Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Day 10: Winding Down & Packing Up

We spent our last day in Jerusalem by leaving Jerusalem!  Tight security around our hotel (the Pope was to meet with representatives of the Israeli government close by) and throughout the city made a getaway imperative.  So, we piled into the bus for a final excursion to Emmaus (Luke 24).  The Scriptures describe the village as being about eight miles from the Holy City, but our particular excursion took more than two hours, the traffic was so thick.

When we arrived at the French Benedictine monastery of Abu Gosh, we were greeted by Frere Dominique, one of the monks, who told us that, unfortunately, we lost our opportunity to have a group Mass because of our late arrival.  But he did mention that the monks were having their daily Mass, scheduled for 11:30 am, to which we were most welcome.

The experience turned out to be perfect. Talk about serendipity!  Frs. Larry, Cesar and I concelebrated  with the abbot and were seated in the choir stalls alongside the nine monks of the community.  Several Benedictine sisters from the adjacent convent were present as well for the Mass chanted in both French and Latin.  The language might have been a bit of a barrier, but the music was transcendent, as was the calm and graceful liturgy.  We were welcome to and into a beautiful experience of prayer.

It was enough, more than enough for our final day in the Holy Land.  The evening before, we celebrated a gala dinner on the patio of a family-owned French restaurant not far from our hotel.  There, we could relax, unwind, and begin to say our 'farewells' over a glass of Chilean merlot and before our entrees.  A perfect way to celebrate the conclusion to our journey.

After a relaxing afternoon of packing, napping, or relaxing by the pool, we all set our alarms for a very early wake-up call at 1:30 am Tuesday, May 27.  Amazingly, we were all ready to board our bus for the final time, arriving at Ben Gurion Airport before 3am.  The rest was just the "stuff" of international travel:  passport, customs, and security controls. Boarding and settling in for our journey (Tel Avi to Istanbul--2 hours; Istanbul to Los Angeles-- 13 hours; Los Angeles to Santa Barbara-- 2 hours).  At 8:10 pm local time, we arrived back at the Old Mission, our mission accomplished.  For now.

Day 9: "But did you get to see the Pope?"

The most simple answer to that question is "No."  No, we did not get to see Pope Francis while we were in the Holy Land.  We didn't even get close, actually.  The security was that tight.  What we did see were signs of the Pope's anticipated arrival and presence.  And those signs were absolutely everywhere:  banners and streamers in the narrow, cobbled streets of the Old City.  Twinned Israeli and Vatican flags along major thoroughfares.  Catholic churches, schools, and shrines festooned with the characteristic yellow-and- white of the papacy.  There were also numerous posters (above) announcing the appearances of the Holy Father with the leaders of Israel and Palestine, as well as his scheduled meetings with Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew.

It's not that we didn't want to see the Holy Father.  We would have loved to have done so.  And it's not that we didn't try, either.  The free tickets which were available were generally restricted to members of parishes and to groups of religious women and men living in the Holy Land.  It makes sense.  Pope Francis was coming to the Holy Land to visit the peoples of the Holy Land.

One of our group members, however, did manage to get a single ticket from one of the Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land who was unable to attend the Mass in Bethlehem's Manger Square.  She braved every obstacle, arriving in Bethlehem the night before in order to be at the morning service on time.  When she got to her seat, she realized that she had a ticket for the clergy section!  Undaunted, she thoroughly appreciated the privilege and enthusiastically shared with us her impressions of the Pope's talk to the Palestinian Christian community.

So,  we spent our Sunday (not a holiday, but rather a work day in Israel) "pilgrimaging" around Jerusalem.  Our stops included the Pater Noster church, the White Fathers'  shrine at Bethsaida (whose beautiful Crusader chapel has wonderful acoustics), St. Anne's, the Via Dolorosa (our attempt to pray the Stations of the Cross was frustrated by the presence of security barriers in the proximity of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre), Dominus Flevit, the Garden of Gethsemane (closed at noon), Mount Zion, and St. Peter in Gallincantu. Frankly, a lot of it was a blur.  There was just too much to see at one time.

