This book is an invitation into the life and times of Jesus and how he's still speaking to us today.
Aleteia posed six questions to Fr. James Martin, SJ, about his latest book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage, published by HarperOne. The book brings the Gospels alive and allows both believers and seekers to encounter the historical Jesus through Scripture, prayer, and travel, as well as to ponder how Jesus still speaks to each of us today.
1) What inspired the book?
For many years, I had hoped to write a book about Jesus, who is the center of my life. But the time never seemed right, and I couldn’t figure out how to approach it. It’s such a big topic, obviously, and I wanted to do it justice.
Then a few years ago, it suddenly seemed like the right time. The kairos, if you will. In general, I tend to trust the Spirit working within me on these matters, and I was filled with a desire to write about Jesus.
So, I started thinking about which Gospel stories I wanted to include, to trace the life of Christ. Believe it or not, I thought I might do them all—yes, all of them—but I soon realized that no one wanted to read a 5,000-page book on the life of Christ.
My editor at the time, Drew Christiansen, SJ, suggested that if I wanted to write about Jesus that I should make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. After some reluctance, I decided to go. In the end, I went with a good friend of mine, another Jesuit. That gave the book some real-life narrative, and even some funny stories.
Each chapter, then, took shape: each has the Gospel passage about a stage in Jesus’s life, some real-life travel narrative about what the place looks like today, and some spiritual reflections at the end. So it’s a life of Christ, told according to the sequence of his life, through three genres: biblical study, travel narrative and spiritual writing.
2) If you could give this book another title, what would it be?
Funny enough, I first wanted to call it Jesus of Galilee, because that name is a bit different (as opposed to the more familiar “Jesus of Nazareth” or “Jesus Christ”). And it was in Galilee that I really felt I came to know him during our pilgrimage. But calling it Jesus of Galilee might, as my publisher reminded me, might make people feel that it was only about Jesus’ time in Galilee, that is, the beginning of his public ministry, when in fact it’s about his entire life.
3) What person in this book do you most personally identify with?
Like many people, St. Peter. Richard Rohr, OFM, once wrote that we often come to God not by doing right but by doing wrong. In other words, an awareness of our own sinfulness enables us to more closely follow Jesus. I love the story of the Call of Peter in Luke (5:1-11), when Peter, after seeing the miraculous catch of fish, falls to his knees and says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” It’s so human. Before the divine, we are so aware of our own failings. And yet Jesus still calls him—with full awareness of Peter’s sins.
It’s rather beautiful that at the beginning of the Gospels, Peter confesses his sinfulness. And at the very end of the Gospels, in the story of the Breakfast by the Sea in John 21, when the Risen Christ offers him forgiveness, he is also confronting his sinfulness. And both times Jesus calls him, aware of his sinfulness. Maybe that’s one reason Jesus called him to lead the Church. A more “perfect” disciple might not be as aware of his need for God’s mercy.
4) Did writing this book teach you anything?
Yes, that the topic of Jesus is inexhaustible. After the book was published, I realized that there was still so much I wanted to say about him. But as the old saying goes, he’s a mystery to be pondered, not a problem to be solved. That’s part of my fascination with him.
5) If there is one person you want to reach with this book, who would that be?
Any author would say everyone! But I hope that among these people is someone curious about Jesus, but who has never really encountered him through the Gospels.
6) What is the ideal beverage to have in hand while reading your book?
I wouldn’t want anyone to be drunk while reading this book, so probably not a glass of wine, biblical though that may be. And if I say coffee it will make it sound like you need something to keep you up! So maybe a cup of tea, like you’d have with a friend in your kitchen or in some diner, while you both catch up on each other’s lives. I hope that when people read this book, they feel like they’re meeting a new friend, or getting to know an old friend in a new way: that is, Jesus.