September 27, 2022

Walking in Jesus’ Footsteps in the Holy Land

Walking in Jesus' Steps in the Holy Land

A Reflection by Sr. Madeleine Marie, SsEW

Last month, some very generous benefactors provided an opportunity for Sr. Marie Francesca, Sr. Clare Marie, and I to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a group from St. Francis of Assisi in Tuscaloosa. None of us had ever been before, and we were profoundly struck by what we encountered.

The Sister Servants on the rooftop of the Notre Dame of Jerusalem center overlooking the entire city.

Sr. Clare Marie said, “My pilgrimage to the Holy Land was life-changing. Until I experienced the culture and the geography firsthand, I did not realize how much I was missing in my understanding of the Scriptures. I now feel like I know Jesus as the people of his time knew Him. I have truly walked in the footsteps of Christ.”

The Grotto of Eremos near the Sea of Galilee where Jesus would go to pray.

I wholeheartedly agree with Sr. Clare Marie. We saw a good number of sites where Jesus walked, taught, and healed people. We saw the places he loved visiting, such as Galilee and Bethany. But most importantly, we visited the sites where the Incarnation happened and walked the Via Dolorosa, culminating with the Mass of Easter at daybreak in the empty tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. All of these supplied images of and insights into the Scriptures that have–and will continue–to bear fruit in our prayer and spiritual reading.

At the Church of the Annunciation: the Word was made flesh here!

For example, our guide, George, took us to what is known as the Valley of the Shadow of Death. This valley is parallel with the road that connected Jericho and Jerusalem. Our guide said that the Holy Family would have walked this road every time they went to Jerusalem for the feasts. From our vantage point, we could see the city of Jerusalem to our left on top of a hill, and then to our right was a big mountain concealing the city of Jericho below. Those opening words of the parable of the Good Samaritan suddenly came alive: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…” We saw the road itself and how treacherous the surroundings were, and we saw the monastery of St. George carved into the rock that provides hospitality to those on the road just as the Good Samaritan did.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death
The Valley of the Shadow of Death

When asked what impressed her the most, Sr. Marie Francesca remarked: “What impressed me most about the Holy Land? Perhaps that’s the wrong question. When I think about our trip the one word that comes to mind is, “Wow!” It was educational on an exciting level and being in the actual physical places where Our Lord lived was really more than I had anticipated. It was a pilgrimage to be treasured and shared with others.”

From start to finish, George told us that this trip wasn’t just for us. We would carry these memories in our hearts and share them with those people we encounter in our daily lives. We brought our fellow sisters, family, and friends along with us in our hearts–remembering them along the way at certain places. Coming back to Birmingham, I can’t count the number of people who, knowing I had gone to the Holy Land, have stopped me and asked what moved me the most during our pilgrimage. With our apostolate of evangelization through catechesis and retreats, this question always gives me the opportunity to stop and ponder anew what I experienced and often a new dimension or insight into something we saw or heard comes into focus. I am then able to share an aspect of the person of Christ–the heart of catechesis–with another and lead him or her to the threshold of encounter and intimacy with Jesus.

Praying in the upper Church of St. Lazarus before Mass.

Recently, I have been reading a meditation on Martha and Mary by Fr. Mauro-Giuseppe Lepori where he describes the new community that sprung up among the siblings after they encountered Jesus. Previously they had been merely siblings, but he remarks: “The three [now] looked at each other in a way that they had never done before, with a tenderness in their gaze they had never had before…It was evident to all three, even without saying it–though later they must have said it–that things were no longer the same among them, that they had entered into a different fraternity, a different familiarity and that their home, so familiar to them, where maybe they had lived with their parents and grandparents since they were little, where they had grown up together, had become a new place, a new space, something holy like a temple, a space to live in like a temple” (Christ, the Life of Life 48-49)

Fr. Rick celebrating Mass in the Crusader church at Bethany.

As I read those lines, what hit me after having been there is that Bethany is indeed a place of both peace and friendship. Those same things that drew Jesus to Bethany are still present and palpable there–not because Mary, Martha, and Lazarus still live there, but rather because Jesus still dwells in that house. Their house truly became a temple in the fullest sense of the word, and Bethany is now the place where we are invited to experience the same intimate friendship with Jesus that the three holy siblings enjoyed!

Christian families in Bethlehem opened the doors of their houses so that we could share a meal with them.

I also gained a new insight into the universality of the Church. Being able to speak French (and this ability improved as I used my French everyday), I had the opportunity to speak to religious and pilgrims from around the world: a Franciscan Friar from Togo, a group of pilgrims from Senegal, some Brazilian priests currently serving as missionaries to France, and a French Benedictine monk living at the Abbey of St. Mary of the Resurrection in Abu Ghosh to name a few. We also met pilgrims from Mexico, Italy, Spain, Canada, Portugal, India, Poland, Ukraine, Nigeria, Austria, and even another group from Alabama! All of us joined the millions of saints and everyday people who through the millennia have come to the Holy Land to walk in the footsteps of Jesus–and still continue to come everyday!

We are grateful to our benefactors who made this trip possible for the three of us, for Fr. Rick Chenault who provided for all of our sacramental needs, and to Deacon Bill and Patti Remmert who organized and kept the whole pilgrimage running smoothly!

Click to see a gallery of more photos from our pilgrimage.