Nazareth

Day 3 of our organized tour began in Nazareth. Like all organized tours, Day 1 & 2 is travel day, especially when it involves international flights. We were pleasantly reminded of this as we had made our own travel arrangements and arrived the day the tour was supposed to start based on the itinerary, but it was a day earlier than the rest of the tour group. This serendipitous situation allowed us to spend a day exploring Tel Aviv. Day 2 afternoon/evening was meeting up with the rest of the group at the airport and commuting to Nazareth for the night. As you can tell, this is probably our first tour package in a while (I vaguely recalled we may have taken one 35 years ago). We prefer to travel independently.

Nazareth is where we will spend our first three nights of our Holy Land Pilgrimage tour.

For the modern day pilgrims, there are several ‘risks’ that we must contend with. The first risk is that the crowds and some of their behaviors will likely influence one, as if one was a twig being tumbled along by a bubbling creek. There’s a rush to photograph the attraction. There’s a lot of posing by statues and selfies. There’s the invariable spill over chatter from tour leaders briefing nearby groups (we ourselves are guilty of that). Today’s smartphone camera is yesterday’s grafitti spray can.

The second risk is forgetting to don on the pilgrim’s glasses and hat. Good songs have a catchy beat and tune. Great songs marry meaningful words to the music. Likewise, a Pilgrimage experience marry what we ‘perceive’ with what we feel/sense and how that moves our inner self

My tips for the (Christian) Pilgrim are three fold:

1. Reflect and contemplate the religious significant of the location you are at. Give free reign to your imagination, heart and spirit.

2. Pray from within. Let that location’s significance move your heart. Give birth to that special intention.

3. Carry inside you a special memory-seed of the moments you spent there. It will germinate and flower in our life. In God’s time.

Our first visit was the Mount of Beatitudes (and where we caught our first sight of the Galilee Sea as we stood on terra firma). The church was built over the spot/area where the sermon was delivered. Having the Bible available on my smartphone allowed me to refer to the relevant scripture verses. It’s a lovely spot that one can easily spend an hour and immerse oneself. Imagine hearing Jesus preach those verses and just reflecting where and how these teachings apply to one’s life. My special intention and memory-seed was a specific beatitude that I desired to cultivate. For some, the message will be different. Unfortunately, as in all organized tours, the schedule dictates our ability to linger as our soul would like to.

The Church of the Multiplication of Loaves & Fishes was built over the rock where this miracle was performed. It really shouldn’t surprise any of us that we have all been multiplying our talents as we grew up and earned a living. The physical miracle should not be discounted. Perhaps the question to ourselves is where the largesse of our efforts have landed. Again, my specific prayer intention and memory-seed centered on this multiplication.

There is much symbolism that we might have easily overlooked if our guide, George had not mentioned. This church has a mosaic representation of four bread loaves and two fishes. But scripture refers to five loaves and two fishes. Did the artist make a mistake? No, he/she did not. The fifth loaf is represented by the hosts offered during Eucharist.

Magdala was a highlight. It’s an area found serendipitously as someone was building a resort. They found the runs of the oldest synagogue excavated in Galilee, one of seven first century synagogues. They found an intact stone base where the Torah would rest on. On the sides and top of the stone are intricate religious carvings.

Mary Magdalene came from this village, and Jesus very likely preached in the synagogue as it was located along the Via Maris, a major thoroughfare. Visualizing Jesus in the synagogue preaching and reading some scripture would be a powerful experience.

We celebrated Mass at a modern chapel with an altar designed like a fishing boat. This chapel was surrounded by a water moat, and the reflecting sunshine truly added special effects. I love the basement chapel with its original flooring and the painting. Below is just the central portion of said painting (only feet are depicted).

Faith heals.

Perhaps through Faith, one should seek self healing first, in all aspects, realized, hidden and spiritual. This is not selfish but recognition that one’s brokenness can only be truly healed by God.