What does stick out in my mind as memorable, however, was our experience of Franciscan hospitality at the small shrine of Dominus Flevit ("Jesus wept").  Friars Leo Gonzalez (of our own Province of St. Barbara in California) and Fr. Sebastiano Eclimes had us all sit down for refreshments on the terrace of the "convento." They chatted amiably with us, sang for us, and offered us their blessings.  We were home!

We celebrated Mass in a conference room in the basement of our hotel.   It seemed totally appropriate for us as pilgrims.  All of the other places in the city were off-limits because of the papal visit (!).  No matter; we gathered around the Lord's  table in prayer and in His Presence just the same.

Day 8 Masada & Jericho

After the intensity of our experience at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, it was just as well that we should take a quiet day away from the city and its distractions.  So, after breakfast, we headed to the deserts of Judea.  First stop:  Masada.

Revered in a very special way by the Israelis, Masada served as a safe haven in troubled times by the notorious Herod the Great, who, under Roman direction, ruled the province of Palestine with an iron hand.  Discovering this hilltop promontory, Herod immediately understood its strategic importance and constructed not one, but two palaces on the site in the first century AD.  Following the defeat of the Jewish rebellion against Rome and subsequent destruction of Jerusalem under the Roman leadership of Titus (70AD), remnant groups of resisters headed for Masada for what was to prove their last stand before the imperial forces.  According to tradition, after a two-month siege, the Romans penetrated the site, only to discover that its inhabitants had chosen to commit suicide rather than surrender.

After Masada, we stopped at a section of the Jordan River in order to renew our baptismal vows.  Next to us, a group of Eastern Orthodox pilgrims were doing likewise.  Many of them were dressed in special white garments for that purpose.  According to custom, these garments will be kept and used later as burial shrouds for their owners.

Next, we headed for the Palestinian city of Jericho, known to be the oldest continuous settlement of human beings in the world, having been settled more than 6000 years ago.  The town is a true oasis, its splashing fountains and springs fed by arterial streams.  We lunched and shopped at a highly commercialized spot.  I was fascinated to watch the steady stream of hung, thirsty pilgrims arriving from every corner of the world:  Kenya, Indonesia, Korea, Italy, and so on.  We even ran into some fellow Franciscan friars-- Italian-born members of the Custody of the Holy Land.

Before returning to Jerusalem, we stopped over at the Franciscan Sisters' School of Jericho, a co-ed institution staffed by three native-born Palestinian sisters.  The student population is just shy of 600; Christian students number 16 of that total.  As one of the sisters reminded me:  "We are here as missionaries.  Not to try to convert people, but to show the loving presence of Jesus for all people.  And to help the children-- all of the children-- to have the kind of education which will allow them to participate fully in society."  Fr. Cesar, a member of our group, presided at Eucharist in the simple chapel of the sisters.  In this simple and humble place, it was not difficult to understand the importance of a Christian presence in this part of the world.

Returning toward Jerusalem, we made a pit stop at the Dead Sea.  Most of us braved the salty elements to get into our swimsuits for a dip.  The waters were thick, warm, and chalky.  It was impossible to do anything other than float-- and so we floated!  Some of us, by which I mean Father Larry, went a step further to cover themselves with mud-- great protection against the relentless sun.  And great fun to boot. . . . Arrived in Jerusalem at last.  Bone-tired, we welcomed the refuge of our rooms.

Day 7 Bethlehem to Jerusalem

After yet another lavish hotel breakfast buffet, we headed for the Bethlehem Souvenir Center, a cooperative store and gallery which features the high-quality work of local Bethlehem craftspeople (olive wood statuary and Nativity sets, malachite jewelry, local pottery, etc.) and directly assists more than 50 Christian families in the area.  The staff was welcoming, professional, and friendly-- and we had the entire shop to ourselves for the hour we were there.  Needless to say, our group made its contribution to the local economy, and those of us with pent-up consumer urges emerged content.

Shepherds' Field area to celebrate Eucharist at one of the caves surrounding the Gloria In Excelsis chapel (above), built in the 1950s with donations by the Catholics of Canada.  As is the norm with each of the major shrines in the Holy Land, we celebrated the readings for the day. (Translation:  Merry Christmas, everyone!).  True to the feast, we sang our favorite Christmas carols, and even had a procession of a statue of the infant Jesus.  It was a gently touching moment in what was to be an intense day.

