Pilgrim reflections

by Bridget Wagner, guest contributor to Bible Lands Explorer

  Visiting the Sea of Galilee. That’s Bridget, guest author, on the left.

Visiting the Sea of Galilee. That’s Bridget, guest author, on the left.

I became a believer in high school; making disciples is not a new concept to me. I’ve led small groups for years and the Lord has walked with me through several trials and dark seasons. Going to Israel, the Lord adjusted my vision and gave me a much deeper understanding of His Word.  

  The Chantilly group in the area of Mary’s well. Nazareth. Orthodox tradition suggests that in this place Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive, give birth to a son, and name him Jesus. See Luke 1:26-38    here   . Image by Melinda.

The Chantilly group in the area of Mary’s well. Nazareth. Orthodox tradition suggests that in this place Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive, give birth to a son, and name him Jesus. See Luke 1:26-38 here. Image by Melinda.

To SEE where events happened, to STAND where history was made, and to GRASP the meanings behind parables and stories brings a whole new dynamic to my Bible reading and ultimately my walk with the Lord.

  Visiting the Western Wall at night. The wall is not actually part of the ancient YHWH temple in Jerusalem, but rather is one face of an enormous platform built in the Herodian period. The platform supported porches, open courtyards, walls, and, in the center, the Second Temple. The “men’s side” of the Western Wall is pictured here. Image by Tess.

Visiting the Western Wall at night. The wall is not actually part of the ancient YHWH temple in Jerusalem, but rather is one face of an enormous platform built in the Herodian period. The platform supported porches, open courtyards, walls, and, in the center, the Second Temple. The “men’s side” of the Western Wall is pictured here. Image by Tess.

More than once, when standing at a site, hearing His Word and reflecting on what was being said and taught I became overwhelmed as the Holy Spirit removed walls and barriers that I didn’t even know I had.  I am able to love the Lord deeper and I have a stronger passion for His work and His children!

  Baptism in the Jordan River. The folk going into the water on left hand side of the photograph are in Israel-Palestine. The folk on the far bank are in the country of Jordan. Here at Qasr Yehud they meet. Image by Amy.

Baptism in the Jordan River. The folk going into the water on left hand side of the photograph are in Israel-Palestine. The folk on the far bank are in the country of Jordan. Here at Qasr Yehud they meet. Image by Amy.

Since I’ve been back, each day at work I have felt a tug at my heart as I realize I need to do things differently. I need to seek out the lost. I need to be more patient. I need to care more genuinely.  Maybe most important, I need to love more deeply. By making these small moves to be more like Jesus my actions will speak louder than my words as I GO!  MAKE DISCIPLES!  

  Visiting the Israel Museum with the troop from New Life Christian Church, Chantilly, Virginia.

Visiting the Israel Museum with the troop from New Life Christian Church, Chantilly, Virginia.


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Bridget Wagner was a member of the Bible Land Explorer group that traveled to Israel-Palestine in November of 2018. She makes her home in Centreville, Virginia.

He blowd his brains out his ears

The descent into Spain is rugged. The bright pastures of the sommets des pyrénées slip downslope, gradually at first, then furiously, precipitously, until they tumble into dense beech forests. Bob and I do the same. Spattered by mud, decorated with leaves, and swathed in shadow, we appreciate the contrast expressed in The Song of Roland.

“High were the peaks about them, and dark the vale and black,
Sombre the rocks around them, and terrible the track.”*
  Legend has it that Roland died somewhere in this landscape.   The view demands more lines from  Roland:  “Over the peak Lord Olivier now hasted him to go. / Out and across the realm of Spain an eager look he threw. / And he beheld the Paynim (Pagan) host that there together drew. / And from their gold-wrought helmets a blazing light did dance / On shield and broidered hauberk, on pennant and on lance” (laisse 82).

Legend has it that Roland died somewhere in this landscape. The view demands more lines from Roland: “Over the peak Lord Olivier now hasted him to go. / Out and across the realm of Spain an eager look he threw. / And he beheld the Paynim (Pagan) host that there together drew. / And from their gold-wrought helmets a blazing light did dance / On shield and broidered hauberk, on pennant and on lance” (laisse 82).

