I rejoiced when I heard them say, “Let us go to God’s house,” and now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.
These words come from Psalm 121 (or 122, depending on how you count), one of a group of psalms (the “Songs of Ascents”) associated with pilgrimage to Jerusalem since their composition many centuries before the time of Christ. As a member of a religious community, I sing these words in church several times a month, as we work our way through the Psalter in the Divine Office, and they certainly sprang to mind when I was first invited to join the diocesan pilgrimage to the Holy Land coming up this November.
The joy of the ancient Jewish pilgrims for whom this psalm was composed was their coming close to the holiest place on earth – the Temple, the place where God chose to dwell among his people. Now, the Temple, of course, is no longer standing, and in any case, as Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4: 22, 23).
So why should we Christians get excited about visiting the Holy Land, as we in fact most definitely do? Why does the joy of the Jewish pilgrims in the psalms apply to us too? Well, in a sense, it’s for the same reason. We come to the place where God chose to dwell among his people – not symbolically, in an empty space at the heart of the Temple in the Holy of Holies, but really, by taking on our human nature and living a human life, the human life of Jesus Christ: ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us,’ as St John sums it up (John 1: 14).
We go to Nazareth, to the very spot where that great mystery took place when Our Lady said “Yes” to the angel’s promise at the Annunciation; Nazareth is also where God lived the life of a carpenter’s son as Jesus grew up. We go to Bethlehem, the place where God Incarnate came forth into the world, born poor and vulnerable amidst the animals. We go to the Sea of Galilee, the very place where Jesus called his first disciples, where he preached to vast crowds, where he walked on the waters and fed five thousand with five loaves and two fish. Most importantly of all, we go to Jerusalem, the place where the most important event in the whole history of the universe took place, to the site where God opened the gates of heaven to all humanity when he hung and died on the Cross as a common criminal, but rose again unable to be constrained by the bonds of death.
In other words, our joy at the prospect of visiting these places comes from our faith – it is joy in the reality of those saving events, which happened in human history and at particular places, places which we can still visit today – or rather, in November!