Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Destination Holy Land: Faith reinvigorated

By Father Erik Esparza
Parochial Vicar, St. Joseph, Barstow

Journal Entries Provided by Father Esparza as he goes on pilgrimage through the Holy Land along with 40 other pilgrims from the Diocese of San Beranrdino, including Bishop Gerald Barnes.

Day 10

Today we were up bright and early just as the sun was coming up to lighten the new day. At 5:30am we met to load the bus to proceed to pray the Way of the Cross also known as the Via Dolorosa. We began at the known location where Jesus was condemned to die (Lk 23:25). Together as one group we were to travel the way that led to Jesus' crucifixion and death on the Cross. We carried a large wooden cross, something not even close nor as heavy to what our Lord Jesus endured.  Four at a time, we took turns carrying the cross as we walked the city streets. We would come to stops along the way to commemorate and pray the Stations of the Cross. Each step we took, led us one step closer to the place where Jesus would give it all.  The last four Stations are marked inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. And so we entered and ascended a very steep staircase high above the main floor of the Church. We came to a Chapel that marks in glorious fashion, the Place of the Skulls, the very space our Lord Jesus breathed His last (Mk 15:37). One by one we lowered ourselves to climb under an altar to touch and to be touched once more by the Sacrifice of God's only Son. The scripture passage that so eloquently speaks of this climatic event is a one that we are all so familiar with. It is the famous John 3:16, "God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that those who believe in Him will not perish, but might have eternal life."

Bishop Barnes and others leading us
in prayer along the Via Dolorosa.
Morning Mass was to be there at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and was to begin promptly at 7:00am and conclude by 7:30am to accommodate the next group. We were blessed to have celebrated the Mass just feet away from where Christ was crucified and was left to die on the Cross. At a side altar, we all gathered close to one another in the small space to celebrate that same sacrifice of Christ. Bishop Barnes was the celebrant and homilist for the Mass. He reminded us that it was out of love that Christ died and that we always needed to remember and to remind others that we are the reason for Christ's great sacrifice. We need to continue being a people of Hope. Our Mass time together went by very quickly, but we had experienced the love of Christ once more in the breaking of the bread.

After Mass we journeyed back by foot to the hotel where breakfast awaited us. The rest of the morning was given to us as some free time. It wasn't until 11am that we needed to gather at the bus.

At 11am it was time to venture once more into the town of Bethlehem. This time we were set to meet some faculty and staff at the University of Bethlehem. We were welcomed and invited to share in a tasty meal served by the students of the University's Hotel and Restaurant Management Program. At each table, a student from the University shared a few things about themselves and the University. At our table was a twenty-one year old fourth year student from Jerusalem named Wala. She was very eloquent and shared openly about the experiences of her life. She was also a Muslim student attending a Catholic University. She spoke about the openness of the campus and that one of her best friends is a Christian. Bethlehem University prides itself on being a welcoming and embracing University that prepares the new leaders for the next generation. It really looks to provide people with hope especially for the Palestinian people. After lunch we watched a short but moving video about the University. When the video was completed, the students introduced themselves and opened themselves up for questions. Our time together was so enlightening and truly gave all of us pilgrims hope. We were once again reminded that part of our journey was much more than the Holy Sites, it was being able to share and pray for the other holy part of this land, the people!

We made just one last stop at a local business on the way back into Jerusalem. On display there is one of the found jars once containing some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Such a piece of history just stumbled upon by Shepherds not too long ago and now a lasting memory for the family that purchased them and now for the whole world. Our time there also afforded us one last opportunity to shop for memories to take home from the town of Bethlehem.

We arrived at the Hotel for the last time and our very last night in Jerusalem and the entire Holy Land. We shared our last dinner at the Notre Dame Hotel. The hotel staff thanked us for our stay by presenting us with a yummy Cake. It was now time to sleep. Thank you to Jerusalem and to the surrounding areas for such a wonderful and unforgettable experience.

And thank you Jesus for the memories!

Day 11

The day had come, our last day in the Holy Land! Throughout our time, Sr. Sarah came saying to us all, "Can you believe we are in the Holy Land!" Now she was saying, "I can't believe it's our last day here!" Many of us were just not ready to return home. Yet, we knew we couldn't stay, in essence we needed to leave the mountain top and return home. We needed to tell the story of the Holy Land and her people. We needed to share our renewed faith back home. Despite the sadness of having to say goodbye, we knew we had one more day together.

We brought our luggage down from our rooms to prepare for our departure. We then ate our last meal at the Notre Dame Hotel. After breakfast, we waited in the lobby for our bags to be loaded so we could begin our trek back to Tel Aviv airport. On our way to airport we were going to make a few stops.

