Pilgrimage adds new resonance to Bible stories
By Stephen Duckett
August 10 2018Stephen Duckett reflects on his recent visit to the Holy Land and how it has transformed his relationship with the Bible.
In May of this year I had the opportunity to travel to Israel, Palestine, Turkey and Greece as part of a three-week study tour organised by the Chicago-based Catholic Theological Union.
One cannot but be affected by an experience such as this. It is not possible to hear or read the Bible the same way again. The places mentioned in the Bible become real and one feels closer to the writers and events described. There were four main ways in which the study tour affected me and deepened my faith.
Firstly, just walking around cities where Jesus and Paul were, brings you closer to both. I, like many thousands before me, have photos of my feet on a Roman road in Sepphoris where Jesus is likely to have walked and on the streets of Ephesus where Paul walked. Standing in the synagogue in Magdala one can easily imagine Jesus standing there preaching to the small audience. Walking and standing in these places somehow brings you closer to Jesus and Paul. Paul’s letter to the assemblies in Corinth and Ephesus seem to come to life when read in those very locations (as we did).
Secondly, I began to understand better the geography of the stories, and hence got a better feel for the context of the Gospels. Climbing Mount Arbel and looking out over the Sea of Galilee, I was struck by how small the whole area was, and how close the various towns were to each other. One could easily imagine how Jesus might have travelled on his mission around the towns on the shores of Galilee.
Thirdly was a reinforcement of my previous book-based biblical and archaeological studies. We spent a lot of time in sites mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures (so much so that I complained about being “Canaanited out”), to help us understand where archaeology is able to confirm the biblical stories (or not). As far as New Testament sites were concerned, an important distinction made was between evidenced sites, where the archaeological and other evidence suggested this was the actual site where a biblical event or story took place, compared to “commemorative sites” which were maybe somewhere near a site where an event or story took place, but there is no evidence that the story or event took place at that precise site. We visited both types of sites, of course.
Fourthly, the experience of travelling in a community of faith is very rewarding. We would start each day on the bus with prayer, and sometimes a hymn. At almost every site we had a reading of the relevant Scripture and then we saw what was being described with our own eyes, or imagined the events in a much more realistic away. Hearing the stories in the places where they are said to have occurred makes one feel almost part of those stories. The stories became part of all of us.
We celebrated the Eucharist in many wonderful settings – including at Tabtha, a commemorative site for the feeding of the 5000, and of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. These were quite powerful experiences. We had discussions on the bus about how our parishes worked, and our life experiences. We also had time for fun including swimming in the Dead Sea.
Because it was a study tour those of us taking up the credit had to make a presentation at one site – starting with a New Testament verse or passage and discussing aspects of the site and the context. We had fascinating presentations on food, on purification laws, water generally, and on the culture of the times.
The cumulative effect was immense. The tour drew me closer to the Bible and the places have so much more resonance for me now, and I feel closer to all of them. If you have the opportunity to undertake such a study tour it is highly commended.
Dr Stephen Duckett is Vicar’s Warden at St Peter’s Eastern Hill and enrolled in an MA in theology at the Chicago Theological Seminary. He is also the Health Program Director at the Grattan Institute.
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