, into heaven.

Sprinting clear back to the hotel for another battery, I snuck in and out again without my buddies noticing.  Pita bread and Mango Juice in hand, I ran back.  Now, the eerie chants of minarets, from which the haunting song calls worshippers to bow in veneration of the One and only true God Allah, began to drown out the multitude of supplications echoing off the huge white stones that once formed the foundations of Herod’s great temple.  I wondered at this total contradiction of contrary prayers coinciding in space and time, as both religions boast of their strict adherence to the same deity.

But soon I’d have to return to the hotel.  So I began walking, guided by the soldiers, to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  It was already 5:15 a.m.  At a certain point I stopped.  Where now to turn?  At that moment, an elderly woman walked down along the narrow cobblestone street.  “Sabach alher” she greeted me in Arabic.  “Salaam Alecum”, I replied, according to the custom of Islam.  But she wasn’t Muslim.  “Yes,” she answered my next question, “I speak some English, and I go to the Holy Sepulcher now.”

My guardian angel had signaled me just on time, back there at the Western Wall, since the Latin Rite Mass would be starting promptly at 5:30 a.m. The most venerable church of all Christianity is occupied by five different rites, that is, expressions of Orthodox or Catholic Christian faith.  Each one has a particular niche in the Basilica, and each, an appointed time to worship.

“My children live in a city called Stockton, in California,” my new guide told me when I shared I was from the United States.  She had no idea yet that I had celebrated the wedding of her grandson, knew her family from other events, and had served in their parish for five and a half years.  She invited me back to her small home, following our time at the Basilica, and we surprised Michael by calling his Stockton residence from her phone.

A similar connection would happen to one of our ladies, who would meet along the Sea of Galilee the devout mother of the girl who had at one time been her son’s fiancée.  Given her son’s change of heart, our pilgrim had always suffered a certain sense of responsibility.  Here, words weren’t even necessary.  God has his purposes in calling us to pilgrimage.  He will make good on his promises, provided we allow him to work freely on our behalf.

In fact, it didn’t bother me much that Israeli security took me aside because I had taken some video of a lone plainclothes security guard armed with an automatic rifle.  I liked the contrast of lethal power with ordinary uniform.

If the presence of the Lord calms the storm, as it did for the disciples on the Sea of Galilee so long ago, and as it did that day for Peter, as he got out of his secure place to walk on water, so too has that Presence infused all of our pilgrimage to this point.  Everything acquires a richer flavor and means so much more.  Everything seems to have a deeper purpose, calling us into a deeper relationship with the God of our longings and the Prince of Peace.

May this gracious God be with us all on our journey of life.  May we allow him to manifest his presence and his will for us in a million ways.  And may the Lord of Life who gave birth to humanity not far from where I am sitting, called the lost to the wellsprings of salvation just over Mount Nebo and who was incarnated, and born, and crucified, and raised again beyond the Dead Sea, not far to the west, in Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem also live in your hearts.  Finally, may he bring the three great monotheistic religions together in the clear recognition that the Messiah has come.  

Fr. Dean McFalls, from Jordan, finished Friday, Sept. 25, ‘09, at midnight