By Riley Manning
For those who have never traveled abroad, the Holy Land can seem like a fairy tale, across oceans of space, time, and culture.
The portraits Americans do receive of the modern Middle East must come through the filters of media and politics.
But for Christians, a trip to see the environment Christ walked in can transform their faith entirely.
“You see how the land is laid out and how the terrain itself inspired Jesus,” said the Rev. Maurice Smith, pastor of the Beulah Grove McDonald United Methodist Parish in Pontotoc. Smith adventured to the Holy Land for the first time in February.
“This experience of putting your hands and eyes on the places Jesus walked, of seeing it for yourself, we call it the fifth gospel,” Smith said.
The Rev. Jason Franklin, pastor of Jumpertown United Methodist Church, agreed.
“The geography solidified what I’ve preached and read my whole life,” he said. “As someone who went over as a pilgrim looking for spiritual renewal, it was nothing short of phenomenal.”
Lay of the land
Franklin and Smith both took their first trips to the Israel area in February. Franklin said his initial impression was how he’d assumed so much from scripture.
“For example, you hear the word ‘wilderness’ a lot in the Bible, but our western idea of ‘wilderness’ is different from the wilderness of the Holy Land,” he said. “There are no trees or grass. It’s more of barren, craggy desert. And even then, we think of a desert as scorching hot all the time, but it got cold enough to snow while we were there.”
On the other hand, Franklin said, the area around the Sea of Galilee proved to be green and lush, rife with lemon and banana trees as well as fishermen.
Smith said he was struck by how close sites were to each other, in some cases just a few miles, but that those miles could be rough.
“We traveled as much up and down over hills as we did straight ahead,” he said. “You really see when the Bible says he went ‘up’ to Jerusalem what that meant.”
According to Franklin, the ancient city of Jerusalem was surrounded by the modern city complete with universities and McDonald’s restaurants, but the inner city has largely maintained its ways, even its lively trade-and-barter economy. But their proximity to one another, he said, magnified the profound sense of holiness.
“The inner city is maybe the only place left in the world that makes you take your hat off and put your phone down,” he said. “The church of Peter was built on top of Caiaphas’s house, where Jesus was kept the night before he was crucified. In the middle of this house is this pit where he was. I found myself wondering what I would be thinking, trying to comprehend the magnitude of what he must have been feeling.”
For Smith, the region of Bethany, where Lazarus was raised from the dead, was a powerful moment.
“Mary and Martha lived there too, and it’s a place where Jesus felt comfortable,” Smith said. “I hate to say it, but it’s a poor, unkempt place. Our guide said it’s always been that way. For me, that just authenticated the fact that Jesus was about dealing with the down and out, even now. People in that place really needed somebody.”
The Rev. Meg Dudley, associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Tupelo, and her husband the Rev. Howard Dudley, leader of student faith group Ukirk at Ole Miss, spent nearly a month in the Holy Land in 2010 as part of their seminary coursework.
“Along with the religious and historical significance of these places, there’s also the global political implications of these sites people have fought over for 3,000 years,” he said. “Thousands of Jewish tombs cover one side of the Mount of Olives so when the temple is rebuilt and the dead are resurrected, they can walk across the valley and immediately worship God. But just below the Wailing Wall, thousands of Muslims have been buried so they will be there to fight off the Jews.”
The Jordan River, for instance, connects the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, and serves as a border between the relatively cosmopolitan Jordan and Israel, and the predominately conservative Muslim Syria.
“There’s always one military presence or another,” Meg Dudley said. “You can really see that what to us is strictly religious is far more nationalist to them there.”
Her husband agreed. Citizens in these places, he said, talk about King David, Abraham, etc., as historical figures, the way Americans speak about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
In addition, Howard Dudley said a certain element of tourism was present, but not enough to override the significance lent in large part by other travelers.
“We saw groups from Russia, Cameroon, everywhere. Some had saved up their whole lives for the trip, and it got very emotional for everyone,” he said. “The Bible is a big and complicated book, and even after a year of seminary, there were tons of dots I never connected until I set foot there and saw it for myself.”