Happy are the people whose strength is in you! whose hears are set on the pilgrims' way.
The pilgrimage to Israel begins today. One is tempted to see it as beginning sometime tomorrow when we actually land in Tel Aviv. Yet the journey is no small part of the preparation to be open to God. In the midst of lists made, clothes packed, and outlet adapters compared; in the excitement of the adventure and the difficulty in saying good-bye to family remaining behind; and even in the drive to the airport, the lines through the security, the lay-over in Newark, and the overnight flight that glides above the Atlantic and Mediterranean except for a brief fly over Spain; in all of it, the pilgrimage has begun and continues because we are preparing ourselves for God.
Of course, the pilgrimage beginning means that God is already on the road with us and we had better be prepared. Jesus is likely to be encountered in the people driving the highway alongside of us; in the tattooed teenager with the large Starbucks and the leaking earbuds; in the aging lady ahead of us in line who is quite confused by the security requirements; in the people on the airplane who seem to require a conversation when we'd rather be sleeping; and in anyone else that it might be easier to ignore. Part of a pilgrimage is walking with God, and if we are with God we are able to offer hospitality to the stranger even while we are far from home. The difference between a pilgrimage and a vacation is that a vacation is about us, but a pilgrimage is about God. An essential benefit of an intentional pilgrimage should be that we get needed practice in living all of our lives as part of one eternal pilgrimage instead of as a long vacation with frantic bursts of hyper-responsibility.
For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room, and to stand at the threshold of the house of my God than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.
Another thought on beginning this Holy Land pilgrimage today, August 6. August 6 is important for two very different reasons. On the church calendar, we celebrate the great feast of the Transfiguration. On this day, Jesus revealed himself radiant in light to his disciples, giving them a small glimpse of his fuller glory and of the glory we are all to share in. At the same time, in 1945, this is the day that the first atomic bomb was used in warfare against the city of Hiroshima, Japan. The population of an entire city was killed, many immediately and others more slowly. We received a terrifying understanding of the level of destruction we are capable of, both morally and technologically.
These two feasts, one requiring great celebration and the other great repentance, seem an appropriate place to begin a journey to Israel. In a real way, we go there primarily because Jesus walked that land. God revealed himself to humanity in the word spoken to patriarchs and prophets, and in the Word made flesh that dwelt among us precisely in those hills. The Transfiguration even occurred there. Yet, the land that heard the warning, "He who lives by the sword will die by the sword," has rarely put down the sword, except to pick up automatic rifles. God is there anyway, and finding God in both the gloriously religious and the painfully political is why we are going. We hope that on our return we are better prepared to find God in all the ambiguities of our own life back home so we can hear his voice and do his work whether singing enrapt in church or plodding oppressed in the world. God was present to those seeing the light of the Transfiguration and to those being consumed by the light of the nuclear explosion in Hiroshima. Knowing God means coming to know God both bringing us to share his resurrected glory and coming down to suffer crucifixion and death alongside of us.