Our last full day in Israel! How did the time pass so quickly? If the past few days saw us walking through the steps that Jesus took, from being born on earth to the way of His cross and his death and resurrection, then today saw us focusing more on the lives of the other supporting characters in Jesus’ journey. Yet, taking a walk through the lives of these individuals revealed to me the importance of these ‘minor characters’, who existed then to reflect God’s light through their lives and even now, continues to do so for all of us. We climbed up a long flight of steps to get to the Church of the Visitation, marking the place where Mary came to visit Elizabeth and where Mary sang her hymn of praise. There in the lower church is a moving fresco of their meeting, a great reminder to me of their friendship and love.
And in the upper church where there are so many images showing Mother Mary’s significance to the world, I found myself starting to understand more about her significance to our Catholic faith. Maybe many of us have so many issues with father figures that it is difficult to relate to God, even when His hand is constantly extended to us. Maybe we as humans simply need someone to be able to relate to the maternal tender side of Father God that He already possesses, and Mary then is such a powerful channel to connect with Jesus and God.
We continued the journey to Church of St John the Baptist, which by tradition was the birthplace of John the Baptist. Having reflected about Elizabeth’s own journey and then coming here started to grow something within me that I had never felt before – a deeper connection with the saints. What must it have been like for Elizabeth to face the internal doubt and neighbours’ gossip when she was barren? And yet, all that waiting led to this – a child so special and strong in spirit, that he would be a herald of Jesus and begin the steps for Jesus’ mission. Here, in the lives of real people in the past, are testimonies, testimonies of God’s grace and providence, testimonies like those we encounter in Landings, which are powerful ways for us to connect to God. And as Tony reminded me, John the Baptist is particularly meaningful for Landings. For he was sent to prepare a way for the Lord and likewise, we too are called to make the paths straight for those who seek to return, to welcome them with open arms, to be God’s instruments of love.
And this message continued to be strengthened as we went for mass at the Community of Beatitudes Chapel at Emmaus. Like the disciples then, Jesus is often in our midst but we are unable to recognize Him. But there in the mass was a great reminder, that just like how the disciples recognized Him when He broke the bread, we too can experience Him in the Eucharist each time we go for mass. And just like the disciples who ran back to Jerusalem to spread the message of His resurrection, we too are called in the next part of our journey to spread the message of His love to all we encounter. It was a deeply moving mass, as we remembered all that we had experienced together, and I think our hearts burnt with love, for God and for each other.
And so the ‘spiritual stuff’ seemed to have ended. We headed for our hotel in Jaffa with no more holy sites to visit except for mass at St Peter’s Church the next day before flying back home. Yet the beauty of God and the encounter of Him doesn’t stop at ‘holy sites’. Left with an afternoon for relaxation, many of us headed out and ended at the beach. There, we enjoyed the cool sea breeze and the sunset by the sea. Some of us chatted in small pairs and trios, some of us stayed still in our own thoughts and meditation. But I believe God was still there, in our solitude, in our community, in the beauty before us.
And in the impromptu moments of doing silly boomerang jump shots with each other, a throwback to the first day when some of us did that by the beach as well, I was reminded also of how far our journey has taken us during this trip. For on that first day, it was only a couple of us at that beach, those that you might term young in literal time. Yet on this second last day, we found ourselves together, whatever our age still engaging in silly fun together, all young at heart and enjoying the gift of each other that God has graced us with.
So God’s grace never ends. Our night after dinner began with a session with Father Angelo where he shared important reminders for our daily lives. As he spoke to us and as Tony later shared words of gratitude on our behalf, I was struck by how much of a gift Father Angelo has been for us on this trip. It too has been a journey with him, adjusting to his pace and speed, not always being able to get what I would have liked such as more time at certain sights, but slowly recognizing the great gifts he had been giving us – knowledge of holy sites but more importantly wisdom about God, privileges to experience and have mass in sites where many Catholics would only dream of, and the reminder through how he led us, to serve God passionately and fervently. He presented each of us with a beautiful certificate that marked the completion of our pilgrimage but even without it, the encounters of Christ on this trip will certainly remain in our minds always.
After Father Angelo left, we ended the night with our last community sharing. In line with the theme of this pilgrimage, it was a time of grace and gratitude, for so much that God has given to us on this particular day, for all that God has showered upon on us during this entire journey, and for all the love we’ve experienced in each other. I was touched by how God had manifested in so many different ways during the trip and was especially moved by Audrey’ sharing – by her amazing faith and by God’s amazing grace. And even when the official time set aside for sharing came to an end, I came to see that which has characterized much of the trip – experiencing God in the completely unexpected. For in a totally organic and impromptu manner, I found myself in an unexpected conversation, a deep sharing that moved us to tears, and a reminder not to put a limit on what God can do and where God can show up.
So I thank You God for this journey. May all our experiences during this pilgrimage stay in our hearts. May we be empowered by the knowledge and encounters of You on this journey to become ambassadors of the fifth gospel, as the Holy Land is often described as, and to be fishers of men when we return. And even as we leave this physical Holy Land, may we carry the disposition of being pilgrims back to our lives, to constantly seek to encounter Christ, and to remember that we aren’t called to be tourists on this world but to be pilgrims and disciples of Christ. And may we always hold onto each other, and to all in our various communities. For we are called to be the embodiment and face of Christ in this world and through Him, we indeed can be that.
To grace, gratitude and being companions on the journey always.
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