We left for Israel just three weeks after Christmas Day. As I prepared for this trip, I questioned the wisdom of our timing. We found ourselves scrambling to dismantle our Christmas decorations at home and to help with the same at church. January sales made shopping for last-minute necessitates economical, but the crowds who joined me contributed to my time-crunch. I finally breathed a much-anticipated sigh of relief when I zipped up my suitcase and found that it weighed only thirty-one pounds. “I hope this is a good omen,” I told myself. The following day, when we met our tour-mates at O’Hare Airport, I determined that our timing was perfect after all. Suddenly, I morphed into a pilgrim who could hardly wait to begin her walk through the land of her ancestors. Even the dozen-plus hours I’d spend in flight failed to dampen my enthusiasm. Last year, during our first trip to Israel, I fell in love with this country which I couldn’t help identifying as my homeland. This year, I looked forward to rekindling my love for the place Jesus called home so long ago.
I admit that this time around our tour seemed to fly by. To be certain that I didn’t miss a thing, I prepped for each day by focusing upon what I wanted to experience most. Though I enjoyed everything, some sites touched me deeply as a result of the events which occurred there two millenniums ago. Mary’s home and a neighbor’s home in Nazareth framed Jesus’ childhood and his young adult years. Activity within Jesus’ family home, on the streets of his neighborhood and at the synagogue had much to do with Jesus’ public ministry. When Jesus allowed John to baptize him on the shores of the Jordan River, Jesus offered a glimpse of the direction in which his ministry would lead us. The excavated streets of Magdala and the nearby ruins of the synagogue there served as the backdrop for the friendship which developed between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. In each of these places, I breathed deeply to draw in the air which gave Jesus and his loved ones life. I knelt to touch the soil on which they walked. I dipped my fingers into the waters of the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee which nourished Jesus and his people in body and spirit. I found it impossible not to immerse myself in these eerily familiar places.
It was in Jerusalem that I experienced perhaps the most profound of the treasures I sought. In a small monastery chapel located near what is called The Upper Room, I sat before a life-sized sculpture of Jesus’ last supper. The images took my breath away just as they had a year earlier. Still, though it was difficult to look away from this extraordinary artwork, my eyes searched for the lone figure I’d discovered during my first visit. There, nestled into a niche just large enough for her to hide in the shadows, I found Mary Magdalene. With her arms wrapped around herself, perhaps in an effort not to distract from the drama unfolding before her, Mary stood and watched. I imagined her eyes filled with love and her heart filled with sorrow as Jesus’ last hours began to unfold before her. Like Mary, I found it very difficult to move from my place in that holy setting…
I share this aspect of my journey today because this is the First Sunday of Lent 2018. I specify “Lent 2018” because this is our only opportunity to live this particular block of forty days as best we can. As I write, I return to the feelings of ambivalence I experienced when trying to prepare for my trip to Israel. It was the eve of Ash Wednesday when I realized I had only a few hours to determine my Lent 2018 plans. Much to my good fortune, I wasn’t in danger of packing inappropriately or missing my plane. Regardless of the luggage I carried and my tardiness at departure time, Jesus welcomed me with a cross of ashes on my forehead to join him for the journey ahead. On this First Sunday of Lent 2018, Jesus repeats his invitation to me and to all of us who need to hear his welcome once again. Jesus will repeat his welcome every day of our Lenten journeys and every day thereafter. It is up to us to determine how we’ll proceed today, tomorrow and on every day we’re given.
As for me, I’ve decided to repeat my Holy Land effort to make the most of each day. Every morning, I’ll prep myself by focusing upon what I want to experience most. If you are like I am, you have a bit of character-reshaping to tend to. If your corner of the world is like mine, numerous areas can be improved with some effort on our parts. We can also change our focus a bit by turning to the world-at-large. Though I cannot alleviate poverty everywhere, I can give up a personal luxury in order to fill my Sharing envelope or my St. Vincent De Paul envelope or my Rice Bowl more generously. Though I cannot see to world peace alone, I can certainly add joy to my little corner of our world by loving my way through the moments at hand. My Holy Land trek reminded me that, wherever Jesus was, he embraced every opportunity to do good. We’ve been given Lent 2018 to do the same.
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