Custodia Terrae Sanctae

The Word of God and the “Fifth Gospel” of the Holy Land

by Father G.C. Bottini OFM

1. The biblical character of pilgrimage to the Holy Land

It is well known that the pilgrimage was one of the most frequent biblical categories employed to mark the identity and condition of the people of God of the Old and New Testaments. Two stories come to mind almost spontaneously: first, Abraham, who on God’s order set out for a foreign land, fortified only by God’s promise and by his faith (Gen 12:1-4; Heb 11:8-10); and second, the disciples of Emmaus whose travel companion was a pilgrim, the Risen One on the evening of Easter (Luke 24:13-35).

If we consider the term “pilgrimage” in this wider sense to include the characters and events described in the Bible, the whole book can be read as a history of pilgrimage where the believers walk in obedience to the Word of God that calls and guides them. Faith itself can rightly be considered as an itinerary. This holds for the stories of the patriarchs, for the pilgrimage of the chosen people during forty years in the desert, of faith marked by the rhythms of pilgrimage to sanctuaries for renewing the covenant and to the temple at times of feasts and sacrifices. For the New Testament we should keep in mind that the theme of the path is given great importance in the Gospel according to Mark, while the Gospel of Luke recounts the central role of Jesus’ ministry as a “long voyage” to Jerusalem (Lc 9,51-19,27). The Acts of the Apostles use the term “Way” to denote the Christian life (Acts 9:2; 19:9; 19:23). The Gospel of John appears to be built around the rhythm of Jesus’ pilgrimages to Jerusalem for Passover (three Passovers: John 2:13; 6:4; 11:5). In the writings of Paul, in the First Letter of Peter, and in the Letter to the Hebrews, Christians are invited to strive towards the heavenly homeland, living in this world as strangers and pilgrims (Phil 1:27; 3:20; Col 3:1; Heb 12:22; 1Pet 1:17; 2:11; Heb 11:13).

Theology speaks of the pilgrim nature of the Church as one of its characteristics (LG 48-51; CCC 954), situated as it is in this world between the “already” (existing) Kingdom of Christ present in it, and the “not yet” of its coming “with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27; cf. Matt 25:31).

This, therefore, is the first important biblical aspect of pilgrimage to the Holy Land: a life illuminated by faith. A pilgrimage to the Holy Land can become a strong and intense experience in helping us to become aware of our status as a pilgrim in this world.

2. History and geography of salvation

From biblical language and from the concept and symbolism of “pilgrimage” and “making a pilgrimage”, let us continue to a more concrete reality: namely, time and space in the Bible.

For believers in Christ, time and place are the essential coordinates of the mystery of the incarnation that “contains the revelation of the mystery of the Trinity and the continuation of the Son’s mission in the mission of the Holy Spirit” (John Paul II, TMA 1). It suffices to recall the solemn words of St. Paul: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman” (Gal 4:4), or indeed the precise comments of Luke: “In the days of King Herod, King of Judea... In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar...” (Luke 1:5; 3:1). The unique event of the incarnation of the Son of God at a precise point in time and space touches on the essential point by which Christianity differs from all other religions, by which man’s search for God has been expressed from earliest times. In Christianity “it is not simply a case of man seeking God, but of God who comes in person to speak to man of himself and to show him the path by which he may be reached” (John Paul II, TMA 6).

Christianity is the religion of the history of salvation, because it believes that God revealed himself and placed himself in dialogue with human history. The time of the world’s creation signals the beginning of the history of salvation that has its center in the fullness of time, i.e., in the incarnation of the Son of God, and its ultimate point in his glorious return at the end of time. With the fullness of time, the end times have begun (cf. Heb 1:2; 1 John 2:18), which coincide with the time of the Church, time destined to continue until the Second Coming.

In even simpler terms, we can say that all time belongs to God, but for us as Christians it is marked by special moments – the New Testament speaks of “kairoi” [“right time”] – in which God reveals himself in history and through history. This is why we speak of the history of salvation that is made of words and events (cf. Vatican Council II, DV 2-4; 14-15; AG 3).

The same reasoning applies for space or place. Clearly all space is subject to God’s dominion. The Christian knows that God is in heaven, on earth and everywhere. But this does not negate the fact that there are places that are particularly marked by God’s interventions. We owe to Paul VI, the first pope to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the complementary pair “history of salvation” and “geography of salvation”. In 1974 he wrote: “It is of course true that Christianity is a universal religion, not tied to any one country, and that its followers ‘worship the Father in spirit and truth’ (cf. John 4:23). But it is also a religion based upon a historical revelation. Alongside the ‘history of salvation’ there exists a ‘geography of salvation’. Thus the Holy Places possess the invaluable quality of providing faith with an indisputable support, enabling the Christian to come into direct contact with the setting in which ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14)” (Nobis in animo).