The reader of this famous chanson de geste (“song of heroic deeds”) must be cautious with its presentation of Battle of Roncevaux Pass (AD 778). The bards polished the details of the event for nearly three centuries. It is a high shine. Christian Basques become Muslims. A Frankish raid into Spain becomes a seven-year war. Numbers grow legs: hundreds of men become hundreds-of-thousands of men. Even after Roland was finally committed to paper and ink in the 11th century it continued to be shaped. Seven versions survive to this day. Kyle Glenn Cunningham put it like this: “Roland is an excellent example of how to understand secondary sources effectively; namely, it is a text that better reflects the time period in which it was written rather than the time period in which it is set.”**

I process bits of this medieval epic while walking the Camino de Santiago. That experience prompts three swipes here: first, the basic story that Roland tells; second, the manner of Roland’s death; and third, the relevance of Roland for the Bible Land Explorer. Let me take first two of these immediately and save the third for another day.

  Charles the Great or Charlemagne (left) instructs his son Pepin the Hunchback (right). Detail from a 10th century copy of a lost original from about 830. Source is    here.

Charles the Great or Charlemagne (left) instructs his son Pepin the Hunchback (right). Detail from a 10th century copy of a lost original from about 830. Source is here.

For those unfamiliar with this story of heroic good and unspeakable evil, recognize that Roland is a balanced presentation of four scenes.

The first and last scenes mirror each other and focus on the treachery of Ganelon and his punishment. Ganelon (Surprise!—the name is connected to the Italian notion of “despicable fraud”) is a Frankish baron who betrays the army of Charlemagne to the Muslim enemy. Tragically caught in this scheme is Charlemagne’s rearguard under the command of our dear Roland (Italian: Orlando or “noble”). Eventually Ganelon gets what he deserves and is drawn and quartered in a satisfying, if not somewhat messy, finale.

The two middle scenes of Roland mirror each other as well. Two extended battles are presented. In the first, Roland and his men are ambushed in a mountain pass near Roncevaux. The knights fight bravely but cannot overcome the odds and are martyred. In the mirroring scene, Charlemagne exacts vengeance on Roland’s ambushers. The battle action is quite grisly; men are skewered all over the place like Lil’ Smokies on gameday. Despite the carnage, lovely lines emerge in English translations of the Song like “How ill-fated thou wert” or “Here they will find us stark and dead smitten” and “Forthwith let us fly!”

For a child of the 70s I must confess that reading Roland prompts flashbacks to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Sick, I know (for the sake of old times and good smiles, try this link).

  This set of stained glass windows is found in the Real Colegiata de Santa María in Roncesvalles. It depicts Roland and his men in battle. The work was completed in 1909 by Jose Maumejean. See the full display    here.

This set of stained glass windows is found in the Real Colegiata de Santa María in Roncesvalles. It depicts Roland and his men in battle. The work was completed in 1909 by Jose Maumejean. See the full display here.

Roland’s sword Durendal dispatches hordes of the heathen to hell.*** But it is not the daring swordplay that leads to his death. At his side is another prop, the ivory Olifant. This hunting horn is fashioned from either the tusk of an elephant or the horn of a unicorn (depending on the version). When his rearguard troop is ambushed, Roland is implored to sound Olifant and signal Charlemagne’s army to return and save them. Roland refuses, claiming to do so would be ignoble. He chooses instead to fight for God and king. This he does against overwhelming odds until the battle is too far gone. In the end, the Archbishop-warrior Turpin convinces Roland to sound the horn and bring Charlemagne. The appeal this time not for the sake of a rescue, but to avenge and bury the dead. Roland is convinced. It will be his last act.

Olifant is blown with such force and duration that Roland’s brains leak out his ears and blood sprays from his mouth (see laisse 136 and laisse 170). It sounds like a Maynard Ferguson concert to me (for the impoverished souls who don’t know what I’m talking about, try the flashback here). I can only assume that Roland’s legacy as a head-exploding horn-player is akin to the legacy of Pheidippides among marathon-runners (“hey, here’s a brill idea: let’s sprint until we die!”).

Charlemagne hears Olifant from a distance and immediately recognizes the depth of the disaster. He wheels about. But it is too late for Roland and the rearguard. They have all been killed—martyrs glorious—with the blood of infidels on their swords and the praise of God on their lips.

  Detail from Simon Marmion’s 15th century work  Grandes Chroniques de France . Roland’s body twists under a tree. Beside him is Durendal and Olifant. Image from    here.

Detail from Simon Marmion’s 15th century work Grandes Chroniques de France. Roland’s body twists under a tree. Beside him is Durendal and Olifant. Image from here.

