By now, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you: we had a sensational time in the Holy Land. Words like “incredible,” “life-changing” and “powerful” filled the air during our 11 days, as we trekked from Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee to Bethlehem and, finally, Jerusalem.
The pictures tell the tale better than I could.
The view from our hotel in Tiberias was a stunner. There was the Sea of Galilee — “really, a lake,” our guide corrected us — right outside our window.
The wonders never ceased.
The food at every stop was an eye-full — and, I don’t have to tell you: our eyes weren’t all that were full.
We did more than eat, of course. We prayed, and did it at some of the most remarkable and historically significant churches in the world.
There was this chapel, adjoining Mt. Tabor, site of the Transfiguration.
There was the eight-sided church atop the Mount of Beatitudes.
There was the simple church in Tabgha, where Jesus ate breakfast with his apostles after the Resurrection.
We celebrated Mass there in an outdoor chapel.
There was the humble cave at Shepherd’s Field outside Bethlehem, commemorating the spot where the shepherds saw the angels, who led them to the manger.
And then, of course, there was the stunning Church of the Nativity nearby, where you could wait in line to make your way down to the spot where Jesus was born, and touch it with your hand.
I remember seeing a man that morning waiting to make his way to the site. He was so overwhelmed, he was fighting back tears. These places have that effect on you. You can’t believe you’re there, seeing and touching sacred stones that have been there for centuries, spots that mark the most important moments in salvation history — where God lived among us.
Beyond the churches, there were the people, truly the salt of the earth. One night, we had dinner with a Christian family in Bethlehem.
I could go on for days about this trip — and, friends, be forewarned: I probably will. But as I mentioned in my last homily, the day we left: we need to keep telling this story. To set out, like Mary at the Visitation, to bring Christ to others. To bear witness.
My homily on the day we left the Holy Land, March 17, 2023:
Can you believe our journey is coming to an end?
I’ve mentioned to a few people that one of the things I like about the itinerary for this pilgrimage is that it began where the Christian story began: in Nazareth and the place of the Annunciation, where the word became flesh.
In a sense, our pilgrimage began where the pilgrimage of Jesus began.
After that, along the way, we saw where Christ ministered in Capernaum, in Magdala, throughout Galilee, and finally in Jerusalem, where we followed his footsteps, winding through the streets of the city on a cold dark morning, bringing us at last to that incredible moment we shared, celebrating Mass at the tomb, inches from where our Lord rose from the dead.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.
Logically, that should be the end of our pilgrimage — starting at Christ’s conception and ending with his passion, death and resurrection.
But then this morning, we found ourselves in Ein Karem, the place of the Visitation, which we heard about in this Gospel.
You can be forgiven for thinking, “Wait. What? What’s that doing here? Shouldn’t we have done that at the beginning?”
But it makes perfect sense. We’re ending our journey with a journey — and one with a beautiful message for all of us to carry home.
A message of generosity and joy — but also one with immediacy that touches every one of us.
As we leave this holy land, we go back to our homes, our lives, our jobs, and we carry memories — hundreds of pictures on our cellphones, scarves and tee shirts and Jerusalem crosses stashed in our luggage, along with extra inches on our waistline. Maybe someone bought a flute. I don’t know.
But we go home, too, with something burning in our hearts, this beautiful truth:
We need to tell the story.
The story of what we have seen here. Where we’ve walked, what we’ve heard, what we’ve tasted and touched.
But also: the story of the One who first walked these roads. He is the reason we are here. We need to share that, spread the message.
In a few moments, you will see that dramatic mural of Pentecost in this building. You may recognize yourself in some of the faces on the wall. Like the people in that Upper Room, we can’t keep this pilgrimage — the fruits of this journey — to ourselves.
We need to tell the story.
With words. With memories. With our lives.
Which brings me back to the Visitation. I think of the first three words of this Gospel passage: “Mary set out.” That says so much.
Think of it. This teenage girl had just experienced the most extraordinary event in human history. But she didn’t sit back and lock herself away from the world and say, “Sorry. I’m expecting the son of God. I need my rest.”
Mary set out.
She couldn’t keep him to herself.
The Visitation has been called the world’s first Eucharistic procession — Mary taking Jesus into the world.
In a very real sense, that is our calling, to carry Christ to others. And there is no better time to reaffirm that than at the conclusion of our time together.
Because while one journey is ending, another goes on.
We need to set out and bring Christ to others. We need to be Christ to others. Pope Francis has said this episode in the Gospels reminds us of the importance of two things in Christianity: encounter, and service. Before he was even born, Jesus was fueling a desire to be with others, to serve and sacrifice for others, through his mother.
But praying about this the other night, I realized: we have already had an encounter of our own.
During the last 10 days we saw where Jesus walked during this pilgrimage. But I think each of us saw something else.
We saw Jesus.
When the steps were too high, or the hills were too steep, when the cobblestones were too rough or when it just seemed hard to walk another step, Jesus was there.
We saw him again and again. In loving arms. In helping hands. In countless small acts of mercy and patience and support, one pilgrim caring for another.
He was there in the laughter we shared, and in the tears we shed, and the overwhelming sense of gratitude and wonder that brought us again and again to our knees.
On this journey, we saw Jesus.
We saw him in the faces of shopkeepers in Jerusalem and vendors in Bethlehem and fishermen in Tiberias.
We saw him in the families we met the other night — humble people of resilience and fortitude and faith. Tender families. Joyful families.
Holy families in Bethlehem.
So often these days, I’ve thought of the words of that hymn many of us know — certainly every deacon in this church knows it by heart:
We are pilgrims on a journey,
We are trav’lers on the road;
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load.
How often we saw that. It was humbling. It was beautiful. I’d even say it was life-changing.
So, what happens next?
This Gospel reminds us: keep it going. Bring that spirit home. Set out, like Mary, to help others encounter Christ.
We are pilgrims are on a journey.
But know this: the journey isn’t really over.
Continue the journey.
Tell the story.
Share the Good News.
We need to. We just can’t keep it to ourselves.
Yes, this pilgrimage is ending.
But by God’s grace, another goes on.