Earlier this month I led a two-week pilgrimage with my wife Gill to the Holy Land … and what a privilege it was to lead the group - of 36 pilgrims drawn from across Lancashire and beyond - on an unforgettable journey through Israel, Jordan and Palestine.
The experience was a whirlwind of sights and sounds; encounters with God and opportunities to reflect on the story of Jesus Christ whilst walking in His footsteps.
I also kept up a regular blog while we were there, including videos.
At times on the pilgrimage we joined vast crowds at some of the sights, such as The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Then, at other times, we were able to get away from the crowds; sharing a very moving eucharist together in the desert and visiting one of the few remaining working Palestinian monasteries in the Jordan valley.
I was keen to bring the Bible alive for the pilgrims by reading the events of Scripture where they actually took place and we did so in places like Mount Nebo in Jordan.
It was not all ancient stones and sites however – amazing though they were. We also met some inspiring ‘living stones’; followers of Jesus who belong to Christian communities that have lived in the Holy Land since the time of Christ.
So it was that, in Salt in Jordan we visited an amazing boarding school for deaf and deaf-blind pupils, whose lives are being transformed by this Anglican-run school.
In Bethlehem we met Johnny Shawan, a Palestinian from Bethlehem, who was converted to Christianity after he emigrated to Canada and then heard God calling him back to Bethlehem to care for Palestinian families devastated by the violence of past uprisings.
Meanwhile, in Jordan and the West Bank as well as in Israel, we gained an insight into the complex political realities and challenges of the region.
Staying in Bethlehem we saw close-up how the separation wall has made life safer for Israelis, but much more difficult for Palestinians who queue every day to get through the barrier to their place of work.
As we prayed for them, we remembered that Bethlehem was also under military (Roman) occupation at the time of Jesus birth.
A pilgrimage is a time of renewing our commitment to Christ. The pilgrims from Lancashire were:
At the actual place where Jesus was baptised, in Bethany, we all renewed our baptismal vows, rededicating ourselves to live each day as disciples of Jesus Christ.
And knowing how often I have let God down, it was very special for the four of us on the pilgrimage who were clergy to stand on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and renew our ordination vows; and to do so at the place where we remember Jesus recommissioning His disciple Peter after the resurrection.
Each of us on the pilgrimage has been changed by this opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and we were so grateful to those in the diocese who prayed for us while we were away.
Remember to read Archdeacon Mark's blog and watch the videos he recorded on the pilgrimage. In the articles and videos he reflects on the days he and the pilgrims are spending together. They are all available at www.markcireland.com which is the Archdeacon's regular blog site for other articles at other times as well.
Captions for pictures above: