I don’t envy my students for much. They can keep their Hell Week and their Hillsdating.
Yet they’ve made me jealous in one particular way: Loads of them have jetted off to Israel, traveled through the Holy Land, and come back with stories, knowledge, and — in the case of the now-married Brendan and Katie Clarey — matching tattoos.
I wanted to go as well, though not for the tattoos. Yet nobody had invited me. The Passages program, sponsored by the Philos Project and the Museum of the Bible Foundation, focuses on college students and subsidizes their trips. Since 2015, close to 200 Hillsdale students have made the trek. Another 50 will follow soon, during Christmas break. What a remarkable gift: For many, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
A handful of faculty and staff have tagged along as chaperones, but not me. I’ve just cheered on everybody, especially the students: Go, go, go.
Now I’ve returned from my own trip to Israel. Last month, I joined a group of mostly Catholic journalists and spouses on a visit that mixed educational tourism and religious pilgrimage. We received security briefings, visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, and enjoyed a Shabbat dinner at the home of a rabbi. We learned about Zionism and gained a better grasp of the Jewish roots of our Christian faith. We also met entrepreneurs, including a guy who wants to turn grasshoppers into a staple food for the whole planet. He said they’re an excellent source of protein. His samples were crunchy.
Best of all, however, were the sites. We started in Tel Aviv, walked around Nazareth, gazed into Syria from the Golan Heights, rode cable cars to the mountain fortress of Masada, and floated in the Dead Sea. We celebrated Mass everywhere from a crypt in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to the ruins of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in nearby caves.
Then there was Jerusalem, with its Temple Mount, Western Wall, Old City, and more. Benjamin Disraeli put it well: “The view of Jerusalem is the history of the world; it is more; it is the history of heaven and earth.”
In the United States, we admire buildings that have stood for a hundred years. In Jerusalem, we visited the Church of St. Anne, built in the 12th century by Crusaders and acoustically impressive today. We also walked on a Roman road, recently excavated by archaeologists but still below ground in a tunnel. Jesus probably walked on the same flagstones. Then we stood on steps that Jesus would have climbed to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Before the trip, I knew a few things about Israel. I’d read about it in the Bible, in the news, and on the entertaining blog that senior Jordyn Pair kept when Passages took her there last winter. Yet Israel remained an abstraction: a place I could summon in my imagination, but not one that I could envision from memory.
Things are different now. Last week in church, for example, our priest read a familiar passage from the Sermon on the Mount. I thought: “Been there!” Then the words transported me to the actual location, with its view of the Sea of Galilee, which in America we would call a “lake.” I didn’t go fishing like a disciple, but I did dip my toes in its waters.
For me, these biblical passages have moved from legend to reality. The Jordan River? It’s more like a creek, though it would have been bigger back in the day. The Mount of Olives? Now I know why it’s been a local landmark for millennia. The next time I read the story of Jonah, I’ll think about the shore in Jaffa, the port from which the fishy prophet began his fateful voyage.
One morning, at a spot on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, our guide pointed to the gray domes of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a few hundred yards away. He said that when Jesus hung from the cross on that site, he was probably looking right where we were standing.
Now that’s a perspective setter.
Another time, our guide pointed out the bus window: “See that hill?” he said. “That’s Tel Megiddo.” Its Greek name — and the one we use today — is Armageddon. We didn’t have time to stop because were on our way to lunch in Nazareth, which is in the hills and where the traffic is bad. As Tel Megiddo slipped from view, it seemed like a lost opportunity. Later, it felt like a reason to go back.
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