Bob and I emerge from the forest and encounter a compound of stone buildings. It is Roncevaux. Inside the compound is the 13th century Colegiata de Santa María. Adjacent to it is a hostel for tired pilgrims hiking the Camino de Santiago. We take our place in line and wait for a bunk assignment.

  Bob is alive after a hike declared to be “the most difficult of my life.” Welcome, Bob, to Roland’s Roncevaux.

Bob is alive after a hike declared to be “the most difficult of my life.” Welcome, Bob, to Roland’s Roncevaux.



*The Song of Roland (laisse 67). I draw my quotes from Leonard Bacon’s timeless 1914 English translation. An online version is available here. For a full critical introduction to the text, run to your local library and grab Gerard J. Brault’s The Song of Roland: An Analytical Introduction (University Park: Pennsylvania State, 1978).

**See the work here by Kyle Glenn Cunningham, “Historical Perspective and the Song of Roland,” page 1.

***Hidden in the pommel of the indestructible sword Durendal are four relics: a tooth of St Peter, blood from St Basil, hair from St Denis, and a scrap of garment from the Virgin Mary. These apparently made for some powerful chemistry. See laisse 175.


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We have several travel experiences to Bible Lands planned for 2019 (see list here). These are often organized on behalf of educational institutions or for church groups. If you are a leader who is interested in crafting a unique travel opportunity for your organization or if you are an individual who would like to join a group, shoot me an email at markziese@gmail.com.

A chain of whispered stories

A chain of whispered stories

The Pyrénées do not look imposing on a map. But don’t be fooled. This mountain chain between France and Spain is ancient, steep, and full of whispered stories.

A cup

A cup

This is the Spain you never heard about. It is old and earthy and green and has the feeling of something Irish, or maybe something out of a Tolkien universe. On cue, the sound of a bagpipe and penny whistle drifts through the door.

First touch

First touch

The Tower of Saint James in Paris, France, is impressive. Its architecture is pure gothic in style, with all the ribs and nubbins favored by pigeons. It rises 203 feet from the base to the noggin of Saint James who teeters on top. This tower was our first touch with the Camino de Santiago.

The grape farmer's story

The grape farmer's story

The grape farmer asked if we were pilgrims bound for Nájera. We affirmed the obvious.

"Do you know the story of the Camino?" His English was stained but it was clear enough.

Bob and I had notions, but we welcomed his company. We also welcomed the conversation that his question set in motion.

“No. Tell us.”

He found the body

He found the body

The bishop and his men cleared away the dense vegetation and discovered something amazing, something that no eye had seen for centuries: a tomb of stone containing three bodies.

The long ball

The long ball

Cold, rugged, tribal, self-sufficient, full of hardship, and barbaric. Hispania sounds like a long ball for a church plant. It also sounds like a job for a "Thunderboy."

James goes West (part 3)

James goes West (part 3)

I warned you early on. Caution is needed when exploring the legacy of James the Great. From the bunk where I am perched* it is the stuff of national epic. And when it comes to epics, the roar of the anthem can drown the melody of truth.

James goes West (part 2)

James goes West (part 2)

We know that James was beheaded in Jerusalem (See Acts 12:1-2). It makes sense that he would have been buried in the place where he was killed. Who would go the trouble to move a dead body? Especially a messy one.

Ah, but this where it gets interesting.

James goes West (part 1)

James goes West (part 1)

The story of the end of James the Great is described in the New Testament. Outside the New Testament, however, his story lives on. Part of that story is dedicated to a epic journey that the Bible is mum about, and part of that story is dedicated to a post-death appearance. Both of these accounts teeter wildly into the area of myth, but never say that to a Spaniard. It may cost you an eye.

The James Gang

The James Gang

Scholars have gone bald in the effort to identify the James Gang in the pages of the New Testament. Since I am losing hairs for other reasons, I'll let others tease out the details. Our focus is to identify the three "biggies."

Rabies is not the way to go (part 6)

Rabies is not the way to go (part 6)

The treatment for rabies is not what it used to be. 

Not so long ago it consisted of twenty or more painful shots into the abdomen delivered by a needle the size of a fencepost. This treatment is now obsolete, as I have (thankfully) discovered.

Rabies is not the way to go (part 3)

Rabies is not the way to go (part 3)

I rinsed with water from a hose. The clear imprint of teeth on my thigh would have made a dentist proud. But the wounds were also deep so they took a while to stop bleeding. Red streaks mixed with the water and dribbled down my leg and forearms.