I am excited as I see the construction taking place here as I can visualize how this center can lead to many fruits.

The Church of the Primacy of St. Peter on the shores of the Sea of Galilee was where Jesus prepared breakfast for the disciples after His Resurrection. The Church altar is built over the rocks where the fire was. It’s here where Jesus asks Peter three times whether Peter loves Jesus. Has God asked me three times or more on some specific Will of His?

We ended a packed day with a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. Since the River Jordan flows through the Sea of Galilee onto the Dead Sea where it ends, our guide astutely noted the Sea of Galilee would be there widest part of the River.

The Sea had a thin layer of brownish algae one tree pollen. It was extremely calm. During one stage, birds that were floating on the Sea suddenly flew around our boat, circling our moving boat multiple times. I had a surreal sensation that we were being greeted on the Sea.

The boat crew played some Israeli music and let us in a group dance. Oolah lah.

Thus, the day ended. Mind and spirit renewed.

Nazareth and Cana

Day 4. The Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth was built over the home of the Virgin Mary, where the angel Gabriel appeared. Along an exterior corridor and inside the Basilica, are artwork of the Virgin Mary, donated by churches from various countries. There was a sublime beauty to these artwork. The Virgin Mary plays an important intercessory role in the Catholic Church, given her multiple apparitions, such as at Fatima, Guadalupe, Lourdes, etc.

Donation from USA

Donation from Indonesia

It was unfortunate that access to the lower level was closed today, as we wanted to view the plaque where it’s written in Latin, ‘The Word was made flesh here’.

We adjourned next door to the church of St Joseph. The courtyard had a number of beautiful sculptures and plaques. This modern interpretation of the Annunciation was stunning.

Our Parish Priest re-iterated St Joseph’s obedient role in the caring of Mary and Jesus. And it seemed appropriate to pray for St Joseph and Mary’s intercession to acquire the parental wisdom and patience for our own families.

The highlight of today, made possible because we traveled with our Parish Priest, was renewing our wedding vows at the Church where Jesus performed his first miracle at Cana. This miracle was the changing of water into wine at a wedding celebration. There were 12 couples, with the longest marriage at 51 years. We will celebrate our 35th anniversary in May. Sharing a common faith bonds a couple beyond measure. We are blessed to have found each other.

I noticed the next group that has booked the chapel was conducting a wedding, with the bride in white and the groom in a suit! What a memorable location.

A late afternoon excursion to Hermon Stream (Banias) nature reserve brought us to the area where Peter was divinely inspired to answer Jesus question of who people said He was, with, ‘You are the Messiah, Son of the Living God’. There are great walking trails with waterfalls and a strong flowing river, fed by mountain snow.

Love conquers all things,

Let us too surrender to love.

Roman poet Virgil

Mt. Tabor & Jericho

Day 5. This morning was a test of patience as we waited to board shuttle vans to the top of Mt. Tabor, and for the return ride (at least 45 mins wait each time). It seemed that many tours schedules had this in their itinerary today. Isn’t a Pilgrimage, one that sharpens various virtues?

The architect, Antonio Barlucci, designed his first church here, the Church of the Transfiguration. The facade reflects the three tents offered by the disciples, to shelter Jesus, Elijah and Moses.

Facade of the Church of the Transfiguration

The Greek root word for the translation Transfiguration is metamorphor. As in a butterfly’s metamorphosis from a caterpillar. But in Christ’s case, the Transfiguration revealed His inner Divinity. Can we have our own form of transfiguration as the Holy Spirit in-dwells within us?

Inner sanctum and altar

The upper level is flanked by two sanctuaries, dedicated to the Holy Spirit (dove) and the Father (eye).

It is said that the only constant is change. Further, literature abounds with references to the inner beauty within each of us, and releasing our inner child. Matthew 18:3 “And He said, Amen I say to you, unless you change and become like little children, you shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” Ergo, let’s transfigure from within.