Our next stop was the Church of the Nativity, presently undergoing major interior structural repairs. We arrived relatively early at the shrine, which means we didn't have to stand outside in the hot sun.  Instead, we gathered along the side aisle to approach the grotto marking the space where, according to tradition, Jesus was born.  I have to admit, it was not an especially pleasant wait.

This is, after all, the Middle East, which means that the concept of standing in an organized queue is not universally respected.  The upshot is that we had to deal with crowds of noisy and aggressive pilgrims pushing, pleading, and sometimes cussing their way through the waiting area.  Once we got to the grotto, there was time for just a quick reverence, and then out.  Only when we arrived at the neighboring sanctuary of the Roman Catholic parish church of St. Catherine of Alexandria did we have any time to savor the spot.  It was all part of the tuition, so to speak.

Afterwards,  we visited a family-owned restaurant aptly known as The Christmas Tree. Lunch was shawrma (thinly sliced lamb on pita), falafel (chick pea), and the ubiquitous Greek salad.... Once we finished our late luncheon, we left Bethlehem, passing through the security checkpoint without difficulty.

Our next stop was the Holy City of Jerusalem.  We made our way directly to our hotel, the Dan Panorama, with just enough time to check in and freshen up before proceeding to the Old City and the Shrine of the Holy Sepulchre.  Our bus dropped us off in front of the Notre Dame Hotel, a Vatican-owned property festooned with papal flags in anticipation of the visit of Pope Francis.  From there, we walked through the New Gate and into the rabbit-warren of narrow streets of the Old City.  Luckily, the hour was late-- 6pm by the time of our arrival-- so that the streets were uncrowded and many of the shops closed for the day.

Approaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we gathered on the steps outside to prepare ourselves for our official group photo.  (This one, below, is a practice shot only).  Afterwards, we lined up in rows of three before the main entrance to wait for the Franciscan friars to greet us at the door and escort us into the Church and before the Tomb of the Lord.

I don't have good photos of that event. The truth is that I was so caught up in the experience of the moment, I was not especially concerned with trying to document or preserve it.  (Others did, and when I can borrow a few photos from them, I will post their photos with this entry).  Shortly after six, a group of about 6-8 Franciscan friars appeared before the open main door.  They nodded, smiled, and blessed each of us with holy water as they led us in procession before the tomb.  The crowds parted as we were guided into the sanctuary flanked by the friars.  Once assembled inside, we were greeted by a representative of the Custos (or Provincial), who told us that, no doubt our visit should be inscribed in "beautiful golden letters" since we were the last group to visit the Church before the scheduled arrival of Pope Francis and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew.  After chants, prayers, and a blessing-- all in Latin-- we were escorted in groups of three to the interior chamber of the Tomb for a few moments of silent prayer.

I cannot tell you what that experience was like for each of the more than forty people on our pilgrimage.  What I can tell you about is the look on people's faces as they emerged from the Tomb.  Almost to a person, each one carried a look of deep reverence, and yes, even awe.  Silent tears streaked some faces; others just moved to a quiet corner of the church to be alone with the Lord for a few minutes. We left in silence.  As one member whispered to me:  "You can just feel the sacredness of this space, depending upon how much you allow yourself to do so."

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Holy Land Pilgrimage Day 6 Church of the Beatitudes, then Nablus

What started out as a day of relatively easy and simple sightseeing ended up as a unexpected immersion into the tremendous complexity of contemporary life in the Holy Land for all of its occupants.

We bade farewell to the Gai (pronounced GUY) Beach Hotel in Tiberius at 8am sharp and made our way to the church at the Mount of the Beatitudes.  Its sprawling hillside gardens of the place have made place a particularly tranquil setting for visitors.  Pilgrims and tourists alike ambled about the grounds and in and out of the beautiful chapel overlooking the Sea of Galilee.  Our group was assigned an outdoor area where we sat, surrounded by the chirping of birds, cooling breezes, and  calming views.  There we concelebrated Mass, with one of our members, the recently ordained Fr. Cesar Magallon of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Santa Barbara,  presiding.

