I do not say this lightly: An experience happened during my recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land which I place as among the top experiences so far during my time as a priest.
By way of context, I was blessed and tremendously grateful to have been asked to be the chaplain of a large pilgrimage to the Holy Land with SiriusXM’s own Lino Rulli and Gus Lloyd. Over 90 pilgrims joined us as we toured the land of Emmanuel, where Jesus walked and continues to walk. We spent time at Caesaria Maritima, the Sea of Galilee (including a boat ride on the Sea), Nazareth, Capernaum, Mount Tabor, Bethlehem, the Mount of Olives, the Upper Room, and other places. In each place the Bible came alive in new ways.
However one aspect of the pilgrimage struck me repeatedly. As I was blessed to be able to celebrate the Mass in different locations, I could not help but notice one important feature about the liturgical books for each site. Typically a votive Mass was offered in these places that called to mind the Scripture story that took place there.
In these places, the prayers and Scriptures were modified such that they emphasized the location. For example, at the place of The Annunciation, the texts referred to the Word becoming flesh, HERE. The Transfiguration on Mount Tabor referred to the glory of the Lord being made visible on THIS mountain. The Last Supper was celebrated HERE in the Upper Room. Every time one of these words would arise in the liturgy, they were presented in bold and all capitals so that we would not forget where we were and what had happened there. That led to a few emotional moments during the Masses as it hit me what had happened and Who had been present at that place.
But then, as I mentioned at the top, came one of the most moving events in my time as a priest.
I celebrated Mass at the site of the Holy Sepulcher, at The. Tomb. It was HERE that sin was defeated. All of history was changed forever, HERE. It was HERE that death lost and eternal life won. It was HERE that hope was poured out and love triumphed.
It is HERE that Jesus rose from the dead.
I don’t know how I held it together as I presided at that Mass. I could only imagine that it was a good amount of grace. It will take me a while to process what happened to me in that place, as HERE I reverenced the stone of the tomb at the beginning and the end of Mass, and Jesus became present once again in the Eucharist in the place where he rose in triumph.
All I know is that something changed in me. Somehow the Resurrection (which I believe and hold onto to the core of my being) became more real to me. Hope became more firm. Because of the Love that triumphed HERE, in that Tomb, I have, as the liturgy for funerals says, “a sure and certain hope” that my ultimate resting place is not in a tomb but in the Father’s house. And if I stay close to Jesus, who was and is victorious HERE, then his victory is also mine. It’s ours.
Again, this is not anything that I didn’t know before. And the same Jesus is every bit as present in my own land as he is in Jerusalem. But there was something about the tangible reality of that now empty piece of stone that affected me deeply. Perhaps St. Paul says it the best:
Death has been swallowed up in victory,
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?
Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
(1 Cor. 15.54b,55,57)
HERE is the place of victory. Not just in a cold stone 10,000 km away, but HERE, offered to you and me.