We proceeded to Jericho, rescheduling the visit to the baptismal site on Jordan River due to the delay at Mt. Tabor. Jericho is the lowest city in the world, 250 meters below sea level. The tree that Zachhaeus climbed to see Jesus is still standing!

Zachhaeus tree

Being able to attend Mass daily with fellow parishioners, conducted by our Parish Priest, Father Jim Coyne, has been a blessing. The readings and sermons are relevant to the location.

Father Jim at Church of the Good Shepherd.

We skipped lunch today, as three days and nights of buffet breakfasts and dinners have taken their toll. It’s easy to feel when the physical body is imbalanced. Let’s pray that this Pilgrimage sharpens our sense of spiritual imbalance.

Observations and Reflections

After 2,000 years, all the towns and villages are very much developed. Construction continues healthily as we spied several cranes. Most structures in the Holy Land are either two or three stories high, exception being governmental or military related complexes.

There’s a uniform sandstone coloration as they use local stones and rocks that do NOT need to be painted. The weather is such that it doesn’t seem to cause any discoloration. Very green, and not a market for the paint companies.

Traffic flows as there seems to be a tacit understanding when to give way. While there’s a bit of vehicle horning taking place, it’s the ‘polite’ horning that can be easily differentiated from the ‘angry’ variety.

The food being served in the hotel buffets abound with vegetarian options, prepared Mediterranean style. We had indulged too much in the desserts, leading to a waist stress. It was an easy decision for me to forgo future desserts. I had read somewhere that for some situations, it’s easier to totally abstain than attempting to moderate step by step. I get to also exercise self discipline.

Our guide had been encouraging us to defer any purchases until Bethlehem. He claimed that most of the handicraft in other towns and villages are made in China. In addition, he was bringing us to a shop run as a cooperative where 64 Christian families are handcrafting their works. The olive wood art pieces are truly beautiful. We made some purchases.

Prices in the majority of shops and cafes in touristic locations in the Holy Land are in USD. One time, I over paid in New Israeli Shekels (NIS) for a simple vegetarian falafel. The change was in USD dollars.

Pricing is about and sometimes above USA levels. Perhaps one of the reasons is the appreciation of the NIS. I did wander into two local grocery stores in Bethlehem as latter’s hotel was more centrally located. Things were priced in NIS and much more reasonable.

The number of large tour groups is very high. It seems we are in the peak season in March, as it’s cooler than summer. One option is participating in a small tour group of 6 or less. This allows said smaller group to skip the long lines at the Church of the Nativity (it took us 3 hours from start to end!).

Milk Grotto, Masada

Day 7. Miracles have taken place here in modern times in the Milk Grotto. Latter is so named as Mother Mary nursed baby Jesus in the grotto. Some milk fell on the ground and turned the grotto walls white. Powder is extracted and it’s that powder when taken, say with prepared foods, that provide the healing associated with this site. People with fertility issues have been able to bear children, including our tour guide’s wife who had two miscarriages. Testimonials of other healing are mounted on the wall in the shop in this complex.

Sculpture over the exit doorway

Altar in the grotto

One of the most beautiful chapels. A Sister Nun is always present, praying.

Close up of the Blessed Sacrament on display.

We celebrated Mass at this Church of the Mother of God.

This amazing day, like the others was just getting started. Due to some concerns, the afternoon itinerary was adjusted and we made a trip to Masada. This is a must see as this was King Herod’s winter palace.

We passed the Dead Sea and Wadi Qumran (where the scrolls were found) on the way to Masada. Former continues to drop 1 foot each year.

Masada is a fortress palace. It’s also known as the place where the second Jewish uprising ended with the suicide of all the Jews inside, except for 5 children and 2 women who hid themselves. The alternative facing these freedom fighters was slavery. The Romans were known for their cruelty as they imposed order across their empire (crucified rebels took days to die an excrutiating death).

