2000 Years of Pilgrimage
February 17, 2019
I can remember watching the news as a kid growing up and seeing something about a town that had just been destroyed by a tornado and the survivors were walking on the ruins of their homes searching for anything that had survived the destruction. Everything they found was so precious to them and represented so much about their history and who they were as family.
In some ways, this is how we act as Christian pilgrims. The holy sites we visit here are not just the rubble of someone else’s past but pieces of our own history and who we are as a family. Everything we see and find is precious to us.
A few weeks ago, as we were finishing Mass at the Church of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, we were approached by a Brazilian Friar who asked us if we would like a tour of the Friary. We answered, “of course”, reverenced the spot where John the Baptist was allegedly born, and left through the sea of blue tile that covers every wall of the church and entered the Friar’s private quarters.
It is easy to forget as you go from one place to the next in the Holy Land that there are people who have given up their lives in order to care for these holy places. The Franciscans most notably, have been taking care of these holy sites since Saint Francis went strolling into the Muslim camp of Sultan Melek el-Kamel during the height of the Crusades and impressed him so much that he was allowed to stay and care for the Christian holy places.
Our Brazilian guide happily led us through the labyrinth of ancient portals and tunnels that make up the friary until finally our tour ended outside of a little garden in front of the friary. The Friar then turned to us and said, “oh, and to your right before you leave is an engraving that was made during the 200’s, we think of John the Baptist. It is one of the oldest known Christian images in the world.”
The image is as you can see, quite simple but obviously very Christian. I left it thinking how glad I was that Christian art had advanced from 1800 years ago and then forgot all about it.
That was until a few weeks later, when we were touring the ruins that composed the ancient city of Nazareth. The city that Jesus grew up in was only about two football fields in size and was made up of very simple homes that were built into the stone of the mountain.
Our guide was showing us a stone from a home that is beside the place that is traditionally believed to be the childhood home of Mary, that had some graffiti on it from 2nd and 3rd century pilgrims. The graffiti was mostly messages written to and about Mary. Which was cool to see that the first Christians (like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus) also had this devotion to Mary that Christians do today. But what was more interesting than that, was what we saw next to the graffiti about Mary that our tour guide just skipped over.
It was another image of the man from the wall at the birthplace of John the Baptist. I showed our guide the image from the other site and he thought we were just showing him the image from the wall of Mary’s house. His eyes lit up with excitement when we held both images next to each other and it dawned on him what was happening.
We were following in the footsteps of Christians from across the centuries. Walking in the rubble of our own family’s history. From the moment the shepherds left their flocks in search of the Holy Family, Christians have not ceased to go to places where they have been. Picking up anything they could find that has any connection to the one they love.
The Gospels leave out so much of the first part of Jesus life that it is impossible to know everything about the early life of Jesus, Mary, or Joseph. That time is sacred and shrouded in mystery and that’s okay. But we can know a little, and every little bit is precious. It helps tell us more about who we are as a family.
Archdiocese of Atlanta