WE have just returned from our first visit to Israel. We stayed in northern Galilee with an Israeli family who
WE have just returned from our first visit to Israel. We stayed in northern Galilee with an Israeli family who were keen to show us highlights of the country in the short time available to us.
We were not on a pilgrimage or a Christian tour, so when we arrived at a particular place of mention in the Gospels, it was in the context of all the historical intrusions in this land and the emergence of this very new state.
In childhood I formed mental pictures based upon the Bible passages, with few visual clues in the text about the environment and, what is more important, no description of what Jesus looked like. Therefore, each visit was coloured by these early impressions.
The River Jordan, where Jesus was baptised, is now a well-organised commercial enterprise on the banks of a river somewhat akin to the Isis running through Oxford and not at all the simple riverside of the Bible reference.
Along the north Galilee lakeside, Capernaum is signified by a modern church and a statue of St Peter looming large in front of the picturesque sea almost overwhelmed by busloads of tourists — no simple fishermen.
Jerusalem thronged with tourists as well as people from all the monotheist religions recognising the significance of the city to their faith.
However, the place of Jesus’ crucifixion “outside the city walls” is now the centre of the old town and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is almost smothered by the embellishments of the different Christian sects from all over the world developed over centuries of cultural theology.
I watched a particular group following the Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus took carrying his cross, which now threads its steps through narrow Arab bazaars filled with commercial opportunities.
So was I disappointed that the reality did not match my preconceptions? Far from it.
Firstly, it was amazing to be able to connect with the places which I knew so well from the Bible.
It also helped that I saw these Christian sites in the context of 6,000 years of history, the different cultural influences and a land often overwhelmed by conflict.
Finally, there was the realisation that Jesus is not fixed in those places but free to be among us throughout the world.
It was noticeable that the faith of those Christian pilgrims joining the walk was in their eyes and not in the stone of those streets.
Jesus is not confined to all the wonderful places we had visited but in the freedom that such a faith allows.
Too much dependence upon physical settings and all the conflict that has been caused over ownership shackles faith and limits us. Jesus would never have wanted that.