The King’s bedroom, bathroom, living quarters are located for stupendous views across the valley (from 500 feet above).

Oh, the King lived like a king. They found wine bottles and mosaic tiles from Italy.

We saw many (young ones) who decided to walk up to the complex via the ‘snake path’ rather than take the cable car!

There’s much architectural thought that went into the design of the complex that one can spend hours here. How they captured rain from the surrounding hills and mountains via ducts that drain into water cisterns, and subsequently, use donkeys to ferry up and store in the complex itself. There’s a cast model to show this water collection!

The steam rooms’ floor rest on top of supports. Water is ducted into the steam room, vaporized by a heat source and conducted into the ceiling area by hollow tiles on the side. Finally, the ceiling is domed so that water doesn’t drop on you! Aha, that’s why the old Turkish bath houses had a dome!

Cast model of the fortress palace

Steam room

View across the valley

The squarish demarcation of one of the Roman camps during the siege. This was the largest camp which the Roman general was based in.

Ruins in the complex

Pigeons were kept for food and their poop used as fertilizer for the vegetable gardens

Our day was completed by having dinner with local Christian families who are to host us. This is a real treat eating home cooked meals and hearing their stories.

At dinner, something occurred that deepened my self awareness post event. I was missing a glass for the beverage. Mid dinner, as I topped up a companion’s glass, another companion took an empty glass from an unoccupied seating. I interpreted that she was passing the glass to me for my own use. So, I filled it up and set it next to my plate. I don’t recall what the trigger was, but I suddenly realized that she herself was missing a glass and had wanted it filled for herself. Of course, I immediately passed to her and our host got up to get one more glass. The insight occurred to me the next morning.

When we have a need, and the ‘solution’ appears, we quickly reach for it. Perhaps we should slow down and see if someone else is in similar or greater need.

Kudos to our tour company, the Holy Land Tours, for rapidly responding to on the ground circumstances, offering an alternative that was much better and creating that local connection with families.

Jerusalem

Day 8. There are many great cities around the world that residents and visitors will attest to. And there’s Jerusalem. A city above all else, that billions of people from three religions revere. Where history shaped lives for millennia. It’s intoxicating to imagine what was, what is and what will be.

We started the day with a visit to a Catholic School that takes in children with challenging backgrounds and will not do well in normal public schools. We had known about this prior to departing USA, and many of us had bought multivitamins and school supplies to give to them. Each child at different age levels are given an individual learning plan. They typically spend three years with two years of follow up to ensure they are able to adjust to normal school life or vocational opportunities. They can help more with greater financial support. Giving does enlarge one’s life.

Next was a visit to the Chapel of the Ascension, on the Mount of Olives. This is where Jesus ascended to heaven. It was an enclosed space with openings to let light in. One of Jesus’ footprints is in the floor in this chapel. The other footprint is in the Al Aqsa mosque.

Chapel of the Ascension

We then walked to the Church of Pater Noster, where underneath is a cave where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer. An Italian princess Aureli Bossi, completed the Church in 1847. It now has 185 translations of the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father.

The Lord’s Prayer in Aramic and Hebrew

It was a downhill walk to the Dominus Flevit (Church of Tears) where Jesus wept for Jerusalem. It was designed by the same architect, Antonio B. This church was closed. The altar windows faces Jerusalem.

Corners represent tears and four corners of the Earth

We proceeded to a viewing point on Mount Olive, with spectacular views of Jerusalem. Our guide George then provided a masterful commentary of Jesus last days, tracing his journey into Jerusalem and all the key locations in the vista in front of us. As George was a Catholic himself, he could appropriately refer to the scriptures and add the local Jerusalem teachings. History came alive in front of us!

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

There are Jewish and Muslim cemeteries in the Kidron Valley and just off the walls. For the Hebrews, they believe the bodies in this Jewish cemetery will be the first to resurrect, highlighting its primacy.

Our next stop was the Garden of Getsemane, where a small rectangular plot of olive trees are maintained.

