Jerusalem Bound. How to Be a Pilgrim in the Holy Land.
Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2020
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Mini Review by: Stephen Need, our current Bible Lands editor.
This attractive and useful book about pilgrimage and being a pilgrim is written by Rodney Aist, a previous Course Director at St. George’s College, Jerusalem. The author is himself a Holy Land pilgrim and tells the story here of his own pilgrim journey. Planning a year’s pilgrimage across Europe to visit twenty countries, he initially had no intention of including the Holy Land. Then, someone persuaded him to put it into his itinerary and after making it to the Holy City, he never looked back. Aist has also walked the Camino to Compostela more than once and has become a well-seasoned pilgrim traveller around the world. The book includes many practical tips and much theological wisdom.
The author appreciates the difficulty of defining pilgrimage but is clear that it, ‘is the experience of God, self, and the Other through the dimensions of time, place, journey, and people and the thoughts, images, and reflections thereof’ (p.10). He leads readers through various dimensions of pilgrimage including the incarnational, the metaphorical, the autobiographical and the corporate, emphasising that pilgrimage is an earthed experience, thoroughly rooted in practical life. For Aist, pilgrimage lends itself to numerous images. One of the most interesting is the magi from St. Matthew’s gospel (2.1-12). The allegory works as follows: the star – what is calling you on your journey; Herod – possible obstacles; dreams – what will warn and guide you; searching for Christ and bringing gifts speak for themselves; home by another way – the difference it has all made by the end. Other images of pilgrimage might be Abraham, the people of ancient Israel on the move through the wilderness, the exile to Babylon, the so-called Flight to Egypt – and Jesus himself.
Among other things, Aist covers the origins and development of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and provides a timeline of the Holy Land from the New Testament period to the present day. One of the most interesting chapters is ‘Understanding the Holy Sites’. Most pilgrims to the Holy Land have some awareness of biblical themes but most don’t ask themselves what they’re doing when they visit a holy place. Aist suggests there are four components or levels of holy sites: first, Commemoration. This is what is commemorated at a site – the biblical or other story or narrative that forms the focus; second, Location. This is where the site is, perhaps geographical and political – and in relation to other sites; third, Appearance. This is what a site looks like today, what is there – the contemporary details; and fourth, Sequence. This is where the site comes in a given pilgrimage itinerary as well as in the life of Christ. There are, of course, many other layers – and symbolism and imagination, for example, play an important part. Aist discusses the whole business of the authenticity of sites, of events having more than one site and of sites moving. He concludes that it’s more important to focus on the whole Holy Land experience than to worry about whether particular holy places are exact spots for what they commemorate.
Some of the chapters of this book discuss what pilgrims do at holy places (worship, read scripture, re-enact stories), what ‘blessings’ or mementos they might use (crosses, stones, water, icons) and what challenges they might encounter (physical, group dynamic, challenges to faith). Two chapters provide useful guidelines for preparing for a Holy Land pilgrimage as well as what to do on arriving back home.
Three Appendices give ample details for the journey, including a substantial list of ‘Terms and Concepts’, ‘Educational Resources’ (including booklists and timelines of important periods) and ‘Holy Land Itineraries’ with suggested scenarios of length and chronology. A substantial Bibliography gives more than adequate detail for most people.
Rodney Aist is still on the pilgrim path he began years ago. In the end, he says, it’s about the formation of Christian character, growth, awareness of God and of others, and about extending the Christian life towards new horizons. One of the key texts in this book is the Emmaus story of Luke 24 which draws attention to the need for Christian pilgrims to imagine themselves on a continuing journey, constantly moving forward. The author is clear that, ‘what happens in Jerusalem can’t stay in Jerusalem’ (p. 153). Pilgrims must take their experience back home with them into their lives as Christians wherever they live.
A fascinating and helpful book, ideal for preparing for pilgrimage to the Holy Land, as well as for reflecting afterwards. Indeed, you’ll find it indispensable throughout the journey.
Featured in Bible Lands, Summer 2021