Even if I never make it to the Holy Land, I’m doing the next best thing. I’m reading Fr. James Martin’s Jesus: A Pilgrimage. In this engaging book, Fr. Martin chronicles a two-week trip he took with his friend and fellow priest George to Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethlehem, the Sea of Galilee, and other holy sites . He intersperses his narrative of his travels with explications of Gospel passages, lore from Christian tradition, reflections from his prayer life, nuggets of historical research, and experiences from his own personal life and his ministries in Jamaica and Africa. The result is an entertaining story that’s also informative and thought-provoking.
I discovered Fr. Martin via the Vanity Fair article “Meet the Catholic Priest Whose Twitter Puts Trump to Shame.” Intrigued, I searched for more information about him and found that he is an accomplished (and controversial) Jesuit priest, New York Times bestselling author, and editor-at-large for the Jesuit magazine America. He has over 172,000 followers on Twitter, where he will sometimes point out words and deeds that violate Christian teachings. This is important in an era when so many of our elected officials and corporate leaders are clearly interested only in worshiping money.
Fr. Martin is not only an important voice but also a very good writer. When I downloaded a sample of his book Jesus: A Pilgrimage, I was hooked from the beginning.
His story is filled with vivid descriptions of the places he visited. For example, in describing the Sea of Galilee, he writes, “The cornflower-blue waters and the pink rocks on the opposite shore seemed the most beautiful thing my eyes had ever seen. And I thought, Jesus saw this!”
However, Fr. Martin is also honest. He tells us when a site’s claims about its historical or religious value are probably false. He admits that the Jordan River, the site of Jesus’ baptism, is now highly polluted and neon green. He recounts an angry spat he had with his traveling companion. He also admits when he’s disappointed. For instance, he says that he expected to be “moved to tears” by the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which is said to be built on the site of Jesus’ birth. But the place, he says, “left me cold,” ruined by the irreverent crowds who were “talking loudly, snapping photos, taking videos, gesticulating wildly, jostling one another, and reaching into crinkly plastic bags for a water bottle or candy bar.” Far from being prayerful or even respectful at such a holy place, the visitors were “strolling around and chatting as if it were Disneyland.”
Fr. Martin’s purpose in writing this book is to help us get to know both the human and the divine Jesus better by taking us to the places where He lived. For me, reading about his journey is like sitting in the rental car, riding down those bumpy Israeli roads, and listening to fascinating stories about someone I love. Whether you’ve been to the Holy Land, plan to go, or just wish you could go, Fr. Martin’s wise observations and insights will enrich your own actual or imaginary pilgrimage.