Garden plot is approx 1200 square meters in size

Next to it is a very beautiful Church of the Agony (aka Church of All Nations, as ceiling murals have various countries recognized). This church is also designed by Antonio Barluzzi, aka Architect of the Holy Land. At the altar base is the Rock of Agony where Christ prayed at.

The altar

Mural above the altar

The entire ceiling is decorated like wise with different country symbols.

One of the stained glass windows

Other visits included The Last Supper Room and King David’s Tomb, both in the same complex.

Most sites we have visited so far are managed by a Christian organisation. These two sites are managed by the Israeli Ministry. Thus, the (not original) Last Supper Room had also been used for Islamic purposes, and this had some Islamic inscriptions and stained windows. There only Christian symbol allowed in this room is a metal Olive tree, the branches and shoots representing the ok from shoots from Jesse. The grapes represent the wine/blood and the wheat at the base of tree, represents the bread/body.

Next stop was the Dormition Abbey. The Abbey was where Mother Mary was taken up directly to heaven three days after she passed away.

A sculpture of a sleeping Mother Mary

Black Madonna and baby Jesus mural in the Abbey

Our final visit today was the Holy Sepulcher where we celebrated Mass at one of the chapels inside the Church. An unforgettable experience.

Chapel inside the Church of the Sepulcher where we celebrated celebrated Mass

After which, we lined up to view Christ’s empty tomb. Both empty tombs viewed today represent the beliefs and promises that Catholics believe in.

Jerusalem Redux

Day 9. Bethesda Pools was one of three locations in Jerusalem where Jesus performed miracles (a lame person sitting by the polls was healed). The Jews believed the first person in the pools for the day was definitely healed, so, there was typically a rush when it opens (according to our guide, some even climb over the gates before opening hours you beat the rush). Is there a non-religious or non-spiritual equivalent in this modern times? Yes, as we have psychiatrists, counsellors, doctors, etc. Can we in our own ways be channels of healing for those around us, in our work and occupations, during our rest and play, during our social interactions, during our parenting, etc?

Remnants of the Bethesda Pools, with a few remaining columns of the 5

Next to the Pools is a church built by the Crusaders, one of two still standing in Jerusalem. This is the Church of St Anne.

St Anne was the mother of the Virgin Mary. There is minimal decorations in this church. However, the acoustics is amazing. Singing in the middle of the Church nave amplifies the sounds throughout the Church. Our group and others same various Christian hymns.

Church of St Anne

Sculpture of St Anne and Mary as a child.

We then proceeded along the Via Dolorosa, following the Stations of the Cross, which traces Jesus torture, sentencing, carrying of the Cross, crucifixion, death and burial. The later stations are in the Church of Sepulcher.

First station, a stained window depicting Jesus being sentenced.

Pontious Pilate washing his hands.

The ceiling’s mural is a crown of thorns.

The Via Dorosa is chock full of shops on both sides, catering mainly to tourists. There was the scattering shops that obviously cater to the locals. It can be quite over-whelming.

Each of the various quarters, Muslim, Jewish and Christian, have its own character and ambience.

Our last visit for the day was St Peter Church in Gallucantu (in Latin, it means cock-crow). This church was built over the house/palace of Caiaphas, the High Priest who presided over the Sanhedrin.

This was also where Jesus was imprisoned before being handed over to the Romans. We had a moving prayer and singing session at the dungeon level.

Atypical mural above an altar – Jesus with hands tied.

A wall mural

Above is a 180 degrees panaromic picture of the main chapel

Illustrative of how the walls in dungeons have holes through which ropes are passed through to bind prisoners

The actual road that Jesus took to walk into Jerusalem

Peter’s denial of Jesus three times shows how fallible human nature is. Yet, that mis-step did not deter Peter from fulfilling his mission, to build the Church body that Jesus assigned to him. Perhaps that’s the most important message from today.