Canon David Humphries recently agreed to be interviewed in church about his pilgrimages to the Holy Land. The interviewer was parishioner David Holmes. We hope that the interview will provide some further insight into how our pilgrimages are arranged and conducted.
I’m sure everyone here will know that our Rector conducts a pilgrimage to the Holy Land every year, and that when he comes back from one pilgrimage, a certain amount of work has to be done to prepare for the next one. Well, that being the case, we decided to ask the Rector if he would be willing to do an interview about these pilgrimages, so that the people of St Bride’s can gain a full understanding of what they’re about.
So first of all David, what is the purpose of these pilgrimages?
Pilgrimage has always been an important part of Christianity. Every single one of us here is on the pilgrimage of life. And along that pilgrimage we try to come closer to our Lord, as we live our lives in his service, and on the way we meet all sorts of Christians with whom we share fellowship and witness.
But for over 1700 years, the spiritual highlight in the lives of many Christians has been to make a Pilgrimage to the Holy Land – to see at first hand the places we read about in the Bible; to learn from the people themselves something about their culture, and therefore about the culture in which Jesus himself lived and worked.
Now a pilgrimage of this type is not for everyone – and the reasons why it is not for everyone are many and varied. Nevertheless, a pilgrimage of this type is to be encouraged.
But you know David, people will say that holy relics and lifeless stones are not a necessity for salvation.
Yes, they will say that, and they’d be quite right. But holy relics and lifeless stones are not what this spiritual journey is about. God has made us as human beings, with emotions and feelings – which can be aroused when we are in a place where our Lord has performed some great miracle, or when we sit in a boat on the Sea of Galilee as he did, or when we actually stand on the Mount of Olives and view the Holy City of Jerusalem, at the same vantage point from which he would have viewed it as he came over the hill on the donkey on Palm Sunday.
Now as I said, pilgrims have been flocking to the Holy Land for over 1700 years. The first Christian pilgrim that we know of was St Helena, who made her pilgrimage in 300AD, and let me briefly tell you her story.
At that time in history, the huge Roman Empire was in decline. It was really too big, and it was too difficult to be controlled from Rome, which was its centre. And so its enemies began to attack from the very fringes. And in fact, the Empire divided into four parts, each with its own leader.
Well, over in the western section a well-to-lady called Helena had married a Roman general who became the leader of this western part of the Empire. They had a son, whom they named Constantine.
Helena, however, was no ordinary lady – she was a Christian – one of very few Christians in that part of the Empire. And every day Helena prayed for her son who she believed would have an important part to play in the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman world.
In due course, Helena’s husband died, and her son Constantine became the ruler of the western part of the Empire. But Constantine, although not a Christian, believed that all the parts of the Empire should be reunited.
So to cut a long story short, Constantine moved his armies to Rome, to take the main part of the Empire from the Roman General Maxentius, And the opposing armies took up their positions on the outer side of the Malvian Bridge.
Helena prayed fervently that her son would triumph, for the sake of Christianity. Now the night before the Battle, Constantine slept fitfully, and he had a dream, in which he saw the sign of the Cross, and he heard the words, IN THIS SIGN, CONQUER.
Well, in the morning, he immediately ordered that the sign of the Cross be placed on the shield of every soldier, and in the centre he placed what we call the Chi-Rho – a secret symbol of the Christians which had been shown to him by his mother.
Then, just as the battle commenced, the sky grew dark, and a violent storm began, and as Constantine and his soldiers looked up, they saw in the sky the same sign that Constantine himself had seen the night before.
Inspired by this divine sign, Constantine’s army drove the opposing forces back across the Malvian Bridge, which collapsed, drowning many, including Maxentius; so Constantine won the battle, and became the Emperor of Rome.
Immediately, he began to legislate for the legalising of Christianity, and he built many churches which still stand today, in various parts of the Empire.
However, although he now professed Christianity himself, Constantine did many things which cast some doubt on whether or not he really understood what Christianity was about.
It was then that his mother, Helena, so disappointed at her Son’s behaviour, and so concerned about his wellbeing in the next life, decided to undertake a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to do penance on behalf of her son. So at the age of 73, this courageous woman journeyed from Rome to Joppa, and then to Jerusalem, where she sought out the holy sites, and built churches on those places, where other pilgrims could come and worship.
