Fr. Innocent Abonyi, MSP
My trip to the holy land was a journey into the hidden secrets of Jerusalem, an exciting journey to the wonders of the past. It was Bible and sacred tradition brought to life …
I woke up at 6.00 am on Monday 12th of November, 2018. At about 9.00 pm that same day, our plane touched down at the Ben Gurion airport, Tel Aviv. We marched out of Arrivals, straight into the white, luxurious bus of Laila Tours and Travel, and we met an able tour guide whose name was Caroline Nichodemu, a lovely and knowledgeable lady, in her sixties. It was heart warming to find that the agile, lively and friendly courier knew quite a lot about England, having lived in London sometime ago. She also has some knowledge of Nigeria, where I was born. I felt at home with her instantly. She argued with me on virtually everything ranging from theology, history, politics and contested all my views on things including my own partialities and preferences. I loved her openness and conviction on things.
A group of 30 from England had embarked on this journey organized by Tangney Tours, our parish’s favourite Pilgrimage Tour company. It was the very first pilgrimage to the Holy Land we had organised since I came to Gravesend in 2013; and my first ever trip to the land of Jesus's birth. And for the seven days, we combed the cities and countryside of modern Israel and Palestine and visited the rich biblical and historical sites.
We arrived at Golan Heights, checked into our Hotel and had a lovely supper. A good breakfast in the morning started the day off very well and began what would become an epic adventure. Our day began with a trip to the sea of Galilee known as “Lake Tiberias”. We sailed on the Sea of Galilee. Yes, we sailed. We prayed. We danced on a wooden boat that since time immemorial was referred to as “the Jesus boat”. Everyone showed off their dancing abilities. It felt like we were in an Irish Pub, even though we all as sober as judges! I had the honour of hoisting and saluting the British flag. The DJ played popular Nigerian gospel songs. I felt as if Jesus was practically sitting next to me on the boat.
From there, we headed to the place where Jesus fed five thousand. We had a good fish supper there. Again, it felt like a good proportion of the fish that Jesus prayed over to produce the great miracle of feeding the five thousand men.
Other places we visited included: Cana of Galilee as already reported, the city where Jesus performed his first miracle by turning water into wine at a wedding. From a nearby shop, we bought the Cana of Galilee wine, mustard seed, olive oil and other souvenirs. Didn’t they say that if wishes were horses, beggars would ride? What if wishes were bridges? Anyone, no matter his infirmity or incapability, would walk across it. We didn't feel like leaving that lovely place, especially after a glass or two of Cana wine! The rest of the day wound up slowly: rest, dinner, fellowship and bed.
On Tuesday morning, we were up with the lark at 6.00 am and day two began with breakfast. By 8 am, we were on the move. The road was deserted as we travelled to Nazareth Village, a replica of the ancient biblical community of Nazareth where livestock is reared, and crops are grown, harvested and processed in warehouses. The sights included: an olive press mill, weaver’s loom, the carpentry tools of Joseph, shepherds and their herd, men and women garbed in robes and camel sandals in keeping with the “fashion” of the time of Jesus. Food in Nazareth Village–– a typical first-century meal––evoked visions from the bible. It was interesting seeing the real-life perspective of events recorded in the scripture.
Of course, we could not forget the River Jordan as part of our itinerary. When I saw the opaque, murky water of the River Jordan, I felt exhilarated. I watched as people dressed in white were baptized. I could not get baptized because our Mother Church does not allow two baptisms or a second baptism in one's life time. I watched, reflected and prayed.
Though we arrived in its vicinity from Tel Jericho by bus, we could not climb the Mount of Temptation, the mountain where Jesus fasted for 40 days; we just watched and had some photographs taken. Before then we had been to the Mount of Transfiguration and we went to the very summit of that mountain. The view from the peak was breath- taking, a picturesque panorama that is a seamless tapestry of the city and its surrounding countryside.
We visited the Nativity Church in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. Inside the grotto was the manger, Christ’s birthplace and to the right, an altar dedicated to the three wise men who came to worship the newborn. Getting inside the grotto was hard work: We were sweating, after a fair bit of shuffling in the queue. Each pilgrim took turns to go in and say a brief prayer, hence our long wait. Other places we were introduced to in Bethlehem were the: Shepherds’ Field, where the angels announced Christ’s birth to the shepherds and the place where Ruth met Boaz.
In Jerusalem, we walked in the footsteps of Jesus––the temple he visited countless times; the Garden of Gethsemane where he prayed the night he was arrested; the House of Caiaphas, where he was first tried and spent the night in the dungeon; the streets he passed through bearing his cross to Golgotha.
You couldn’t claim to have been to Jerusalem without visiting the Wailing Wall to pray and carefully tuck your written prayer request in the crevices on the wall. Tourists, pilgrims and people from all over the world trooped in to pray and touch the magnificent Western Wall. We viewed Jerusalem’s most dramatic monument, a journey into the hidden secrets of Jerusalem and an exciting journey to the wonders of the past, the present and the future of Israel’s capital. It was deeply loved. I made two visits to this holy and historic place.
Our journey between Jericho and Jerusalem was took the form of a half hour bus ride. We saw plenty of olive, grape and lemon trees. The most exciting sight was the sycamore tree that Zacchaeus climbed to catch a glimpse of Jesus. Our driver drove through the deserts and we had a good view of hills, mountains, and valleys, a sight that leaves one in awe of God.
It was strictly a spiritual expedition for our lovely group. As a first-time visitor, the beauty of Jerusalem––architecture, road networks and the serenity of the city amazed me. I wanted to know if the experience were the same for all pilgrims to the Holy Land.
I looked at my pilgrimage from two angles, academic and spiritual. I was a lecturer in my Order's seminary in Nigeria before coming to England. I have also lectured in a Novitiate where Nuns are trained or formed. There are lots of things you teach in theory, you then travel to the Holy Land and see this in reality. Some of the details, one may never find in the Bible. As for the spiritual aspect, I was very much uplifted and found that if one travels with the right people, the pilgrimage is enhanced beyond our understanding.
During those seven days, my Bible was transformed into a vivid reality. We shall organise another parish pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2020. Please start saving up now, it is an opportunity not to be missed.
Fr. Innocent Abonyi, MSP