Today it has become commonplace to speak about the history of salvation and the geography of salvation. This is why it is important to once again call attention to the fact that a pilgrimage to the Holy Land can help to make a person more aware of the historical and geographical, and hence concrete, character of the Revelation. For a number of pages in the Scriptures and for a number of events topography is also important. Biblical Christian faith did not arise from philosophical speculation nor is it based on a particular doctrine, but originated from the historical encounter between God who revealed himself and the human creature who was searching for him and/or opened himself to him.

3. The complete history of the Bible (Old and New Testaments)

It is only natural and completely justifiable that a Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land focuses on the person of Jesus Christ and everything that surrounds him. There are countless offers of pilgrimages, books and media sources bearing the title “In the Footsteps of Jesus”. This is all for the good, but it should not lead to a marginalization or even elimination of the Old Testament. This would be equivalent to separating the tree, in this case Jesus Christ and the Church, from its deep and vital roots. The Apostolic Exhortation “Verbum Domini” of Benedict XVI dedicates two long paragraphs to the relationship between the Old and New Testaments that conclude with an important quotation from St. Gregory the Great: “The Old Testament is a prophecy of the New Testament; and the best commentary on the Old Testament is the New Testament” (VD 41).

One of the striking things in reading the accounts of ancient pilgrims is the interest they express in the Old Testament and its stories, including those from post-biblical Judaism. The Itinerary of the Pilgrim of Bordeaux (333) and the Diary of a Pilgrimage by Egeria (latefourth century) contain numerous memories linked to the figures and events of the Old Testament. Experts in the field highlight the manner in which Egeria rewrote in a “Christian key” the history of the Jewish people. The celebrated Madaba Mosaic Map (late 6th – early 7th c.) is dotted with Old Testament sites and sanctuaries. It suffices to recall the Memorial of Moses on Mount Nebo, which excavations have brought to light.

This shows that Christians, as the Church Fathers and writers of the time also testified, maintained a peaceful, stable and productive relationship with the Old Testament. Christians felt that they were part of the history of salvation. The Scriptures of the Old Testament were read as prophecies regarding Christ, and useful and instructive divine pedagogical lessons were taken from the accounts. Lives of the Saints and martyrologies of different rites in the Holy Land testify to the ancient liturgical memory of Abraham, Moses, Lot, David, Isaiah and the other righteous of the Old Testament. Fortunately, many of these memories have been preserved in the Franciscan Calendar of the Holy Land and in that adopted by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

The ancient and constant love of Christians for Jerusalem, which has been expressed in a special manner through pilgrimages, is a proof of this. The journey to the Holy City is perceived by Christians to be an experience that is part of the covenant with God, no less so than was the case for the chosen people. For Judaism the center of the city and of the world coincided in the temple on Mount Zion; for Christians the “navel” of the world was the place where the Paschal Event took place, above all Jesus’ tomb. To paraphrase an author who said that through contemplation of the Aegean Sea one becomes Greek, the Dominican Father L. H. Vincent wrote that “one becomes Christian above all in front of the Holy Sepulchre and Calvary”.

A pilgrimage to the Holy Land can assist in retracing the history of salvation in the land in which this occurred, not as detached observers but as individuals who feel themselves personally involved.

4. The stones also “speak”

In the Holy Land the stones also speak and have life, or as the “Verbum Domini” affirms: “The stones on which our Redeemer walked are still charged with his memory and continue to ‘cry out’ the Good News.” Not only the monuments and sanctuaries, some very ancient and of unbroken tradition, come immediately to mind, but also the archaeological excavations that for nearly a century and a half have been taking place at the Holy Places and throughout the Holy Land. Together with historical and literary studies, they have led to an enormous increase in our understanding of the facts, characters, places, institutions, ways of living and thinking, etc., attested in the Scriptures.
I will mention only a few of the archaeological excavations, notably those that have helped us to better understand the context in which Jesus lived.

