by: Annelize Williams, BFP Staff Writer
Jerusalem, the jewel of the Middle East, is a city that has succeeded in attracting thousands of inspired pilgrims from all over the world for centuries. Each year the city literally swells at its seams as Christians and Jews from around the globe embark on a journey to visit the Holy City. A pilgrimage in itself embodies a wide spectrum of emotions and is considered a true statement of devotion. It is generally understood to be a journey, undertaken either individually or by a group of a specific religious conviction. The destination is definite and generally a sacred place that speaks to the group’s belief. The motivation behind pilgrimage is varied, but almost all pilgrims consider the journey as an act of faith and religious devotion.
Jerusalem has always been considered the most sacred and central location in Jewish history and belief. It is indeed considered the holiest site on earth. This is largely because of the fact that it is where both the Temples of Solomon and Herod once stood. Still today, Jews consider this a place where the presence of God resides and offer up their prayers at the Western Wall—although not directly part of the Temple, it is considered to be the nearest remaining location to the Holy of Holies.
In the Tanakh (Gen.–Mal.) the children of Israel were given instruction to go before the Lord, three times a year, at the place where He chooses to place His Name (Deut. 16:16). These pilgrimages were required to fulfill the biblical feasts of Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost) and Sukkot (Tabernacles). According to Scripture, God has chosen Jerusalem as His resting place forever (Ps. 132:4; 68:15) and thus, the place where He has placed His Name. Through the centuries Jerusalem has been the place to which faithful Jews must journey in order to fulfill this command.
On different occasions, the Jews were exiled and separated from their beloved city but continually longed to return. Even in the Diaspora they mourned the destruction of the Temple and their Holy City on Tisha B’Av. Due to this fact, Jerusalem remained in the Jewish consciousness and with it the longing to return. Jerusalem and the land of Israel remain central in Jewish belief and this inspires many Jews to make a more permanent pilgrimage in the form of aliyah—immigrating to Israel. Even the word aliyah is connected to pilgrimage in its meaning—to go up or to return. Aliyah is essentially the pinnacle of Jewish pilgrimage.
To Christians, Jerusalem is a sacred place mainly because of its biblical roots. It is said to be the birthplace of Christianity from its Jewish roots. The first pilgrimages that were made to the city by Christians were to sites connected to the ministry of Yeshua (Jesus). Jerusalem became a place that inspired introspective journeys from pilgrims since the earliest days of Christianity even to this very day. It was initially encouraged by early Roman Catholic church leaders, like Saint Jerome and also Helena, the mother of Constantine, who allegedly discovered the true cross of Christ on her pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
The fact that many of the events in the life of Yeshua took place within the walls of this city inspires Christians from everywhere to make the journey and to come and walk in their Messiah’s footsteps. It is the place where Yeshua was arrested, tried and eventually crucified. Christians understandably feel a deep connection to visiting places like the Garden of Gethsemane, walking along the Via Dolorosa, seeing the Garden Tomb and praying at the Upper Room. Completing a pilgrimage to Jerusalem is often said to make one’s faith and belief come alive as the pages of Scripture come to life.
Since the city of Jerusalem was reunified in 1967 under Israeli sovereignty, pilgrims have experienced a newfound freedom to undertake the journey to the Holy City without fear of persecution. This religious freedom brought significant advantage not only to the pilgrims but also to the city itself. The Israeli government has come to recognize and welcome Christian pilgrims and the positive effect they have on tourism and the local economy. According to a recent article in The Jerusalem Post, “Tourism in Israel relies heavily on Christian pilgrims who make up 53% of all annual visitors.” Pilgrims have definitely boosted the local tourism industry and Jerusalem remains the most visited city in Israel with over 3.5 million tourists arriving annually.
Pilgrimages remain a common thread which unites people from all walks of life, as they come together in Jerusalem to honor their sacred religious beliefs and to connect with the roots of their faith. Jerusalem, and in fact the entire nation of Israel, is unique in that it guarantees religious freedom for all. Everyone is welcome to come and explore the origins of their faith and to walk the ancient paths while partaking in the vast variety and spiritual richness that this beautiful city has to offer.
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