During 2010-2015 the Light of Torah ministry, in collaboration with MennoJerusalem Bible Lands Tours and Harvest Pilgrimages, held an annual 19-day tour of Israel and the Palestinian territories.
While coronavirus makes it impossible to plan a tour in the foreseeable future, you may like to know a little about our past efforts.
The Light of Torah Holy Land experience is an educational and inspirational journey, exploring the biblical text 'in context': the Land, the People, the Book.
A feature of this tour is its attention to the deep connections between Judaism and Christianity. Walking in the steps of Jesus we become aware of his Jewish identity and the traditions that formed him. We touch the sacramentality of the Land and taste the Scriptures as living texts. We listen to the stories of this unique place on earth, its peoples and their struggles.
For those in Sydney, the tour involves four preparatory gatherings and one follow-up session. Suitable reading material is provided for those geographically out of reach of these gatherings.
The tour is suitable as a renewal program for teachers, pastoral leaders and parishioners active in ministry with a desire to deepen their biblical awareness.
A sojourn in the Holy Land is a special kind of connection with the message of Christmas. To sink one’s feet into holy ground—where Word became flesh—is an awesome moment in a Christian’s life.
And the impact is as unique as each pilgrim. A friend of mine says he wept upon entering the Old City of Jerusalem for the first time: ‘All my life I’d been praying psalms like “And now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem (Ps.122:2),” and suddenly I was actually standing there.’
Another friend recalls a special moment in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. Still another is fascinated by an archaeological find at Ginosar. And another can’t stop talking about the food.
But for me, it’s simply the earth. The landscape. Those great biblical panoramas which have been home to peoples over millennia. Certainly it is a setting that bears the wounds of conflict. And it can be punishingly hot.
But there, in the raw beauty of the natural landscape, a mystery speaks. It whispers that these rocks matter. Dust and rocks and grapevines and olive branches matter.
For our God entered human history; entered not simply an idea or a spirituality, but a time and place. A place we can point to on a map. And even go to. HaMakom, ‘the place’ in Hebrew, is a way of referring to God. The Word became flesh and, in a certain sense, continues to be enfleshed in this Land and its peoples, in their longings and loves, tensions and tears.
Yet, while Christians in the Holy Land are acutely conscious of their diminishing numbers(1), most Catholics in Australia do not feel the ‘pull’ of the Land in their religious lives. They are content to spiritualize their faith to the point of not needing to make that visit. There is no dream of being physically present within the gates of Jerusalem.
And I can understand that. Not least because that Place is far away. It’s expensive to get there. Heck, for much of my life Melbourne (one day’s drive) was the extent of my travel budget. Why yearn for a destination that is unattainable? And besides, isn’t it dangerous over there?
Then, through the grace of God and to my utter surprise, I was able to travel to the Holy Land several times in recent years; and not just on the tourist circuit but through deeply meaningful experiences that have changed my prayer, my ministry, my relationships, my life.
These days I harbour a deep respect and fascination for the Holy Land, for its eloquence as an expression of the biblical and sacramental depths of faith. How important it is to foster in our Catholic people a connection with the Land where our faith story began—not only 2000 years ago in the Bethlehem of the Gospels, but in more ancient times portrayed by the Hebrew Scriptures.
It is a ministry in itself to actively help as many as possible to make that journey at some point in their lifetime. At the very least, to implant the dream.
Christmas is a special time to draw upon and share memories of the Holy Land, if we are privileged to have them. Not as a tourist travelogue, but as a sacred storytelling and as a prayer for peace.
And even if we have never set foot within the gates of Jerusalem, or the waters of the Jordan, what is most precious is our longing to do so. *