Let us consider the excavations in Nazareth. It is not without a sense of irony and arrogance that, up until the 1950s, not a few people maintained that the sanctuaries in Nazareth represented a “Franciscan tradition”, i.e., they dated from a later period and hence were of no fundamental importance. The pits that that were visible around the site and between the constructions had, they said,been mistaken for tombs. How was it possible to imagine that here was the village of Joseph, Mary and Jesus, Jews who would never have dreamed of living among the ruins of a cemetery, held by Jews to be a source of ritual impurity? The excavations conducted by Father Bellarmino Bagatti in the 1950s completely discredited this interpretation, showing that in Nazareth there were no tombs but instead the remains of the lower and rear portions of agricultural houses. The pits taken to be tombs were in fact silos or areas for storing materials belonging to the houses.

Until about forty years ago the known remains of Capernaum were very few: the celebrated synagogue and the ruins of a Byzantine church. The extensive archaeological researches that began in 1968 and continued through the end of the 1980s uncovered large sectors of the village and, most importantly, showed that the theme of the “house” that recurs in the Synoptic Gospels and, above all, in the Gospel of Mark is a “theological motif” and narrative having a solid historical basis. Peter’s “house” was discovered, the dwelling which became the home of Jesus and was accordingly venerated by the earliest Christians, as indicated in a well-known text by the pilgrim Egeria. The rediscovery of the village sheds light on Jesus’ movements during the period that the exegetes have denoted “a day in Capernaum” (Mark 1:21-39), in which the Master moved about the village with his disciples from the lake (Sea of Galilee) to the synagogue, then on to the house, and in the early morning he climbed a nearby hill to pray. When read on the spot in Capernaum, a number of the parables of Jesus immediately reveal their human, social and topographical context.

The excavations and surveys carried out at the Holy Sepulchre and Golgotha within the actual Crusader church, although only partial, have led to a better understanding of a number of the details in the Gospels relating to Jesus’ death and burial.

The chance discovery on the western side of the Mount of Olives of a cemetery complex with tombs that are probably Christian from the first century has led to a careful re-examination of the Judeo-Christian symbols and texts, taking into consideration the information provided in the Acts of the Apostles relating to Christians who came from Judaism, including priests (cf. Acts 6:7).
Today one say with confidence that there is no Christian sanctuary that has not been studied in depth in terms of its historical, literary and liturgical tradition, such research in a number of cases reflected in multi-volume works. Credit for this goes primarily to two Biblical schools, l’École Biblique founded in 1890 by the celebrated priest Marie-Joseph Lagrange, and the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum which opened in 1924. Both institutions had the honor of being cited by Paul VI in his Apostolic Exhortation “Nobis in animo” of 25 March 1974 with the words: “Recent archaeological excavations, carried out by important cultural institutes, including the École Biblique of the Dominican Fathers and the Studium Biblicanum of the Franciscan Fathers of the Custody of the Holy Land, have brought to life fresh remains dating from the time of Christ and the Apostles.”

I have mentioned only the Christian Holy Places, but today’s pilgrim does not visit only these. It suffices to mention the Temple Mount, where today two mosques rise, with its complex of excavations and small underground museums where it is possible to see impressive remains of homes and streets from the Jerusalem of Jesus’ time. One thinks also of the archaeological remains at Qumran that became famous with the discovery of biblical and Jewish manuscripts (Dead Sea Scrolls) that have revolutionized the textual criticism of the Hebrew Old Testament and have created an impressive body of knowledge in terms of commentaries on the Bible, the Apocryphal books, the religious ideas and rites of the Essenes, with the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Zealots among the currents of ancient Judaism.

It is a question of grace and of... intelligence! The stones, the archaeological ruins, the monuments all have their voices that one has to train oneself to distinguish in order to understand the lessons they impart. The sanctuaries have their own particular grace that, naturally, is not codified among the archaeological remains or in the monuments but which can serve, in the first instance, to touch our physical senses, and then for awakening the spiritual senses within each one of us. Is this not a law of the economy of salvation and of the entire sacramental structure: from visible things the mind is raised to invisible things (per visibilia ad invisibilia)?

In this regard it is fitting to conclude with the words that Benedict XVI wrote in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation “Verbum Domini”: “As we call to mind the Word of God who became flesh in the womb of Mary of Nazareth, our heart now turns to the land where the mystery of our salvation was accomplished, and from which the word of God spread to the ends of the earth. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the Word became flesh in a specific time and place, in a strip of land on the edges of the Roman Empire. The more we appreciate the universality and the uniqueness of Christ’s person, the more we look with gratitude to that land where Jesus was born, where he lived and where he gave his life for us. The stones on which our Redeemer walked are still charged with his memory and continue to ‘cry out’ the Good News. For this reason, the Synod Fathers recalled the felicitous phrase which speaks of the Holy Land as ‘the Fifth Gospel’” (no. 89).