Dear Readers, I just came back from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. As some of you probably know, this trip can have a profound effect on a person’s soul. Fr. Victor asked me to write about some of the experiences I had, both externally and internally.
The holiness of the sites we visited was indisputable, but I must admit that one of the greatest blessings I had on this journey was the company of the other travelers in our group. I was touched by the goodness, the friendliness, and the faith of each one of them. Each meal that we shared, each passing conversation that we had, was a lesson on what it means to be a Christian. I will always be grateful for having met these wonderful members of the Body of Christ.
One of our fellow travelers was Fr. Balufu Basekela. He lived for many years in Rome, and finally spent the previous two decades of his life as a parish priest in a diocese in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a place quite different and far away from his native Congo. He had just retired and the Parish had given him this trip as a gift for his years of service. He seemed to love every minute of the trip. His camaraderie, his humble, pleasant way was a joy to us all.
The Holy Land displays a large collection of ruins and stones, both large and small, from century upon century of construction and destruction. It reminds us of the instability, even insignificance, of the things we humans give ourselves credit for.
The Gospel for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary time points to this phenomenon : “While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, Jesus said, ‘ All that you see here — the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.’” (Lk 21:5-6)
In Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is built over the sites where our Lord Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected from the dead, is another example of the impermanence of human works. The place is a sprawling complex of chapels, rotundas, domes, and fragments thereof, built , destroyed, and rebuilt over the centuries. At the heart of the church is the Aedicule, a small all-marble chapel divided into two chambers. It was last rebuilt in the early 1800’s over the believed remains of the cave where Jesus was buried.
To enter within, one stoops through a small, ornate entrance into a rectangular(or was it octagonal?) space called the Chapel of the Angels . It is believed to be the place where the shattered stone that sealed the entrance to Jesus’ tomb once lay, and angels stood over it in power and joy. A fragment of that original stone is said to be in there, but I was in too much awe of the place to remember . The marble walls had been sculpted into the semblance of folds of curtains, plants, and little angels all around.
All 33 of us barely fitted inside this cramped space, with a small stone table in the center for celebrating the Mass, with everyone standing up. This was no place for persons who suffer from claustrophobia, but nobody complained . Fr. Charles, our guide, and Fr. Balufu were our celebrants. While the Liturgy of the Word was taking place all of us would shift our place so that 3-by-3 , we could crawl through the tiny entrance to the next chamber and spend a few seconds there. This chamber cannot comfortably accommodate more than 3 people at a time.
On one of the marble walls there is a small window which gives us a glimpse of the original limestone tomb-cave . On the other wall is a stone shelf for priests to celebrate the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Beneath the shelf there is a centuries-old horizontal marble slab, less than two feet off the ground, which is believed to cover and protect the actual slab of rock where Jesus rested, and two days later opened His eyes and sat up full of Glory, Power, and Love for us!
Two thousand years later, we knelt on this stone and had our short personal moment with Him. His Presence was overwhelming. The desire was to remain there , with your face to the rock and just stay for God knows how long ( Eternity?). However, there were good people waiting outside with whom you had to share this blessing. The experience was so powerful and satisfying that it did not matter that it was so brief.
After everyone was finally back in the Chapel of the Angels, the two priests went into the burial chamber and proceeded with the Liturgy of the Eucharist. They came back out and gave us the Host, and then we had to leave. There were hundreds of people waiting in line to get in there.
Later that day, four of us were sitting with Fr. Balufu at a small table in an Arab luncheonette having some food. We engaged in small talk, and shared our life stories with each other. At one point one of us commented on the time at the Holy Sepulcher and I found myself telling Fr. Balufu, “Wow, what an experience it must have been for you as a priest to consecrate the Host in the place where Jesus resurrected!” He became serious, almost sad, his eyes still back there, and commented, “What I felt the most was how small I was, how insignificant, before the greatness of God. I felt humbled.” We just sat there quietly for a while in the light of this holy man’s company. I had tears in my eyes and a faint smile in my face as I nibbled on the falafel sandwich.
A couple of weeks ago back in Jamaica, Queens, at Mass, we read from the Book of Wisdom something that can help me appreciate that moment, and the mystery of the Passion and Resurrection, for that matter: “ Before the Lord the whole universe is as a grain from a balance or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.
But You have mercy on all, because You can do all things; and You overlook people’s sins that they may repent. For You love all things that are and loathe nothing that You have made.” (Wisdom 11: 22-24a)
By Orlando Hernández