By Jay Mason
“You are the God that works wonders. You showed your power among the peoples.”
Psalm 77: 14
I had never wanted to visit the Holy Land. I always thought it was a dangerous place, and as a Christian I was satisfied to practice my faith in a safe place. God had another plan for me. Several years ago my wife and I were selected as a Knight and Lady of the Holy Sepulchre. This pontifical order dates back to the Middle Ages and supports a Christian presence in the Holy Land. One of the goals of a Knight or Lady is to visit the Holy Land during his or her lifetime. Our chance came in 2011 when we traveled with our friend and now Bishop Conley to the Holy Land.
We flew to Tel Aviv and boarded a bus northward to Tiberius along the Sea of Galilee. I still didn’t know what to expect when we left the hotel the next morning for Mount Tabor. We arrived at the foot of the mountain and were transported up the steep road by the Bedouins who have the transportation contract from the Israeli government. As we approached the church it started to become clear to me that this was not an ordinary place.
Most of the Christian shrines in Israel are landmarked by a Catholic church. This occurred after St. Francis of Assisi and his order, the Franciscans, were allowed by the Muslims to preserve the Christian sites. Some of these churches were rebuilt in the early 1900s by an Italian architect, Antonio Barluzzi. He attempted to build churches that reflected what happened in that particular place. Jesus’ Transfiguration took place on Mount Tabor, and Moses and Elijah appeared to Christ. The church’s center has three Romanesque windows representing the three main figures of the Transfiguration. That day I learned that at the Transfiguration Moses did two things that he had never done while on Earth: first, he saw God (Christ) face to face and he set foot in the Promised Land. I realized then that I was standing on sacred ground.
Next we traveled to nearby Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, and visited the Church of the Annunciation. This church commemorates the place where Mary learned from the Angel Gabriel that she was carrying the Son of God in her womb. The grotto under the church is the level of Nazareth at the time of Christ. We prayed at the grotto, and it was hard to comprehend fully that I standing very near the place where God became Man on Earth. If you believe in God and believe that His Son dwelt among us, it would be very difficult to pray at a more spiritual place.
Later that day we bussed to Cana, where Christ performed his first miracle at a wedding feast. Normally pilgrim couples renew their vows at the church. My wife decided that we would participate, and after the ceremony with 25 couples, a tiny Franciscan nun played the Wedding March. When we returned to the hotel, we noticed that the staff was constructing tents next to the hotel. We learned our hotel was kosher and that the Jewish feast of Sukkot or Feast of the Tabernacles began that week. The feast dates back to the Old Testament and reminds the Jews of their early nomadic life in tents and the bringing of the Law to the people of Israel. Prayers and celebrations last the entire week.
That was the first day in Galilee. I realize now that we saw so many important places that it was almost impossible to appreciate the experience. The next day we went to Capernaum, which is now an archeological site but was an important town along the shores of Galilee in Christ’s time. Peter and his family lived there, and a beautiful church has been built over Peter’s house. Christ healed Peter’s mother-in-law in that house, and you can look into the house from above as you pray in the church. The Church itself is in the shape of a teardrop to commemorate the tears of joy from the miracle.
Capernaum is also the site of the best preserved synagogue in the area. We used seating along the wall of the synagogue to listen to a meditation on Capernaum. It was hard to believe that we were seated in a place where Christ preached two thousand years earlier, and that Peter and Andrew sat in our seats listening to the teaching of Jesus.
From the synagogue you could see the Sea of Galilee, and that afternoon we boarded a boat made to resemble the fishing boats used by the disciples who fished in these waters at the time of Christ. While we listened to a meditation on Jesus’ ministry on the Sea of Galilee, I imagined what it was like to see Christ calm the waters of the rough seas and walk on the water before his disciples. We also were very near the place where Christ, after his resurrection, told his disciples to cast their nets in the waters, and they caught so many fish they could barely bring them to shore. In 1986 an actual fishing boat from the 1st century was excavated and is on display for pilgrims to view at a nearby kibbutz.
Later that week we went to the Church of the Beatitudes, which was built by Barluzzi in an octagonal shape to represent the eight beatitudes given by Christ. The church is located on the mount where it is thought that Christ preached the Sermon on the Mount, which gave Christians the way to live the Christian life. We celebrated Mass at an outdoor chapel overlooking the Sea of Galilee and imagined what the followers of Christ thought when Christ preached to them so many years ago. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall inherit the Earth” (Matthew 5: 1-2).
We saw many more sites along the Sea of Galilee, including where Christ fed the five thousand and cooked a campfire with Peter after the resurrection. We crossed into Jordan (not an easy task) and later followed the Jordan River to the traditional place of the baptism of Jesus. The Jordanian government has allowed many Christian denominations to build beautiful churches in the area along the river. We renewed our baptismal vows along the Jordan where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. We crossed back into Israel (easier) and arrived in Jericho, one of the oldest cities on earth that dates back to 5000 B.C. From Jericho you can see the Temptation Mount where Christ was tempted by the Devil. We also visited a Christian school that receives support from our order. Only 2% of the Holy Land is Christian, and most of those Christians are Palestinians. Many Muslim children also attend this school, and it is hoped that these children will learn something other than radical Islam at school and help bring peace to the region.
I reflected on all the places I had seen after one week in the Holy Land and thought if it was my time to leave this Earth, Lord, take me now. I have walked where Jesus walked and prayed where Jesus prayed and taught. It cannot get much better than this, and then we went to Jerusalem and it did.