This was a wonderful read for me, and a very nice accompaniment to the season of Advent. I have had it on my shelves in hardcover since it’s release and have often been jealous watching other friends and colleagues carrying it around while they read it, but I was not able to pick it up, until other required readings were complete. (That may seem a bizarre statement to some, but when teaching, studying, working, having children – who I always try to accompany on their assigned readings for school, which are getting pretty good now that they are older – and wanting to dedicate focused reading time to it, this book was much better saved until it could be savored.)
Martin recounts his two week trip to the Holy Land in three manners, one as a typical travelogue, another as reflection and a third by recounting Gospel passages that occurred at (or very nearby) the locations he visited. His descriptions are clear, and make any serious Christian reader want to make the same journey as he did, from the long tapered candles at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to the heat of the desert outside Jericho, his readers experience the journey with him which I have not quite experienced since I read Bruce Feiler’s “Walking The Bible”.
James Martin gives very devout and spiritually meaningful insights to the life of Jesus (both geographically and emotionally) by calling on his own experiences on his journey, from his spiritual journey, his many retreats and his past experiences of being spiritual directors for others. He referred to many scholars and spiritual writers, some of whom I have read myself, heard lectures, or even actually meet! (Those moments were downright exciting for me, especially if he keyed in to passages of their writings that I myself highlighted or have called upon in my own writings or talks on scripture.)
He breaks the book into chapters recounting passages from the Gospels in relative chronological order of their occurrence, which does not necessarily correlate to how he visited the various sites in Israel. Still, he connects the texts from scripture beautifully well and the travelogue feel does not suffer for it. Martin mentions at the end of his book that his intention was to have a chapter for every passage of the Gospel (I imagine he meant every experience of Jesus that could have been connected to a physical location) and I so wish he had, but I can understand that that would have required a much longer stay in the Holy Land, and a multi-volume work.
Martin encounters Jesus and really makes a personal approach to Jesus possible for his readers. When recounting the exorcism of the demoniac, Martin talks about believing in evil in a way that is very understandable – giving a vocabulary to those of us who have struggled before to express our own belief in evil – he calls on C.S. Lewis here:
” I believe in the presence of evil as a real incoherent for supposed to God and one that can sometimes overtake people, but not necessarily in the popular conception of the devil. As C.S. Lewis said, when asked if he believed in the devil, “I am not particular about and horns. But in other respects my answer is, yes I do.” “
And when recounting Peter’s feeling of unworthiness at his call and claiming to be a sinful man, not expecting to be welcomed into Jesus’ presence or ministry (or not feeling worthy of being accepted) Martin addresses the feelings and thoughts so many of us have today:
“… Let me return to those Christians who feel marginalized from their church and churches and to those who sometimes feel discouraged or scandalized by what their churches do.
It is important to remember that the church did not die and rise from the dead. Jesus did. Especially in times of difficulty in scandal, we need to be reminded that our faith is not an institution but in a person. Jesus. Certainly we experience Christ in and through the church and certainly the church is the “Body of Christ” on earth. And I don’t in any way deny or minimize the importance of the church. But the church does not save us. Jesus does. It is Jesus, not the institution, who has called you into relationship with him. Even though we may feel as if the church is saying “go away from me,” those words never passed from Jesus his lips when he meets sinful people. ”
” For those who feel scandalized because of sins committed by the members of the church, it is also important to remember that the church has always been imperfect. Dorothy Day once said, “I love the church for Christ made visible, not for itself, because it was so often a scandal to me.” ” (p163)
From the Sermon on the Mount, Martin reflects on being “poor in spirit”, I think one of the most misunderstood, reflected upon and discussed terms of the Gospels. He connects it to being meek, from one of the later Beatitudes, in a wonderful way, that helps us to see both the intention and vision Jesus might have had I sharing this teaching:
” Paradoxically, then to be poor in spirit is to be rich in faith. It indicates a person whose humility allows him or her to grasp the fundamental reliance on God. But even armed with that understanding, we sense that this beatitude is still a threat. Humility is an unpopular virtue.”
” “Meek” maybe an even more unpalatable word, conjuring up a simpering fool, someone afraid to stand up for himself or herself, a person devoid of self-confidence and self-respect. When was the last time you heard someone say, “I really like that guy. He’s so meek”?
