I’ve been slowly returning to work this past week, amidst the celebrations of Greek Orthodox Christmas. It seems most of the shopkeepers in Beit Sahour are Orthodox – the whole town shut down for the day, leaving those of us who did not plan ahead with empty refrigerators. Luckily, my neighbors celebrated Christmas by inviting family and friends over for meals, so I did not go hungry!
The celebrations of Orthodox Christmas were in some ways a repetition of Catholic and Protestant Christmas: the Orthodox patriarchs came to Bethlehem with great fanfare, there was a parade, there were numerous church services (the Christmas Eve service at the Orthodox church here in town kindly broadcast their service over a loudspeaker for those of us who didn’t quite make it down the hill). But these Christmas celebrations were also much more local. The hordes of tourists were missing, and shops and restaurants closed; people celebrated with family and friends. It was a different sort of Christmas day. Of course, the two different Christmas days reflect the historic separation of local and international Christians in this place.
For two thousand years, give or take a few, Christians have been traveling here to see the places where Jesus walked, slept, ate, healed, spit, prayed, fished, etc. They have built churches, lit candles, carried crosses up the Via Dolorosa, worshiped, and purchased many, many souvenirs to commemorate the journey. These pilgrims have left their mark – their presence has changed the places of pilgrimage in material ways:
Three miles farther we reached Cana, where our Lord was at the wedding; and we reclined upon his very couch, upon which I, unworthy that I am, wrote the names of my parents (Pilgrim of Piacenza, 6th century).
In the same place by the sea [near Capernaum] is a grassy field with plenty of hay and many palm trees. By them are seven springs, each flowing strongly. And this is the field where the Lord fed the people with the five loaves and the two fishes. In fact the stone on which the Lord placed the bread has now been made into an altar. People who go there take away small pieces of the stone to bring them prosperity, and they are very effective (Egeria, 4th century).
Don’t worry, though, that if you come on your own pilgrimage, you’ll miss something important because of the pilgrims of the past:
[The church of the ascension] has an altar towards the east, protected by a narrow roof; in the center of it are seen the last footprints of the Lord, under the open heaven, where he ascended. And although the earth is daily carried away by the believing, they none the less remain and still retain the same appearance of their own, as if marked by impressed footsteps… (the Venerable Bede, 7th century)
So leaving Jericho, proceeding from the east towards the west, we had on our left hand the ashes of Sodom and Gomorrah, over which country there always hangs a dark cloud with a sulphurous odour. But as for what they say about Lot’s wife, that she is diminished in size by being licked by animals, it is not true; but she stands just in the same condition as she originally was (Pilgrim of Piacenza, 6th century).
The accounts left by pilgrims of the past are fascinating. They tell of the many miracles associated with different sites of pilgrimage: the Pilgrim of Piacenza is particularly keen on these, recording that he himself filled one of the stone jars in Cana with water and poured out wine; that the women of Nazareth are more beautiful than any other women in the world as a special gift from Mary; that the dew that falls in Jerusalem each day is collected by doctors to use to heal illness. One of my favorite parts of these accounts is the conglomeration of events on one site:
Not far from thence is Golgotha, or the place of Calvary, where Christ the Son of God was crucified, where the first man Adam was buried, and where Abraham offered sacrifice to God. About a long stone’s throw from thence toward the west is the place where Joseph of Arimathaea buried the sacred body of the Lord Jesus. There is a church beautifully built by the Emperor Constantine. From Mount Calvary it is thirteen feet toward the west to the middle of the world (anonymous pilgrim, 11th century).
How handy! Adam, Abraham, Jesus: the pilgrim can conveniently honor all these major heroes of the Bible in one place, and stand in the middle of the world too. (While the collection of these events and relics in one place goes against the traditional association of the creation stories with Mesopotamia, and Abraham and Isaac with Mt. Moriah/the Temple Mount, there are great theological connections here between the formation of Adam and the death of Jesus, and the sacrifice of Isaac and sacrifice of Jesus.)
