Pilgrim Joy


   One of my most beloved Psalms (Ps. 84) , speaks of the joy of going to the Temple of the Lord, because He is present there. The second stanza reads:           “Blessed are those who find refuge in You,/ in their hearts are pilgrim roads./ as they pass through the Baca Valley , they find spring water to drink./                                            The early rain covers it with blessings./ They will go from strength to strength and see God in Zion.”   

 Over the last few weeks the Responsorial Psalms have also expressed this feeling of almost unbound happiness. Psalm 98 sings :           “The Lord comes to rule the earth with justice./ Sing praise to the Lord with the harp,/ with the harp and melodious song/                                    with trumpets and the sound of the horn./ Sing joyfully before the King, the LORD.”   

 On the feast of Christ the King, and on the First Sunday of Advent we read psalm 122:          “I rejoiced because they said to me,/ ‘we will go up to the house of the Lord.’/ And now we have set foot/ within your gates, O Jerusalem./    Jerusalem, built as a city/  with compact unity. To it the tribes go up, / the tribes of the LORD.”         

On the first day of our pilgrimage in Jerusalem, I was already drained, both mentally and physically, by the middle of the day. We had started by walking a long distance from the Jaffa Gate of the old walled city, to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The experiences at the sites of Golgotha and the Tomb of Jesus had been long and intense, with no chance to sit down. We walked an even longer distance to St. Stephen’s Gate (where this saint was martyred), picked up our olive-wood crosses and trudged all the way back uphill to the Holy Sepulcher, through heavily crowded alleyways, with shops of all kinds, and dozens of pilgrim groups competing for prayer space at each Station of the Cross.

By the time we got to the last Station, under a hot sun, I could not even make out the words of the priest. My feet were going into cramps; so was my back. I even dared to pray, “Beloved Lord, is this what You mean by my sharing in Your sufferings?”      

I was ready to go back to the hotel and put my jet-lagged body to sleep, when our guide told us that we were to walk to the Western Wall, in the Jewish Quarter, on the opposite corner of the Old City, where the bus would then pick us up. So we dragged our feet through more winding alleyways and markets, until we got to the line at the tunnel where the entrance and the security checkpoint was located. This was not easy for me, but on my last trip to the Holy Land I never had a chance to visit this great space, where people worship at the huge wall that is all that remains of the ancient, sacred Jewish Temple. So, even though I could hardly keep my body moving, I was not about to miss this chance.   

 We emerged from the large tunnel and found ourselves in a vast open area, so large that the people in the huge multitude had decent space to move about. And move about they did. The activity, the energy within the place was contagious and my fatigue suddenly disappeared. The high and wide retaining wall of the elevated Temple Mount loomed before us. I had expected a quiet, solemn, environment ( the “Wailing” Wall), filled with morose, bearded old men clad in black, rocking in quiet prayer.

Instead, the atmosphere felt more like that of a Rock-n-roll festival. Most of the people were in their 40’s or younger. Most of them were dressed in white, or light colors, wearing shining white yarmulkes. There were teenagers all over the place.   

 I went to the sprawling men’s side, making my way to the Wall. A sort of palisade separated this area from the women’s side. Every foot of the palisade was taken up by women and girls, who had climbed up and were waving, cheering, and calling out what I later realized were names.  Cloth canopies held by four poles at each corner moved throughout the crowd. There were men all over, singing, or playing trumpets, shofars, drums, clarinets, and  saxophones, which could scarcely be heard in the din all around. I was suddenly struck by the Holy Spirit that rained invisibly and powerfully upon this holy place and all of us.The feeling was overwhelming. I shook my head. I laughed. I sang. I felt like a kid!    

 I finally made it to the huge stones of the limestone wall, but every time I was about  to approach and slip my little paper (full of prayers for so many people) in the space between two stones, a young teenager would slip in front of me and begin to pray and move vigorously at the spot. I finally got a place to pray, and pray I did. Wow!  

   Singing to myself the songs from my prayer group, I wound my way back to the meeting place of our group, and when I looked at the beaming faces of my fellow pilgrims I was reminded of another Psalm.Psalm 126: “ When the Lord restored the captives of Zion,/ we thought we were dreaming./ Then our mouths were filled with laughter;/ our tongues sang for joy./ Then it was said among the nations,/ the Lord has done great things for them.” (vv: 1-2)     We who had been so tired left the place as if dancing…..I love You. I love You, Holy Spirit, God of Light and Joy!     

I approached our rather curt guide and asked him what was going on. He answered, “ Bar-mitzva Day. Thursdays they come to celebrate Bar-mitzva.” I realized the place had been filled by families that were welcoming their young men into their community of the People of God. We had been in the middle of a feast.    

 Then, as we crossed the bridge over the excavations of the ruins of the “City of David” (yes, the one in the Second Book of Samuel), we encountered family after family coming into the area. Musical instruments played. Mothers walked proudly. Fathers and sons held up the poles. Under each canopy a young man walked with his head up high. These boys looked like young Davids, young warriors (which in a few years they would become, as they were enrolled in military duty). I wished them well. I prayed for them.   

 Psalm 122 ends like this:             “ Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!/ May those who love you prosper!/ May peace be within your walls,/ prosperity in your buildings/ because of my brothers and friends/ I will say, “Peace be within you!’/                        Because of the house of the Lord, our God, / I will pray for your good.”

Orlando Hernández

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