It was early when we gathered, strangers in a strange land, having flown through the night and disembarked bleary-eyed, yet ready for adventure. A few people spoke; many smiled and nodded in acknowledgement. We shared a purpose, the same excitement and expectations, but were strangers nonetheless. With suitcases in hand, we boarded our assigned buses, most of us now having met three or four others. What would this week bring? How would we get along? How would this land of Moses change us?
It changed us in ways none of us could quite guess as of yet. We met our guides and watched eagerly as they pointed to landmarks on the landscape. Galilee is green. Did you know that? It is fertile and pleasant, even in the month of February. A cautious camaraderie formed during the first lunch, each person feeling out the others. Thank Heaven for Facebook, the genius of modern communication that allowed us to identify our fellow travelers and make small talk.
Each day brought new things to see and places to go. Our first major site was the Church of the Annunciation, and we all left with high hopes and renewed zeal for the coming days. “How can it get any better than this?” We thought when Father Darryl reminded us that “the Word was made flesh, here.” But it did. That afternoon, we visited Cana where many of us renewed our wedding vows. While there was not a dry eye in the church, there were many laughs accompanied by food and dance at the “reception” that evening.
In Mark 4: 35-41, the winds whipped across the Sea of Galilee. For us, they were calm when day two ushered in a boat ride for the one-hundred pilgrims who were talking, praying, and taking pictures with traveling companions. A moment of raw emotion took me by surprise when a fellow pilgrim stopped me to tell me that, in my smile, she had seen the face of her dear friend, who had recently passed. That is a moment I will never forget. A connection was made, and, I hope, perhaps a healing had begun. Later that day, we walked through the Valley of the Doves, literally following the footsteps of Jesus. It was unforgettable.
Ken was moved to tears at the Church of the Transfiguration, and we continued on our journey toward Jerusalem, stopping at Jericho for lunch. The sound of the call to prayer filled the Muslim dominated town as we ate and talked, each person learning more about our new friends. A visit to the seashore to recall the Lord’s command to Peter to shepherd His flock, left us all hearing the question, “Do you love me? Feed my sheep.”
The next morning found us in Bethlehem where the true purpose of our trip began to
settle in. Though under construction, the Church of the Nativity loomed large and glorious before us. Kneeling before the place, where once laid a newborn King, was humbling for all of us. In Shepherd’s Field, we imagined what it must have been like when the light of a mystical star shone overhead, beckoning the shepherds from the cave to be greeted by a heavenly host of angels.
On Friday, we stood in the chapel at Pater Noster and held hands as we prayed the words the Lord prayed on the ground where the Apostles first learned the prayer. To describe my emotions would be inadequate as mere words cannot express what that felt like. It was as if the Lord stood in our midst. But the best was yet to come as that day gave way to one emotional moment after another. Walking the Palm Sunday path, we found ourselves descending the Mount of Olives and entering the Garden of Gethsemane. Our guide shared with us his personal belief that Jesus’ prayer that this cup be passed was not a moment of weakness and fear of the coming pain of crucifixion, but of the coming pain of the kiss, the betrayal by one He loved. Never again will I think of that Biblical scene without recalling that thought.
From there, we entered the Upper Room, the approximation of where the Lord and His disciples shared the Last Supper. It was during Mass on this hallowed ground that I watched, during the handshake of peace, as each person in the room hugged, kissed, and greeted each other by name, all pretenses gone. No more strangers. At that moment, we all felt it. We were among true friends.
The culmination of the trip took place at sunrise on Saturday morning. As the glow of the candles danced on the marble, and the Franciscan Monks sang the High Mass, Father Darryl celebrated the most unforgettable Mass of my life. To stand before the tomb of the risen Lord and partake in His meal of everlasting life, while doves sat in the church’s recesses above our heads, was too surreal to imagine. I tried to sing, tried to utter the prayers I had been hearing and saying all of my life, but the conflicting combination of sadness and joy were overwhelming. To lay my head on the Lord’s tomb, and then to kneel at Calvary, was almost too much to take in all at once. As Jesus did, we wept.
I will never forget the Via Delarosa, the walk through the streets of Jerusalem while praying the Stations of the Cross. As tourists and other pilgrims watched our group, and those used to such events went on with their daily lives, we traced the steps of our Lord from Pilate’s Praetorian to Calvary. The day was filed with more emotion than I’m sure any of us knew we were capable of. Before heading to the airport on Sunday, Ken and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to walk back down to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher once again. This time, we were alone, no crowd of one-hundred, whispering and waiting their turn to spend just a few seconds at the empty tomb. With just ten people in front of us, we waited in line until it was time to say our final prayers at the site of the Resurrection. We savored the moment, knowing that this might be the one and only time in our lives that we would be able to visit this land of holiness and turmoil.
When we finished our last dinner together, later that evening, the tears began to flow. Our lives had been changed forever. We were now fishers of men, charged with the task of returning to our homes and loved ones and sharing with them all that we had seen and heard. Unlike the first time we gathered at the airport, this time there was laughter, a final toast, sharing of memories, and plans to see each other again. No longer strangers in a strange land, I believe we all felt as if we had come home, and in doing so, met the family we never knew we had.
Amy Schisler is an award winning author of both children’s books and novels for readers of all ages. She lives with her husband and three daughters on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Her latest book, Picture Me, is the recipient of an Illumination Award, placing it among the top three eBooks of 2015. Her next book, Whispering Vines, is due out in the summer of 2016.
You may follow Amy on Facebook at http://facebook.com/amyschislerauthor on Twitter @AmySchislerAuth, on Goodreads at https://www.goodreads.com/amyschisler and on her web site http://amyschislerauthor.com.
Crabbing With Granddad (2013)
A Place to Call Home (2014)
Picture Me (2015)