"Oh, you're going on pilgrimage; how wonderful" was one reaction I got to the news that Martha and I were about to visit Israel and Palestine. I didn't reply, because I don't feel that it is a pilgrimage (though I hope it's wonderful visit). I'm writing this on the plane there, deliberately before I've had chance to react to what no doubt will be very different sights, sounds and smells. And quite probably different and disturbing ideas, too, as I'm joining a group of other ordinands (trainee vicars or priests) from other towns in the UK, as well as from India and the USA. And of course, I hope to be able to talk to Jews and Arabs of different faiths here too. Officially this is a "study tour", and one of the leaders Peter Walker has led tours for other friends in the past. He's also written a book called In the Steps of Jesus, which takes us to the central idea of pilgrimage ... walking where holy men or women of old lived, or where the miraculous happened.
But let me digress for a minute. I've now done the first of three terms' study learning the Koine (or Rough) Greek language. Given I never found language learning easy at school, why have I put myself through this? When I face my exam on this in May, I need to remind myself that it's to give the New Testament the best chance of speaking clearly to me, being able to read it in the original language. It's a truism that something always gets lost in translation, and with the New Testament its unfortunately no different. Thankfully we do have a number of very fine translations into English, worked on very hard by experts in language, history, and theology. And we have commentaries written on the text that explain some of the issues, to help teachers and preachers. Some subtleties are just too wordy to put into a translation that reads well, though some land up as footnotes. In other cases translating the original term directly leaves an idiom that doesn't exist in English, or a unit of measurement that no-one has ever heard of let alone used.
My grasp of the language is still shallow, but already I'm learning about the 'aorist' tense that the Greeks used very heavily, but doesn't exist in English. And that there are various different verbs which collapse down to the English "to speak": this has quite a bearing on the current debate over what women can and can't do in a church gathering. More positively there are two kinds of 'if' in Greek. One is like our 'if', but the other one has more of a sense of 'as'. So, when the Devil is tempting Jesus and says "If you are the Son of God, then turn these stones to bread", the sense is really "As you are the Son of God, you could turn these stones to bread". That's rather an important admission from the "opposing team"!
My study of NT Greek is, in many ways, similar to this journey ... to better understand the world of this foreign place and early time. I don't go to step exactly where the disciples and prophets or even Jesus himself stood. I don't go to become more holy through association with those places where God revealed himself through word and miracle. Even if I wanted to I couldn't, because with the ancient sackings of Jerusalem, the original places are either lost or built over, or both.
No, I go, to better understand the landscape, to hear the cries in the markets, to visit the whitewashed tombs, the plastered cisterns, to know what the trek to the Mount of Olives is like, or the rocky desert scramble which is (apparently) anything but a proper road to Emmaus. I hope to see the shepherds tending sheep in these fields, so different from the English rolling countryside. I want to sense the astonishment when Jesus stood up in a synagogue, read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and said that "today this has come true in your hearing". I want to get a better sense of what the original hearers of the biblical events would have seen and understood of them. If my understanding of the context and environment is more accurate, then like with my understanding of the texts, I hope to be a more informed and accurate teacher and preacher of the events they witnessed and continue to witness to.
At the very least this is a journey, and it is on journeys that we can be more open to being changed and challenged, and meeting the Other. And in that openness, I pray, hearing God's voice speak anew.
A fascinating fortnight lies ahead, and I hope to write here about those experiences. And who knows -- maybe to look back and decide this has been a pilgrimage after all ...