By Most Rev. Richard W. Smith, Archbishop of Edmonton

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A Day in the Mountains

Mass at Church of the Transfiguration,
on Mt. Tabor
As I told the members of our pilgrimage group today, while the ritual books used for Mass at each of the holy places have prayers and readings proper to the particular event commemorated at the site, they all share one word in common that repeats again and again and again: here. To know that one is at the place where "here" a certain event occurred in the earthly life of Jesus or of other key figures in the story of salvation really fills one with awe and wonder. This gives rise to what I think is one of the main challenges of a pilgrimage. Although we know we need to keep moving due to the many places there are to visit, nevertheless we really do want to be able to linger for a long while in prayer and reflection at each spot in order to savour what is happening and let it sink in.

Inside Church of the Transfiguration
St. Peter had the same experience on Mount Tabor. That's where we found ourselves first thing this morning. This is the site of the Transfiguration, and when he, together with James and John, witnessed our transfigured Lord in the presence of Moses and Elijah, he wanted to stay: "Lord, it is good for us to be here; let us set up three tents ..." Unsurprisingly, he wanted to settle in. It was not to be, however. They had to descend from the mountain to the plain and get back into the business of being a disciple of Jesus: following, learning, denying oneself, witnessing. Pretty soon we, too, will "descend to the plain" as we return home to Canada. In the meantime, however, we recognize that it is very good for us to be "here", not only on Tabor but also at the many other sites we have already visited and at those that still await us.

The monastery church on Mount Carmel
One of those other places is another mountain: Mount Carmel. This was a nice surprise addition to the agenda. The decision of our guides to move us into our pilgrimage immediately after disembarking the plane the other day freed up some time this morning to visit Mount Carmel as we made our way to Jerusalem. Located in the modern port city of Haifa, this mountain is famous in salvation history for the encounter between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of the pagan god Baal. We visited Stella Maris convent, whose chapel is built over the cave identified by tradition as a place used by the great prophet for prayer, contemplation and refuge. This visit gave us an opportunity to reflect upon the import of Elijah's witness for us today. He gave dramatic witness to the truth that there is but one God, namely, the God who has revealed himself to Israel. We, too, are called to witness before the world to this one God who has definitively revealed himself to the whole world in Jesus Christ. Elijah stood up to the powerful of his day, even to the King and Queen, when they acted unjustly in violation of God's covenant law. We, too, must stand up for what is right and true, ready to challenge any and all, even the State, whenever human dignity is threatened. Given that Mount Carmel is a place that has attracted over the centuries adherents of different religions, we also had a brief but very interesting conversation about the need for inter-religious dialogue and the fundamental Christian principles we bring to this.

The Carmelite religious order has its origins in a small community of Christian hermits that had settled on Mount Carmel. Since their first chapel was dedicated to Our Lady, they named it Our Lady of Mount Carmel chapel, and from this devotion to Our Lady under that title has grown. In recognition of this, we sang a hymn to Mary, honouring her and seeking her intercession as we prepared for the next leg of the journey.

From there it was on to Jerusalem, to our third mountain of the day: Mount Zion. Here this ancient city, central to the unfolding of salvation history, was built. The psalms that pilgrims would traditionally sing as they ascended to Jerusalem for the sacred festivals are identified in the Book of Psalms as the Songs of Ascent, or else the Gradual Psalms (cf. Psalms 120-134). As we, ourselves, went up to Jerusalem (admittedly in the comfort of an air conditioned bus!), I recited for the prayerful participation of our group some of these psalms. We prayed for the peace of Jerusalem as we entered the sacred city, and tomorrow we begin our visit to this place in which our Lord gave his life and rose again that we might live. Yes, here!