Reflection by The Very Revd Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark, for Friends of the Holy Land.
November comes and with it a deep sense that this is a time to remember. We begin the month with the saints and then all of those who have died, family, friends, neighbours, as well as those who have no one left who remembers them. In the United Kingdom we then move on to Bonfire Night with its playing out of the folk memory of the gunpowder plot by Guy Fawkes and his friends, and this finally leads us to Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday when the dead of the wars are called to mind and honoured for all they gave. It all fits in well with the seasonal changes happening in the northern hemisphere, the leaves are falling, the days are shorter and the year rapidly slipping away as we approach Advent and Christmas.
For all pilgrims to the Holy Land remembrance is a powerful aspect to what goes on. Visiting the holy places, walking in the steps of Jesus, praying where the saints have prayed, standing where the events we have heard of happened, all of this is about putting substance onto our remembering. It is almost part of that sacramental encounter that we have with the divine and especially in the Eucharist.
For all of the challenges that obvious Crusader architecture brings to the place, standing with a group of pilgrims in the Cenacle above David’s Tomb on Mount Sion is a powerful experience. We would read one of the accounts of the Last Supper that we find in the Gospels and the words that we hear week by week, day by day in our churches and cathedrals, come echoing back. ‘Do this in remembrance of me’. Whatever our own liturgical, church tradition, we know that hearing these words is transporting and transformational – transporting us from the place where we are worshipping to this Upper Room in Jerusalem, transforming in that the bread and wine take on a new meaning and a new reality, as we who receive them also do, foretasting a heavenly banquet in the new Jerusalem.
But it isn’t just in the Cenacle that this kind of deep remembering takes place. For each one of us there will be a special place in the Holy Land which lives on in our memory of the pilgrimage we made, or that always thrills us when we are able to return. Having made many, many pilgrimages and having taken many pilgrims around the Land of the Holy One, it has been a constant joy and an inspiration to see the way in which different people respond to the different places, surprised by how powerful particular places are, as their memory, the mental images they have carried since they first heard the Gospel proclaimed become, real as they are re-membered.
In T S Eliot’s wonderful poem ‘Little Gidding’, one his ‘Four Quartets’, there is the most wonderful meditation on pilgrimage and within that he says
What you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.
When we make pilgrimage, it is the remembering that can be so fulfilling and so surprising – the purpose of the journey only becomes clear in the fulfilment as memory breaks through into life. ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ is both command and invitation, and in responding to both, at the altar at home, in the holy place in the Holy Land, we find God and ourselves in the fulfilment.
God of our pilgrimage,
surprise us in our remembering,
put substance on our memories
and bread into our hands
that we may find fulfilment in you.
Dean of Southwark
To find out more about the work of Friends of the Holy Land, please visit www.friendsoftheholyland.org.uk
Friends of the Holy Land patrons include the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Birmingham Bernard Longley and Dr Rowan Williams.