James Martin has succeeded beautifully. He has written a book that can engage both committed Christians and those who know nothing of Jesus. Starting from the conviction that Christ is fully human and at the same time fully divine, Martin fleshes out this startling enigma by revealing a Jesus who ‘sweated and sneezed and scratched’ but who also truly rose from the dead.
The idea for the book came about when Martin decided to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. After initial reluctance he went with a Jesuit friend, taking a two-week trip to explore the Gospel stories in the very places where the events are believed to have taken place. The result is an extraordinary, humourous and poignant travelogue – part literature review and part meditation on the meaning of Jesus’ life. Martin weaves his story between contemporary Israel and Palestine and the Biblical past, from the concrete to the transcendent. What stays with me particularly is the description of chatty passengers on the Number 21 bus to Bethlehem juxtaposed with the meditation of the Gospel stories commemorated on that very ground.
What makes this more than just another retelling of the Jesus story is the personal connection Martin has with his subject. Jesus is the centre of the life of this man, a Jesuit priest for 25 years, and a popular Catholic writer and speaker. Although Martin would not describe himself as a theologian or a Biblical scholar, he has studied with, and knows personally, many of the best. In fact he is so well acquainted with the experts that he recounts calling one professor in California to query his conclusion that there would have been no synagogue building in Nazareth – and that meetings would have taken place outdoors.
Martin describes his own spiritual life clearly and candidly. While visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional location of Jesus’ tomb, Martin experiences a vivid image of Jesus sitting up on the morning of his resurrection. The meditations that follow well illustrate the centrality of the resurrection to Martin’s perspective and ministry.
This book is an invitation to spiritual growth. Martin poses questions throughout that challenge us to mull over and pray about our faith. When he talks of the call of Peter, and other ‘call’ narratives in the Gospels, he asks us too – what keeps us from following Jesus? Here is a rich jumping-off point into deeper exploration of the Gospels, their context, and our reaction. I found myself making a list of all Martin’s references, like leads in a mystery to be followed up and mined for clues to Jesus’ identity and character.
For those who plan their own pilgrimage to the Holy Land – the Fifth Gospel, as it has been called – Jesus: A Pilgrimage will be a valuable companion. For armchair pilgrims, Martin’s reliance on Ignatian methods of using imagination in prayer bring the sights, smells, and sounds of the Holy Land to us – the heat, the strenuous walking, the colour of the water, and the sound of the lake. Christians of long standing will enjoy Martin’s insights and gentle humour, while seekers and skeptics will gain fresh insight into the Christian understanding of Jesus that may help mitigate the current cultural bias against faith. I hope that the book’s length will not deter non-believers, as it is well worth the effort. Martin’s style is clear, engaging and non-academic. As he tells us encouragingly, “You’ve met my Jesus. Now meet your own.”
A pilgrimage is both a journey outwards into the world and a going inward to what is essential. This book truly is a pilgrimage. What stays with me, having followed Martin through the journey, is a simple question he poses in Chapter 13 – what would it mean for the storms to cease and for you to live more contemplatively? What, indeed.