Indeed, the most holy place in the whole of Christianity, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, was built at the order of Helena, Mother of the Emperor Constantine, and the very first pilgrim to the Holy Land.
And since that time, countless millions of pilgrims have followed her example to pay homage at the place of our Lord’s Birth, Crucifixion and Resurrection, as well as many other important sites in the land.
And over the course of eleven days, my pilgrims did the same. They visited the Mount of Olives, and walking down towards Jerusalem they visited the Church of the Ascension, the Church of the Pater Noster, as well as Dominus Flevit, the place where our Lord wept over the city, and they paid a visit to the Benedictine Sisters of Sion. They visited the Garden of Gethsemane and crossed the Kidron Valley to St Peter in Gallicantu and so on. And of course, we have devotions at most of the sites, and the Eucharist is celebrated at least three times during those eleven days, and prayers are held each evening in the hotel.
Ok David, so in one sense your pilgrimage is following in the steps of Helena. But that was a long time ago. Is there anything you can do on your pilgrimage which Helena could not have done?
Oh, absolutely! Our pilgrimage is being undertaken in the modern day, in the 21st century. You see, for modern Christian pilgrims, seeing the places is only half of a Pilgrimage to The Holy Land. The other half is to visit local Christians – Christians living in The Holy Land today – to learn about how they live – to find out something of the trials and tribulations which they undergo, and about the enormous challenges which they face every day, and then to set about doing something to help them in their difficulties.
So what sort of thing did your pilgrims find out about their fellow Christian brothers and sisters living in the Holy Land?
Well, they discovered that Christians in the Holy Land have dwindled to a mere 1.5% of the population, and that they are placed under great pressure, not by the Jews, but by their Moslem neighbours. Almost all of them are Arabs, and a great many of them are Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox, and more than a few families have been Christian since the days of the very early Church. Many of them are unemployed, and live just above the poverty line. But despite their problems, they are doing great work for Christ and his Church.
I also believe, incidentally, that our pilgrims found their visit to the Holy Land a mind-broadening experience, in that, not only were they able to interact with many different types of Christian – they were able to observe the personal devotions of other Christians at the holy sites.
Of course, they interacted with Anglicans and Free Church Christians, but also with Roman Catholics and Armenian Orthodox Christians, indeed, some attended a service of the Armenian Church – an experience which was very different to anything they had witnessed before – and I think this helped them to realise that the petty squabbles with different brands of Christians here at home, about who does what in worship, are just THAT – petty squabbles, which bear no relevance to Christian living, and following our Lord.
David, this is really most interesting. Is there anything else you did there, in which we might be interested?
Well, during their time there, our pilgrims visited the Jeel Al-Amal home in the little town of Bethany, just two miles from Jerusalem. The home was founded by a Christian Palestinian, Alice Sahar. Some of the children come to Jeel during the day to get an education; many others are orphans, with the most horrific stories to tell; These children live in the home. Most of the children are Muslims, some are Christians. And I say again That Alice Sahar, now deceased, was a Christian.
Jeel Al-amal gets no state funding; It is run by voluntary subscription, and so moved were our pilgrims by what they experienced at Jeel, that they have already agreed to do everything they can to raise money to send to the home. So you see, that is the other side of Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land –Christian pilgrims need to give as well as to take – it is not a holiday that they have been on – and people tend to laugh when I say that, but it is the truth.
These eleven days are quite exhausting. Our pilgrims are up very early in the morning to grab a quick bite to eat before setting off to new places. Pilgrims undertake a spiritual journey, by which they hope to awaken the Spirit of Christ within them, that they may be more truly Christian in every sense of that word.
In the weeks to come you will hear more of this pilgrimage, and you will certainly hear more about Jeel Al-Amal. Please do ask the pilgrims about their experiences, because they will be only too willing to share them with you.
And if you too, think that you might be called to take part in a Pilgrimage of this nature, do please mention to me, because we will be back in the Holy Land, and in the not-too-distant future.
Thank you, David, for this insight—and I would just mention that the brochures for the next pilgrimage, which is next May, are on the table at the back of the Church.