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A trip to the Holy Land points to the deep mystery of Christmas—
God revealed in the unexpected.
By Cathy Norman Peterson | Photographs by Ruth Gunderson | December 7, 2015
When my kids were young, I worked hard to create meaningful Advent seasons in our house. I bought ornate calendars that included accompanying texts and responsive readings. We added straw to a little wooden manger piece by piece every time someone showed kindness in the house. I carefully laid out dozens of Christmas books, planning to read a new one each night with the boys at bedtime. We tried to focus on homemade gifts and non-commercialized outings, all in an effort to create a peaceful, reflective house in the midst of an all-too hectic season.
But it was impossible to sustain. Three days in a row, we’d forget to open the Advent calendar windows. Christmas would be around the corner, yet the manger remained disconcertingly empty of kindness straw. And every time I suggested reading one of our lovely picture books, the boys responded, “Nah. Let’s read Percy Jackson.”
Those practices were important of course, even when we were inconsistent. But the best moments usually ended up being unscripted—singing silly Christmas songs in the car together, or the four-way debate about which balsam fir was perfect for our house. In other words, moments of consolation, as St. Ignatius called them, usually happened by accident.
It’s a lesson I have to keep learning. The hyper-scheduler in our family, I am surrounded by two boys and a husband who would all prefer to wing it in pretty much every situation. I’m prone to lists and schedules and plans. On trips they’ve nicknamed me “the captain of the guidebook.”
I tend to approach my life with God the same way. When I was younger I followed Bible reading plans, methodical devotional schedules, and prayed through stacks of names attached to D-rings. Now I seek out liturgy, lectionary readings, and pray through the Book of Common Prayer.
So it was a bit out of character to find myself on an unplanned pilgrimage this past year.
An invitation to travel to Jordan with a group of religious journalists seemed a great opportunity to see and learn about a part of the world I knew little of, and to expand my professional horizons. It wasn’t a full-blown Holy Land trip, but perhaps this would be less daunting.
Even so, I wasn’t exactly sure why I would go.
I’d heard plenty of sermon illustrations from pastors who had been to the Holy Land, accounts of how meaningful it was to walk in places where Jesus had actually stepped, to see Golgotha and Jerusalem and Bethlehem. But those stories never resonated with my rationalized faith. It’s not as if evangelicals have an especially rich history of pilgrimage. We iconoclasts knew Jesus lived in our hearts. Why did it matter where he was baptized two thousand years ago? We didn’t need to visit holy sites to meet God. We just had to read the Bible.
In contrast, the religious practices of my Catholic classmates were strangely tactile. Beads for praying, crucifixes with Jesus still on the cross (didn’t they know he’s risen from the dead?), and all those relics—splinters from the cross itself, bone fragments of the martyrs, vials of holy water. It all seemed superstitious and illogical.
The idea of pilgrimage took devotion even further. Rome is strewn with basilicas containing the chains that held Peter, fragments of Jesus’s crib, footprints marking where Peter met Jesus on the way to Rome. The Santuario della Scala Santa (Chapel of the Holy Steps) in Rome is said to contain the twenty-eight stairs that Jesus climbed to meet Pilate—which were brought there from Jerusalem by Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine. Pilgrims to the site ascend the stairs on their knees as they pray through Christ’s Passion. Surely such sites were historically significant, but how, I wondered, did the pious manage to generate such intense feelings of devotion?
And what would it look like to go to the birthplace of Christianity itself? As our departure date neared, I grew anxious. Hardly a veteran traveler, I worried about a growing list of things I could not plan. Unrest was flaring up in the region, so I wondered about our safety. I didn’t know one other person on the trip. What if I got sick? What if my numbers-challenged brain couldn’t keep track of the exchange rate? What if I had no one to talk to on the long bus rides? And what if I wasn’t overcome by the power of the place? What if I never became a bona fide pilgrim?
I tried to prepare—read the advance materials and press releases, study maps, learn some history. But overwhelmed, I gave up. The itinerary was pre-determined. I’d just have to enjoy the ride.
Once we arrived in Jordan, we visited significant ancient places—Mt. Nebo, where Moses got his glimpse of the Promised Land; Mukawir, Herod’s summer palace where John the Baptist was beheaded. One day George, our tour guide, pointed out across the hills, the cliff of the Gerasenes, where we could imagine angry farmers running Jesus out of town after their demon-possessed pigs tumbled over the edge. At Bethany-beyond-Jordan we dipped our fingers in the river where Jesus was baptized. The sites were mostly rustic and undeveloped. Archeologists continue to dig everywhere, so much history still to be uncovered.
Yet those holy places were only part of the trip. Along the way, we encountered many who served as witnesses to our journey.
Photo above: Al Khazneh (The Treasury) sits at the entrance to the ancient city of Petra in southern Jordan.
God With Us
We met an Argentinian priest who cares for thirty-two children in an orphanage in Jerash, one of the poorest regions in the country. We met Christians who reminded us proudly that their homeland is the birthplace of our faith. It was striking how many people in Jordan—politicians and restaurateurs, Muslims and Christians, drivers and salespeople—told us that their country is a place of peace, that they actively work to construct a culture of peace in a region rife with far too much violence. Coming from a setting where we can afford to argue fiercely about small things, I met one person after another who fiercely embraced Jordan’s identity as mediator and peacekeeper in a place better known for its religious and political conflicts.
And we met individuals who were fleeing for their lives from ISIS. Suddenly faraway news stories had names and faces.
One priest was flinging open doors and making up beds in his church where he housed dozens and dozens of refugee families who showed up on his doorstep. Another, asked why he allowed Muslim students to attend his school, explained, “We are educating people to live together.” One after another, the Christians we met asked us to pray—for them, for peace, for Jordan, for the Middle East.
And for ten days a handful of North American journalists and I shared close quarters on long bus rides. We teased each other, laughed together, and got on each other’s nerves. And we wept when we encountered suffering.
I had no visions, no holy epiphanies. But I saw God in ways I never anticipated. I embraced my fears and did something new. I encountered God in other people. Instead of being lonely, I developed unexpected friendships. I saw the face of God reflected in my fellow travelers—each smart, funny, cranky, impatient, beautiful one. I met God in Jordanian priests who passionately and urgently cared for their people, who cannot risk pretending that the life of the church is separate from the life of their state. I saw Jesus in our long-suffering tour guide who led and educated us through long days, and in homeless Iraqi Christians forced to start over in a completely foreign place, while at the same time expressing their steadfast faith in God and compassion for one another.
It turned out, I became an accidental pilgrim. I thought I was supposed to find God in the places, but I found God in the people. In typical divine fashion, God’s blessing was a surprise, breaking into my well-charted course and upending my plans. And Jesus Christ, the gift of Christmas, comes to us the same way—God’s gift of love to us. Love divine, loves excelling, indeed.