Our first stop was near Jerusalem. It was the birthplace of St. John the Baptist and where the Virgin Mary would have visited her cousin Elizabeth who was already in her sixth month of pregnancy (Lk 1:36ff). Outside of the Church written in many languages was the prayer of Zachariah. Found in the Gospel of Luke (1:68ff), it was the prayer of blessing spoken by Zachariah upon the regaining of his voice after the birth of his son whom he was to name John. We entered the Church and spent some time in prayer.

The next stop was a sad one. Our tour guide, Johnny, was leaving us. He was a great guide who taught us much about the Holy Land and always did it with a smile on his face. We were very thankful for his knowledge and love. He was not leaving us abandoned, his father Simon, who also is a tour guide and taught Johnny much about the tour business would join us. We said our goodbyes and waved so long to someone very special to us. Thank you Johnny for the memories!

Fawz our bus driver continued with us and now led by Simon we went to our next stop. We stopped further outside Jerusalem at a convent in an area that is known to have at one time kept hidden the beloved Ark of the Covenant before King David took it to Jerusalem. It was such a beautiful and peaceful place. We went for lunch in the same area and sat outside in a wonderful outdoor garden. And after enjoying a bite to eat, we headed for the City of Joppa.

In the City of Joppa we visited the Church of St. Peter and the home of Simon, the Tanner, along the breathtaking view of the Mediterranean Sea. Although very hot and humid, we spent some time in the very place where we read in the Acts of the Apostles that Peter ministered after the Resurrection. It is there in Joppa where Peter raised Tabitha from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:36ff) and while living with Simon the Tanner, Peter received a vision telling him that what the Lord gives and blesses is not to be called profaned or unclean (Acts 10:9ff). This vision opened the door for the first gentile baptism of the man named Cornelius and his entire household in nearby town of Caesarea (Acts 10:45ff).

Next to the Church of St. Peter was a Franciscan monastery with a very tiny Chapel where we would as one group, for the last time, celebrate the Eucharist together. In a small circle we gathered close to our Spiritual Guide, Bishop Barnes around the altar of the Lord to reflect on the Word of God and to be nourished by the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus. We were invited to ponder and reflect over a word or phrase that could begin to encompass our entire experience. As we went around sharing those thoughts with the group, it affirmed the life changing experience each of us had. The challenge left for us to reflect: where do we go from here and what will we do with this awesome experience? The answer can only be given in time.

At last, we shared our final meal together at a restaurant in Tel Aviv called Abu Nassar Hinnawi. It was at dinner that each of us, one by one, revealed to the whole group who had been our secret prayer pal during the whole pilgrimage. Prayer was such an important part of this pilgrimage. We learned to never underestimate the power of prayer.

Laughter, joy, and love filled the tables as we shared our experiences. The final part of our last meal together, left us giving thanks and gifts to the two special people among us that brought the whole experience together, Bishop Gerald Barnes and Lady Mary Gabriela Farrell. As a group we had the joy of spending twelve amazing days with two amazing persons. Thank you Bishop Barnes and Ms. Farrell for making this experience possible! With dinner completed, we took our last bus ride to the Tel Aviv Airport. For one last time, we unloaded our bags from the bus and said our goodbyes to Simon and our amazing driver Fawz. It was time to return home.

Day 12

As I write this twelfth and final day, we are on a flight heading back to where our journey all began in Los Angeles. It is still so difficult to fully encompass and realize all that we have experienced in our pilgrimage. The numerous places we traveled and the special people we met along the way. It was just twelve days ago we left as strangers going to a faraway place and to an unknown people, but now we return as friends coming back with stories from a journey and a people that have forever changed our lives. Our time in the Holy Land was not full of fear nor disappointment, but one of hope and excitement for the future peace of our Savior's homeland.

We are so thankful to the countless individuals, families, groups, and parish communities that prayed for us on the journey. Your prayerful support kept us safe, provided us an amazing experience, and brought us home a changed people. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

If any of you who are reading this now are ever given the opportunity to go to the Holy Land, please don't pass on it. But for those who may never go, know from this pilgrim, that it is all so true! Know that indeed our God sent His only Son Jesus to be born of a Virgin named Mary. Know that Jesus did live and walk this very earth. Know that Jesus taught us in unexpected ways the will of God. And know that Jesus our Lord died for our sins only to be resurrected to provide us new hope and everlasting life. Oh, it is true indeed!

May our loving God bless you and your families forever, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit!

Amen.

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