Largely absent from these accounts, though, are records of pilgrims’ interactions with local people. The pilgrims were interested in the places, in hearing about the miracles that occurred there in the past (or recreating the miracles themselves), in worshiping in the place where Jesus once was. They apparently weren’t as interested in the living church in the land (other than as a source of information for their travels). There are a few glimpses of local Christians meeting pilgrims:
There was an elder living at the Cells of Choziba (in Wadi Qelt)… he would travel the road from the holy Jordan to the Holy City carrying bread and water. And if he saw a person overcome by fatigue, he would shoulder that person’s pack and carry it all the way to the holy Mount of Olives. He would do the same on the return journey if he found others, carrying their packs as far as Jericho. You would see this elder, sometimes sweating under a great load, sometimes carrying a youngster on his shoulders. There was even an occasion when he carried two of them at the same time. Sometimes he would sit down and repair the footwear of men and women if this was needed, for he carried with him what was needed for that task. To some he gave a drink of the water he carried with him and to others he offered bread. If he found anyone naked, he gave him the very garment that he wore. You saw him working all day long (John Moschos, 7th century).
On the fifteenth day of the month of September yearly, an almost continuous multitude of various nations is in the habit of gathering from all sides to Jerusalem for the purposes of commerce by mutual sale and purchase. Whence it necessarily happens that crowds of various nations stay in that hospitable city for some days, while the very great number of their camels and horses and asses, not to speak of mules and oxen, for their varied baggage, strews the streets of the city here and there with the abominations of their excrements: the smell of which brings no ordinary nuisance to the citizens and even makes walking difficult. Wonderful to say, on the night after the above-mentioned day of departure with the various beasts of burden of the crowds, an immense abundance of rain falls from the clouds on that city, which washes all the abominable filth from the streets, and cleanses it from the uncleannesses (Arculf, 7th century).
Today, the ‘uncleannesses’ left by pilgrims—water bottles, candy wrappers, the heat and fumes from tour buses—can still be seen, but the miraculous cleansing rain seems to have failed over the centuries. Pilgrims interact with locals now for the most part to buy souvenirs and food; as in the past, there is, in general, little contact between the local church and the Christians from around the world who come to walk where Jesus walked. This state of affairs is unfortunate for the pilgrims: they miss out on meeting wonderful people, hearing the stories of being a Christian in ‘the holy land,’ worshiping together as the church universal. It’s also unfortunate for the local Christians, who end up feeling forgotten and isolated, somehow less important than the buildings in which they worship.
This is not an easy place to be Christian—while recent numbers suggest the Christian population of Israel and Palestine is on the rise, popular perception is that the Christian population continues to shrink. A few weeks ago, a Muslim Palestinian taxi driver in Jerusalem told me he worries that one day, there will be no Christians left in the land. Christians remain a minority in Israel (2% of the population) and Palestine (4% of the population). Reports of prejudice, discrimination, and hate crimes persist (though without the extreme violence that Christians in Egypt and Syria have been facing recently). Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor and leader in Bethlehem, calls the local Christians the ‘living stones’ of the land; it would be a great encouragement for the local church if these living stones became part of pilgrimage itineraries, if Christians from around the world could hear their stories and offer their support.
Anonymous Pilgrims, I.-VIII. Aubrey Stewart, trans. London: Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, 1894.
Arculf’s Narrative about the Holy Places, Written by Adamnan. James Rose MacPherson, trans. London: Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, 1895.
The Venerable Bede. A Little Book Concerning the Holy Places, which Bede Composed by Abbreviating the Works of Former Writers. James Rose MacPherson, trans. London: Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, 1895.
Egeria’s Travels. John Wilkinson, trans. Oxford: Oxbow, 1999.
John Moschos. The Spiritual Meadow. John Wortley, trans. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1992.
Pilgrim of Piacenza. Aubrey Stewart, trans. London: Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, 1896.