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Oh, Holy Land

By JOANNE RAE M. RAMIREZ, The Philippine STAR Published Mar 30, 2021 5:00 am

Visiting the Holy Land gives depth even to Instagramming. You witness, not just see, the significance of all the photogenic sites — you are retracing the life of Jesus Christ, in the very land He walked on.

In the Holy Land, you walk down the road where faith, facts, memories and miracles intertwine. And somewhere down the road, the personal cross you bear on your back and the occasional crown of thorns that weigh heavily on your troubled head, become lighter.

There is only one place on earth where Jesus Christ, upon whom is anchored the faith of over two billion Christians, walked on, and lived as flesh and blood — Israel and nearby places like Jordan, collectively known as the “Holy Land.” To have been able to retrace Jesus’ Christ’s footsteps 2,000 years after He was born is spiritual rejuvenation. A faith lift. A privilege and perhaps a responsibility, I realize now – a call to be a witness to the transforming power of faith.

I found out during my two pilgrimages to the Holy Land (one in 2000 and the other in 2019) that a pilgrimage blends faith with facts, for one is able to validate accounts of life over two millennia ago, in the very setting where it unfolded. In 2019, our group of 49 was headed by Fr. Dave Concepcion, who told us even before our journey to expect “the unimaginable.”

Our trip began in Nazareth, a hilly city where orange trees line cobblestoned roads, and houses stand on limestone terraces, where the “yes” that changed the world was uttered over 2,000 years ago.

“The story of mankind would have been different,” said Fr. Dave, “if Mary said ‘no’.”

The Basilica of the Annunciation is the focal point of Nazareth, where Jesus spent his childhood.

  The Basilica of the Nativity, site of an underground cave, now a chapel, where Jesus was born.

Near Nazareth is Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle at a wedding. According to the Bible, the wine ran out in a wedding party where Mary was a guest, and she asked her son for, well, help. Lo and behold! Six huge stone jars were filled with water and Jesus turned them into wine.

We also visited Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. In Hebrew, Bethlehem means “House of Bread,” and the spot where Jesus was born is marked by a star inside the Basilica of the Nativity.

The star is not on the main altar, but inside a cavernous basement that is known as the “chapel of the manger.” Beneath an altar near the tiny chapel is a silver star that marks the spot where Christ was born.

 We took a ride on a fisherman’s boat on the Sea of Galilee, as unruffled as a carpet of glass, a flock of seagulls were its constant sentinels. Here, many miracles were performed, it is where Jesus calmed the storm and walked on water.

Trip to Jerusalem

The highlight of the pilgrimage was our trip to Jerusalem, the place of Christ’s passion, crucifixion and resurrection, the holiest place in Christendom. Aside from being the city where Christ was crucified, a sacrifice that Christians believe redeemed mankind, Jerusalem is also the seat of two other major faiths, Judaism and Islam.

The Stations of the Cross (marked by Roman Catholics) leading up to Calvary are part of a maze in a market. Some are marked by chapels, while one — the fourth station — is a restaurant. Still, you can imagine Christ’s agony as he stumbled through the undulating roads to Calvary.

The 12th Station, where Jesus is believed to have died on the cross, is now a Greek Orthodox chapel inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  The altar has a silver disk beneath it, marking the exact spot where the cross stood. Through a hole in its center — big enough for only a fist — one can touch the rock of Golgotha or Calvary, where Christ was crucified.

The 13th station is where a huge slab of marble known as the “Stone of Unction” lies. It is where Jesus’ lifeless body was laid after He was taken down from the cross and anointed with a mixture of myrrh, aloe and aromatic oils. The slab is still fragrant to this day.

Jesus’ tomb, the holiest place in Christendom, lies in the center of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (which means tomb or burial chamber). 

  The shrine underneath the cupola in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where the tomb of Jesus Christ lies.

The sepulchre lies under a rotunda in an ornate edicule or small shrine.  Before you reach Christ’s tomb, you will pass by a piece of the stone from the slab that sealed the cave, hewn from a rock, where Christ was laid to rest.  The rotunda was built over this cave.

Today, the sacred rock is covered in thick marble, over which pilgrims are allowed to lay their hands and their rosaries and crucifixes. Tears fall unbidden when one is before the Holy Sepulchre, which simply stuns. The language to the faithful is personal, and all pilgrims have an unforgettable story to tell after visiting Christ’s tomb, which is actually the 14th Station of the Cross.

In these days when many days seem like Good Friday, our trip to Jerusalem is a constant reminder that after Good Friday, comes Easter Sunday.

Reflecting on the Lenten season of 2021, Fr. Dave, says, “Literally, I have had to embrace the poverty of many uncertainties in life in this time of pandemic. To grieve and mourn with those who lost their loved ones, deprived of goodbyes. The dying to my own preferences, letting go of my need for certainty, but continuing to hope in the God who never fails.”

Fr. Joy Tajonera, a Maryknoll priest, who ministers to OFWs in Taiwan, believes 2020 strengthened us for 2021.

“We were all jolted in 2020 but in 2021, we look forward that soon we will defeat the pandemic and march forward as kinder people.  Every Holy Week reminds us that suffering and death do not define who we are. But as people of faith...we will rise again...we are Easter people and that is the triumph of the Resurrection of Christ. Tomorrow will be better because we hope.”

Banner photo by Joanne Rae Ramirez