It has just turned 10.30 at night UK time on Monday 26 February. That means it’s 12.30am in Israel. The Pilgrims are back in England and some of them, like me, might even be home. It is strange to think that only this morning we were still in Tiberius.
We had all hoped, I think, that our final Eucharist together at 6.30am – just after dawn – would be at the Lakeside. We had been told on Sunday night that it would be if it were fine and I am not sure how many people, like me, looked out over the Lake as they got up and thought well it’s a bit overcast but it will be fine and rushed down. (No photos of the sunrise today I am afraid!) As I went out into the grounds I realised it wasn’t just overcast it was positively wet! So, it was back up to the room which we had been using for our meetings for the last time. Bishop Christopher celebrated and Andrew, the Dean, spoke to us. He said that the words ‘Follow me’ kept reverberating in his head and he was reminded of a book of poetry of that name given to him by an aunt when he was young. He said that he couldn’t remember why it was called that but these were a good couple of words to take away from this pilgrimage. As he said it wouldn’t overburden our suitcases, Andrew urged the Pilgrims at the Eucharist to take these words through the rest of Lent with them and to seek to work out in their own lives what it would mean to ‘Follow Jesus’ – to consider what ‘Follow me’ means in our own context, in our own lives and how we can live as those who do follow Jesus.
After the service it is time for one last breakfast at the Ron Beach. I have to say that the food there is always really good but breakfast is my favourite meal. There is so much choice of fruit and cereals that I always find it hard to know exactly what it would be good to eat. A final check of our rooms sees us boarding the coaches for the short trip to catch the boat to cross the Sea of Galilee.
It is wet as we set off and so the boat is pretty crowded as none of us want to get out of the protection of the cover over the main part of the boat. We say Morning Prayer and sail to more or less the middle of the Lake. Then the engines are cut and Patrick Eggleston, one of those who had been helping to lead the pilgrimage by looking after the red ‘Pilgrims’ coach invites us simply to be quiet as we float and to contemplate all that we have seen and heard and done.
It is always surprising to me that it is so still and quiet. It was still very early in the morning but there are fishermen’s boats about yet it is absolutely silent. Here is the middle of the Lake the surrounding land has hotels and tall buildings built all around it. There would have been nothing like that in Jesus’ time here but, although this is true, I can still feel a sense of what it must have been like here then. The hills would have been greener and far less full of buildings but the peace and the tranquillity would have been the same if not more so. And this too is a place from which people earned their living catching the fish that feeds them. In this open expanse it is easy to experience and respond to the beauty and magnificence of God’s creation and to be thankful. We sing ‘Be Still for the presence of the Lord’ and then offer our time to God in prayer and the boat sails off.
As we proceed along Bishop Christopher announces that he and the Dean have decided that they are going to make Nicole Burgum, our Diocesan Warden of Readers, a Lay Canon of Southwark Cathedral. It was clear from Nicole’s reaction that she had not known about this announcement in advance and that she was delighted. Indeed everyone was delighted to hear the news, especially the other four Readers who were on the Pilgrimage. Congratulations.
We arrive at the other side of the Lake and begin our journey to the airport but we have one last stop before we get there. We head for the remains of the Aqueduct at the beach at Caesarea Maritima. This place is not mentioned at all in the Gospels but is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles and is where Philip taught. At the beach we gather around Bishop Christopher and Bishop Karowei and there is a short act of commitment as we go home. Prayers are offered and a hymn is sung and then each Pilgrim is anointed and given a small wooden cross as a token of their pilgrimage.
In the beautiful sun against the backdrop of the Mediterranean it is a perfect place in which to round off the pilgrimage and to commit ourselves to taking home our experiences and to trying to carry them forwards in our own lives.
Lunch is a bit rushed as the trip on the Lake seems to have taken longer than expected and so we are soon on our coaches and heading for the airport.
Here ‘real life’ hit us with a bang as many of us were in the queues from the time we arrived at the airport until boarding had begun. I had planned a leisurely coffee and sit down but managed only to arrive at the gate in time get on the plane. For some of us then this was not a good end to the pilgrimage as people were stopped and held back and told to re-do parts of the exit process. Security is a necessary and helpful thing but it can be isolating and frightening and that was the experience for some of our Pilgrims and yet, in contrast, the Pilgrims who were less physically able and those travelling with them were well looked after and speeded through. Others did manage to get through more easily and to do one last bit of shopping before we boarded the plane to Heathrow.
And so now we are home. Tomorrow will be a new day and we will return to our everyday lives.
It is too early I suspect, to know how – or indeed if – the pilgrimage will have changed us. But, it is not too early to know that we are unlikely to forget all that we have seen and heard. On our last morning I chatted to two of our Pilgrims who has been on the previous pilgrimage in 2016. They both agreed that coming for a second time made it less tiring and that they had felt more able to take in and to begin to process the significance of all that they had seen and heard. They might even come on the next Diocesan pilgrimage. In visiting the Holy Land we have the chance not only to see where Jesus lived and ministered, died and rose which makes everything so much more real, but we also get to see the places today as they are now. In so doing we get to meet the Living Stones – the Christians of the land now who help to make up the Fifth Gospel of which Jerome speaks and about which the Bishop has reminded us. We were there too when something of enormous significance happened: the Holy Sepulchre Church was closed indefinitely. We may well have been some of the last people to visit it for a long while. Who knows how long this will remain the case and the effect that it will have. What we do know is that the number of Christians in the Holy Land continues to diminish and their place is more threatened than it has been – that’s why the Church Leaders have come to the conclusion that this drastic step is necessary.
As we return to our daily lives let us not forget that the daily lives of the peoples of the Holy Land is complicated and at times difficult. It is hard to see how the difficulties will be resolved but we know that our lives are in God’s hands and we can be involved by not forgetting what we have seen and heard and learned, by praying for our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land, and most especially by praying for the Peace of Jerusalem.
So that’s it, but it isn’t, it really isn’t. We are home but the story of the pilgrimage will live on. I’ll post again in a week or so, or before that if any of the Pilgrims have thoughts that they want to share as they return home. I hope they do as it would be good to hear of how they are feeling now that they are back into their more usual lives. We will meet again – or many of us will – at the reunion meeting where we will share photographs and memories. But, this journey will always be part of our shared experience and we give thanks to God for all that we have lived together in this last week.