What did Jesus mean? The Greek word is a complicated word with several possible meanings: self control over one’s passions; obedient or domesticated, as in an animal; or gentle. To understand Jesus’s likely intent, it may help to look at the Hebrew that was antecedent to the Greek. Jesus probably had in mind the word ‘anawim’. The ‘anawim’ were not simply the meek but those were so poor, or weak, that they knew they depended utterly on God. So, poor and humble, a combination of two traits not highly prized today.” (P173)
Martin captures the vitalness of community, how we need one another to “carry us to God” when we cannot do it on our own, and how others will need us to do the same and how critical it is that we realize this so we can in fact serve those in need, and allow others to care for us when we, ourselves, need it.
He discusses the reality of humor in all our lives, even in Jesus’ ministry, but that the humor probably escapes us because humor requires context, and no one alive today has true historical or situational context of ancient Israel society. (My father-in-law often decries that there was no humor in Jesus’ story/life, but I suspect Martin is right here and that we cannot estimate the mirth and humor that was most likely present in Christ’s ministry. I mean, who follows around a curmudgeon, life was hardship and serious enough back then.)
One of my favorite passages in the Gospels is the story of Emmaus, I think this is because during my formative Catholic years, remember I became a Catholic during college, Emmaus retreats were all the rage, to help young adults find Jesus by surprise, the same way the pair of despairing disciples did on that long lost road after the crucifixion when they discovered it was Jesus journeying with them the entire time. Martin connects the concept of despair and loss to these two disciples in a way that is palpable. He considers the three words: “We had hoped…” in such a powerful way that I do not think I will ever look upon someone else’s dashed hopes again without powerful compassion and empathy. And then, Martin drives it home by connecting Jesus’ own hopes and losses. He was fully human remember? (and I do, thank you, Michael Casey) and so it is likely Jesus also felt loss and despair at his ministry not being able to continue, at his friends abandoning him, at his mother’s pain as she watched him suffer on his Cross. That is game-changing… imagining God, Christ, despairing, feeling loss, crying right there beside us. Emmaus is now even more powerful more me.
In another chapter, Martin discusses prayer and that prayer does not always result in good feelings, but an awareness of our own need to change, our need to change something, our need to focus outward on others and truly work to support them (not just think good thoughts for them) the need to die to self. These are not easy words to read, but they ring so true that they feel undeniable, and also emancipating. By accepting that prayer can be work and instructional, allowed me to take prayer-time to a whole new level. This concept, for example helped me realize that my routine morning prayers for strength, patience and temperance also needed to include a plea for gentleness, to remind me to comfort my children as much as instruct and guide them, to be open to others and to be in their “moment” as much as I am trying to be present in my own “here and now”.
There is so much more to recount, worth re-reading, pages I have dog-eared already, passages I have highlighted to share with others, that I can only strongly suggest others read it for themselves.
Like his use of the Lazarus story to discuss change and a willingness to believe and to encourage his readers to know that God has a new life and a new Way for each one of us individually to travel through our own lives (no matter how far-gone down the wrong path we think we might be.)
Or the concept of ‘dying to self’ and comprehending that Jesus’ gift to us did not begin and end with his crucifixion, but was in every element and step of his life which he dedicated to those he could save, he could welcome, he could “convince” and even his giving of self to those who did not follow him, the doubters, the persecutors, etc. a true selflessness that is rarely seen or understood today.
Or even his approach to honesty with and true reliance on God and those around us; we are often panicked in our own time, of time constraints, and we fill our lives with busy-ness and platitudes that we often never really face our feelings, our deep emotions and our struggles. “Expressing your feelings honestly in trouble times is not a sign of weakness, but of humanity and humility. It is also a way to invite into your life friends and relatives who love you. “ (p365). We invite God in when we admit our failings, needs and those struggles we are terrified to face, and when we ask for a new Way, believe it or not, God gives us one.
“This is why Christians speak of meeting God in the Cross. By ignoring or failing to embrace the Cross we miss opportunities to know God in a deeper way. The Cross is often where we meet God because our vulnerability can make us more open to God’s grace.” (p415)
Whether Christian or not, I think James Martin delivers an understanding of Jesus and the Gospel story that can benefit any reader. One who is delving deeper into scripture, one who wants to understand their Christian friends and family devotions, or one who might wonder “who the heck is this Jesus anyway?!”. Along the way we get to know Martin himself, which is a great benefit as well, maybe I will get to hear him someday, or meet him… I hope I do. Thank you, James Martin, for this work, I look forward to reading more…