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Encountering Christ in the Holy Land Print
Guest column
Thursday, Apr. 12, 2018 -- 12:00 AM

Word on Fire
Msgr. Kevin Holmes

Editor's note: Following is a slightly edited version of a homily given by Msgr. Kevin Holmes, pastor of the Cathedral Parish in Madison, on Good Friday, March 30.

As many of you know, I was privileged to spend the first two weeks of this Lent on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

After I got back, Marc Laudonio -- on the parish staff -- asked me an interesting question, namely: "Rome or Jerusalem? If you could visit only one, which would you choose?"

Hard question. I've been able to visit Rome a number of times; this was my first visit to Jerusalem, so Jerusalem might have been more exciting on that count. I didn't want that to prejudice my answer.

Why Rome is special

So I thought about it for a few moments, and then I told Marc: "Well, Rome has more different kinds of interesting things . . . one can encounter there a whole company of saints, first of all, the tombs of Peter and Paul; but so many other saints as well: the tombs of those who have died there; the relics of others, which were taken to Rome after the fact; the places where so many saints have lived and worked.

Then, in an entirely different category, you have the whole artistic and architectural heritage of Rome -- Michelangelo and Bernini and all the rest.

And then there's also the living reality of Rome as the center of the Catholic world -- the opportunity to see the pope, and to take part in the great liturgies with Religious, priests, seminarians, and the faithful in great numbers from all over the world!

So . . . if you want a trip that offers you a rich sampling of the whole patrimony of the Church, you can't beat Rome.

Encountering the Person  of Christ in Holy Land

But . . . if you want a pilgrimage on which you can encounter the Person of the Lord Jesus . . . go to Jerusalem. That was my experience. The great grace of a visit to the Holy Land is that one is confronted with the concrete reality of the Lord's life with us in this world.

It's not that prior to my pilgrimage I would have denied the reality of the Lord's life in this world. Not one Catholic in 100,000 doubts that Jesus was a real historical figure. Not one Catholic in 100,000 would reduce Jesus to a myth -- a literary invention of the New Testament authors. You might find a few theology professors who would do that, but no normal people make that mistake.

We don't doubt the reality of the life of Jesus, but we have a certain temptation to think of Him as an idea or an ideal; a certain temptation to think that what is important is the ethical perfection of the Gospel; a certain temptation to think that what the Lord taught is more important than His Person.

This is the grace of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land: one is confronted with the concrete reality of the Person of Christ.

"And here the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us." Those words are inscribed at Nazareth, over the place of the Annunciation. The Annunciation did not take place in a Renaissance drawing room, at which the Blessed Mother was reading a leather-bound copy of the Psalms. No, it took place in a dwelling built out from a cave, in a little hamlet of perhaps 200 people in the Galilean hills.

"Can any good come from Nazareth?" The sarcastic question of Nathaniel now makes perfect sense to me. In the Holy Land, one encounters the reality of the Person of Christ.

Encountering His sufferings

And to encounter the Person of Christ is, above all, of course, to encounter His sufferings, which we solemnly commemorate today. On my recent pilgrimage, I was very surprised at the profound effect one place associated with the Lord's Passion had on me. It is a place not directly mentioned in the accounts of the Passion. Frankly, it is a place whose existence had never occurred to me.

But if we think about the events of the Passion, its existence can be inferred. In the Passion according to John, which we have just heard, we are told that after the Lord's arrest on Holy Thursday night, he was taken first to Annas, who interrogated him, then to the house of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year.

"Then," we read, "they brought Jesus from Caiaphas to the pretorium; it was morning." Suddenly, it's morning! What happened to the rest of the night?

We're not told that Caiaphas stayed up all night interrogating Jesus. So what was the Lord doing for the rest of that night . . . the last night of his mortal life?

Jesus kept in a dungeon

The location of the house of Caiaphas is known. The house has been excavated. Under the house has been found a stone pit about as large as a good-sized bedroom with a stone floor, stone walls. And in the first century, the only access to the room was an opening (like a doorway) about 15 feet off the floor.

This was the dungeon where Caiaphas kept his prisoners. They could be lowered into the pit by a rope; when you wanted a prisoner out, a ladder could be lowered to retrieve him. But down in that pit, a prisoner was utterly isolated and trapped. That was where the Lord spent His last night on earth.

Why was that place so powerful?

I think it was because being in that dungeon brought us pilgrims so close to the experience of Jesus. We entered that dungeon by a modern entrance at the level of the floor and had the experience of being in that dungeon where Jesus was held.

We saw those stone walls all around us; we saw the opening to the world so far out of reach above us; it wasn't hard to imagine Jesus looking at the same things -- and feeling utterly trapped.

We don't experience scourgings, or people being crowned with thorns, or crucifixions. Even when we are in the places that those things happened, we need to use our imagination to create an image of something we have never seen.

Jesus trapped and alone

But when we stood in that room, we saw what Jesus did 20 centuries ago. We could readily sense what it was like for Him to be there . . . trapped and isolated in that room. Humanly speaking, Jesus was so utterly alone.

In St. Mark's account of the Passion proclaimed last Sunday, we heard that at moment of the Lord's arrest, all his disciples left him and fled. And, of course, in the courtyard of the house of Caiaphas, Peter had just denied his Lord.

Being in that dungeon, it was not hard to imagine the isolation and abandonment the Lord felt. And I could imagine the dread He felt at what was to come. We know what it is to dread tomorrow.

You don't need to live very long in this world to know what it means to fear some hard thing that it coming tomorrow -- you don't know all the details; you know it's going to be bad; but you don't know quite how bad.

So as I stood in that dungeon, I had a pretty vivid understanding of what Jesus suffered in that place -- facing the horror of the Passion, utterly alone.

Being with the Lord

And I had another sense . . . that coming as pilgrims, we were there to say: "Today, Lord, you are not alone. We have come to be with you here."

This is something I cannot prove to you by reason, nor can I cite a de fide doctrine of the Church to support it. But, in the house of Caiaphas, I had the sense that -- across 20 centuries -- somehow the Lord was consoled that we had come to be in that place. We were with Him in some way; He was not alone.

That was a wonderful experience; and it is an experience that we might also have at this beautiful liturgy of the Lord's Passion and Death. Today, we come to this liturgy to say: "Lord, you endured so many sufferings in your Passion alone  . . . but today, you are not alone. We have come to be with you, to console you, to express our love for you because we know you have done this for us."

And this isn't just for Good Friday, is it? Every time the Mass is celebrated, the Sacrifice of the Cross is made present. Why must I be at the Mass? Because the Lord was left alone to face the sacrifice He offered on the cross for me; I cannot abandon Him now and leave Him alone again.

This suggests a very stern answer that can be made to the person who tells you that he has a more satisfying spiritual experience sitting by the lake on Sunday morning than by going to Mass. That answer is: "Who told you it was about what you find satisfying? It's not about you. It's about the Lord. And what He did for love of us."

He consoles us

It brings us to a central paradox of the faith. That paradox is this: When we come to be with Jesus, to console Him, we find that it is He who consoles us.

Trapped in our dungeons, whatever they are, from which we see no escape, feeling alone in bearing our burdens and our sorrows, facing a tomorrow we dread, a future that frightens us . . .

The Lord, whom we have come to console, consoles us. Since we have come to be with the Lord, He is also with us.

And we are consoled: This night will pass; the day is coming. Time is short; eternity is long.