Last fall, I traveled from central Ohio (where I live) to Harrisonburg, Virginia (where I lived for nineteen years—1981-2000), to speak in chapel at my alma mater, Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For reasons almost incidental to the actual address, it was one of the best short trips I’ve ever taken. Coming, as it did, two days after the presidential election, it was a salutary endeavor, a balm to my bruised and battered spirit. (The bruises were not solely the product of the election result, but that certainly didn’t help.)
At the conclusion of my talk, a long-time member of the seminary faculty invited Shirley and me to join her and a group of student/pilgrims this summer on a month-long visit to Israel and Palestine, the region traditionally known as The Holy Land. My wife had some knee surgery about a year ago, and she knew immediately that she would not be up to a trip requiring so much walking. After a week or so of deliberation, I too declined to join the study tour for that most practical of reasons—I simply could not afford it.
I had not given a lot of thought to that missed opportunity until I began reading the book I selected as number twelve in the series of fourteen titles I am highlighting during Lent 2017. Most of the fourteen were already on my “new books” shelf, either unread or partly read. I did, however, choose to purchase three titles specifically for inclusion in this series. The book called Jesus: A Pilgrimage, by Fr. James Martin, SJ, was one of those three.
I chose this title for three reasons. One, I had only recently become acquainted with Fr. Martin, a Jesuit priest and a contributing editor to America Magazine, the foremost Roman Catholic periodical distributed nationwide. The more I read from Fr. Father Martin, the more convinced I became that he and I are kindred spirits in many ways.
Two, I looked for a title that would be appropriate for the close of Lent and the Holy Week focus on the last days of Jesus prior to his crucifixion. And three, I was a Bible college instructor for fourteen years (1984-2008) and taught fifteen different courses during that time. The only course I taught every year—fourteen times across my career—was called Life of Christ. When I saw that Fr. Martin had written a book dealing with that very subject, it was obvious to me that I had to include it in this series, toward the end, so that its content would be reviewed during Holy Week.
Although I have taught a college-level course on the life and teaching of Jesus fourteen times in the classroom (and another time or two in other settings), I have, alas, never been to Israel. One of my students once said she was certain I knew more about first-century Palestine and the events and locations of major significance to Jesus’ life than anybody who had never been there.
At this stage of my life, I will probably never get to Israel, but reading Fr. Martin’s book is just about the next best thing. Like me, he had taught the content of the Gospels many times before he visited the land in the flesh. Five or six years ago, as he thought about writing a book about Jesus and at the urging of his editor-in-chief at America Magazine, he undertook a two-week pilgrimage to The Holy Land, accompanied by a friend who is also a Jesuit priest. The book Jesus: A Pilgrimage is the result.
It is a fairly long book, around 500 pages including notes, but Fr. Martin’s style of writing is so fluid and engaging that reading the book was a joy, not a chore. The book is part travelogue, part commentary on the Gospel narrative of Jesus’ life, and part theological reflection by a thoughtful scholar who references in helpful ways the work of others, both well-known and obscure, who have considered the implications of the life of Jesus over the years. The structure of the book’s content follows the sequential flow of the Gospel narrative, even though Fr. Martin’s travel itinerary required him to visit some of the sites out of chronological order.
Fr. James Martin is a Roman Catholic cleric, a member of the same Order (the Jesuits) as Pope Francis. He takes the Gospel account of Jesus’ life at face value, pretty much, but he does not engage in tortured attempts to harmonize the differences that arise when comparing the Gospel accounts. He regards Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament Messianic prophecies and one whose primary character traits were humility, service, and love.
This book would be of value to anyone looking for a contemporary summary of the life of Jesus accompanied by entertaining (and even humorous) elements from Fr. Martin’s personal pilgrimage. Toward the end of the book, the author succinctly summarizes what he has tried to accomplish in the book. “What I want most for you is to meet Jesus. You’ve met my Jesus. Now meet your own.”
If you’d like to watch, on YouTube, a 17-minute conversation about this book with Fr. Martin, click here.
Father James Martin is a voice all Christians need to hear today. Along with his writing for America Magazine, he has written a number of other books including a brand new book titled Building A Bridge. The book’s subhead summarizes its content and its purpose–How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. Early reports indicate the book is being well-received by Church leaders. The book is scheduled to be published on June 13 by HarperOne. If you’d like to read more about the book at Religious New Service, click here. I have not yet read the book, but I plan to do so very soon and will likely post a review on this blog.
Note: This is the twelfth in a series of fourteen special posts for Lent 2017. Each post references a different book, mostly recent works that I have found helpful and encouraging for my life pilgrimage, especially in light of major changes in my thinking and beliefs in the past decade or so. To read the introduction to the series that I posted on Ash Wednesday, click here. The posts follow the introduction in sequence, have appeared roughly twice a week, and will wrap up at the end of Lent on Saturday, April 15.