Visiting the Holy Land
Before venturing off to Israel for a six-day trip sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, Tony Gosgnach, this paper’s assistant editor, said to me that just as every Muslim of means is expected to make a trip to Mecca once in a lifetime, so should every Christian who can afford to do so make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This made sense to me before the trip to Israel, but once I was there, it was even clearer that Tony’s idea was true.
Travelling in northern Israel, including Nazareth, Tiberias and the area around Galilee. Mount Tabor, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, gives one a deeper understanding of the stories of the Bible and the life of Jesus. One of the more striking thoughts is that the “world” of Jesus was very small. Nazareth is about 150 kilometres from Bethlehem (although it would have been a more difficult journey through hilly country and desert 2,000 years ago).
Neither words or pictures (even if each one is worth a 1,000 words) can adequately capture the sense of awe and peace and holiness that a pilgrim will have visiting the Holy Land, so I will not even try to capture these feelings. Rather, I will describe the opportunities where such reflection took place.
“And seeing the multitudes, He went up into a mountain, and when He set down, his disciples came unto him. And open his mouth, He taught them…” (Matt 5:1-2)
The Sea of Galilee, which is really a lake (21 kilometres long, 13 kilometres wide), was the region in which Jesus spent his (recorded) adult life with the Apostles. It is amazing to think, and at times difficult to believe, that Jesus walked the shores of the Sea of Galilee or hiked up similar hills that we, more than two millennia later, traversed. And while the Catholic chapel, the Church of the Beatitudes, is the “historically accepted” site of Christ’s famous Sermon on the Mount, whether Jesus delivered his famous lesson to his disciples exactly there is not terribly relevant. It if wasn’t on that hill, it was delivered on any number of other hills within eye shot.
The Franciscan chapel, built in 1938, is a small sanctuary with the Beatitudes on stained-glass windows and is surrounded by beautifully modest gardens and a brilliant view of the Sea of Galilee. For those with the time to do so – the Israeli tourism ministry (understandably) crammed our schedule to see as many things as possible in the week we were there – the site, also known as Mount Eremos, is a wonderful place to pray and reflect on the teachings of Christ as enumerated in Matthew 5-7.
“And leaving the city of Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capharnaum on the sea coast …” (Matt 4:13)
Near the Mount of Beatitudes is Capernaum, the town of Jesus, the home of the apostles Andrew, James, John and Peter. According to Matthew, Christ lived there, although according to Luke (4:31), he merely came to the town and “taught them on the Sabbath days.” It was in Capernaum that Jesus performed several miracles, including cleansing a man of an unclean devil at the synagogue (Luke 4:33-36), healing the mother law of Simon Peter (Matt 5:14-15; Luke 4:38-39) and healing the Roman centurion’s servant (Matt 5: 5-13).
Today, visitors can walk among the remains of a the White Synagogue, built in the fourth or fifth century A.D. It is believed to be built upon the remains of an older synagogue which, if true, would probably be the synagogue that Jesus taught in on Sabbath days.
At Capernaum, there is also St.Peter’s church, built several feet above the ground, over the remains of a fifth-century octagonal Christian church and the historically accepted home of the apostle Peter, as well as other ruins and remains (such as olive presses and pottery).
“And when He entered into the boat, his disciples followed him.” (Matt 8:23)
At the Man in Galilee museum, there is a display of a fishing boat, dating to the time of Jesus. It is miraculous that the wooden structure survived two millennia in freshwater and a presentation at the Bet Yigal Alon centre shows the nearly heroic effort to salvage the historic boat during a 12-day archeological dig. The Galilee boat – perhaps a fishing boat, perhaps a transportation vessel – was found by two brothers in 1986 during a drought that had the water levels of the Sea of Galilee several metres lower than usual.
The boat is dubbed “the Jesus Boat” because of the possibility that Christ actually used it, and if not this one, one very much like it; there are more than 50 mentions of Jesus and boats in the Bible. The boat was certainly used by someone who was poor, because better vessels were usually made with one kind of wood, but this one was built with 12 different kinds of wood (representing the 12 apostles, maybe?).
The boat is displayed in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room and there is an unrelated art gallery on the second floor.
“He dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that He might be fulfilled which was said by the prophets: that He call be called a Nazarene.” (Matt 2: 23)
Nazareth is the largest Arab town in Israel and it was noticeable that in front of the Church of the Assumption, there was a large sign quoting the Koran and the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, was heard in the background. The church is located at the site where, according to Catholic tradition, the Annunciation took place in Nazareth (Luke 1: 26-38); the Greek Orthodox have St. Gabriel’s Church located where Mary was drawing water at a spring outside (then) the city of Nazareth, the site where some Orthodox believe the Annunciation occurred.
The church was built in 1969 over the site of two earlier Christian churches (Byzantine and Crusader eras) and beneath the two-storey structure is the Grotto of the Annunciation, believed to be the childhood home of Mary. The is famous for its dome (modelled on the Madonna lily) and, of course, the grotto, but the outside and inside art, depictions of Mary and Jesus from around the world (Japan, Spain, Italy, Vietnam, Ecuador and dozens of others places) was a personal highlight.
Behind the Annunciation church is a smaller Basilica of St. Joseph and grotto, located where early Christian tradition held was the carpentry workshop of the father of Jesus, although later traditions suggest the grotto is the house of the Holy Family.
Both the churches are maintained by the Franciscans.
“After six days, Jesus taketh with him Peter and James and John and leadeth them up into a high mountain apart by themselves and was transfigured before them. And his garments became shining and exceeding white as snow, so as no fuller upon earth can make white.” (Mark 9:1-2)
The Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, built in 1924 by the Franciscans, marks the historically accepted location where Jesus transfigured before three of his disciples. Elijah and Moses appeared beside Jesus – and there is stunning art behind the altar to commemorate this event – and God called Christ his Son. It is here that Jesus tells Peter that He will suffer and die for them.
The view from outside the church, which is about 600 metres above sea level, is stunning. You can see (rebuilt) natural vegetation, including pines, and farther away, farmland and hills. Vans and cars can make the trip up the road that snakes up the mountain, but the adventurous can walk the trail up the side of the mountain; early Christians had to walk up more than 4,000 steps.
“When Jesus therefore was born in Bethlehem of Juda, in the days of King Herod, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem” (Matt 2:1)
Despite having to leave our Israeli guide and escort (driver) in Jerusalem because they are not allowed in the Palestinian-controlled territory, venture through the security and find our own cab to the holy sites we wanted to visit, the trip into Bethlehem, behind the famous Israeli security fence, was simple and safe. Our cab driver doubled as a tour guide, taking us to Shepherd’s Field, where the angel appeared to shepherds (Luke 2: 8-15). The Greek Orthodox church is built into a cave and at a different site and the Catholic church is built to resemble a tent.
From there we went to the Milk Grotto, where Mary, Joseph and Jesus hid from Herod’s soldiers during the Slaughter of the Innocents, and then to the Church of the Nativity. The Church of the Nativity, administered jointly by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic churches, is located at the site where Jesus is said to have been born. Underneath the altar of the main church is the Grotto of the Nativity, an underground cave where a 14-point, silver star marks the birthplace of Jesus. About four metres away is another altar (and manger scene) marking the site where Mary laid the newborn Jesus.
There are numerous other chapels (Chapel of Joseph which marks the angel’s appearance to Joseph), the Chapel of the Innocents (commemorating the children killed by Herod in the Slaughter of the Innocents) and the Chapel of St. Jerome (where he translated the Bible into Latin).
“Then Jesus took unto him the 12 and said to them: Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things shall be accomplished which were written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man.” (Luke 18:31)
We spent two days in Jerusalem, an incomparable city. Tel Aviv is the commercial centre of the country and is, for better or worse, very Western. Tiberias is a resort town. But there is nothing quite like Jerusalem.
As a tourist in 2008, the city is a strange combination of ancient wonder and modern vibrancy, with Western-style jewellery stores literally within a stone’s throw of the ancient wall around the Old City, a square-kilometre city that was, until the late 1800s, the entirety of Jersusalem. Within the city is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, shared by several Christian churches that marks the place of Christ’s death and burial.
The Tomb of Jesus is a popular pilgrimage destination and another part of the church marks the purported spot where the cross on which Christ died was on the Hill of Calvary. The Chapel of Invention of the Holy Cross is where what is thought to be the remnants of Christ’s cross were found and in the entrance is the Stone of Anointing, where Joseph of Arimathea is thought to have prepared Christ’s body for burial.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre houses five of the final stations of the cross that make up the Via Dolorosa, the path that Jesus is believed to have walked leading up to his Crucifixion. Today, the Via Dolorosa winds its way through bricked city streets lined with shops. Some provide wonderful opportunities for prayer and reflection – for example, a small Armenian chapel houses a beautiful depiction of Christ falling for the first time (the third station) while the meeting between Jesus and Veronica (the sixth station) is merely marked on the outside of a church now closed to the public.
From the Mount of Olives – an area east of the Old City – is where Jesus taught his disciples after leaving Galilee and the modern visitor has a spectacular view of the Old City, including its walls, the Temple Mount (a holy site for Jews) and the Dome of the Rock, the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Fakhariyyah Minaret (holy and famous Muslims sites). At the foot of the Mount of Olives is the Garden of Gethsemane.
Our tour of Israel also included historical sites such as Caesarea and Bet She’an, the Dead Sea and Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered).
Caesarea National Park is home to the former Roman capital built by Herod to impress his Roman masters. The park houses the 2,000-year-old rocky remains of Herod’s palace, an amphitheatre, a hippodrome, bathhouses and port and there is a computerized “Caesarea Experience” presentation, which brings the history of the area alive, including the Crusades. The dry-moat and walls of Crusader-time city protection remain.
The Bet She’an excavations of Scythopolis has ruins dating back to 1,500 BC, with Egyptian remains going back to the ninth century B.C. and Hellenistic ruins from the third century B.C., including columns, bathhouses, and an amphitheatre.
Another highlight of the trip, about which I will write another time, was the visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum and memorial.
I was wearing three hats during my trip to Israel: my tourist hat, my journalist hat and my pilgrim hat. I didn’t spend enough time wearing that last hat and would love to return purely as a pilgrim. That said, I found my faith deepened and reinforced. I can’t say why (because I don’t know). Perhaps it was the greater understanding of biblical stories that comes with familiarity with the region; perhaps it was the chance to reflect on the beautiful art on display in many of the churches; perhaps it was the knowledge that about 2,000 years ago Jesus lived in the area that we covered during our six-day stay.
I don’t know why and I’m not sure it would make any sense if I did know, but I do know I returned spiritually refreshed.