From the Church of the Beatitudes it was just a short distance up the road to Tabgha, the site traditionally attributed to  the  miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fishes. We stood in the courtyard of the contemporary structure  (c.1982)  built by the Benedictines as a full-scale reproduction of the original  ancient church. From the fifth century AD.  We listened as our guide Amer  told us how the place had been abandoned for more than 1400 years before its rediscovery in the 1930s. .  Amazingly, major sections of the magnificent 5th century floor mosaics remained intact and have been incorporated into the present structure.  Like Mount Tabor and the Church of the Beatitudes, this sacred place seemed to possess a certain, undeniable dignity.  Even with the busloads of visitors emptying on to the grounds, there was a wonderful, respectful calm and silence here.

From Tabgha,  we stopped at the ruins of a recently (1974) uncovered and partially restored Greek basilica built on the site where Jesus is said to have cured the Gerasene demoniac.  There, we reflected on the Scriptures and admired the riotous colors of the jacaranda and flamboyana . Then, we drove on to Nablus, passing through the checkpoints into the West Bank area controlled by the Palestinian Authority.  Here, scenes of deep rural poverty contrasted with clusters of  contemporary building projects, many of which stood only partially finished.  We stopped in this bustling city – seldom visited by tourists--  to have lunch at a restaurant owned by a local Christian family.  The Christian community, less than 2% of the population of the Holy Land, relies heavily on outside support for its survival in a highly polarized social/political climate. It is clear even to the most casual observer,  that without the presence of a vital  local Christian community, even our most celebrated Christian shrines in the Holy Land risk becoming museums, rather than centers of worship and service.

Following lunch, we proceeded to the shrine of the Jacob’s Well—also in Nablus, which is in the cellar of a magnificent, light-filled and icon-studded Greek Orthodox church, whose walls date from the time of the Crusades.  The local priest met and blessed us,  and asked for our prayers and support.  At the Well itself, we read the account from John (chapter 4) of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman.  It all came home to us.  Here, as in so many places we have experienced so far, we have come to understand about this and many other stories about Jesus:  It really happened.!  And it really happened here!

After our time at Jacob’s Well, we continued south towards Jerusalem, passing through the steep, rock-strewn highlands of Samaria. Passing through this primitive landscape, in many ways unchanged from the time of Jesus, it was not difficult to imagine how arduous travel was at the time.  How, for example, Mary walked from Galilee to Judea to visit her cousin Elizabeth. 

Approaching Bethlehem, our destination, we were confronted with the shocking sight of the  26-foot concrete security wall which surrounds and encloses this entire city of 48,000 inhabitants.  Constructed by Israeli military authorities with the avowed intent of controlling terrorist activity and intervention in Jerusalem,  one of the effects of the wall has been to curtail  severely the movement of residents in and out of the city. Unemployment is said to reach levels well over 50%, and Christians, .  once more than 70% of the population of  this little town where Christ was born,  have emigrated in large numbers in recent years.

We settled in for the night at our lodgings,  the recently-completed and quite comfortable Saint Gabriel Hotel.  Unsurprisingly,  dinner, conversations focused on the impressions of the day, not the least of which was our exposure to the hugely complicated and often deeply troubling reality of  the region.  

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Holy Land Pilgrimage Day 5 Cana & Mount Tabor

A relative slow and relaxed half-day of travel.  After breakfast, we headed directly to Cana, site of the first miracle of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of John (chapter 2), about 30 minutes from our hotel in Tiberius.  Upon arrival, we milled in the courtyard before the small parish church. Local buzz was all about the approaching visit of Pope Francis (May 25-26), as the poster above indicates. Inside the church, a group of pilgrims from Argentina were celebrating Eucharist.  Our group settled down in the Divine Mercy chapel nearby.

Undoubtedly inspired by the location, we sat in the small room as each couple, one after the other, came forward to renew their marriage vows.  It was short, quite sweet, and quite moving.  Couples who have been together for up to 55 years still had that wonderful sparkle of genuine affection, loving regard for each other.  Some had more than a touch of mischief in their eyes still.  At the conclusion of the brief prayer service, Fr. Larry invited couples whose spouses were at home, or who had died, to come forward for a blessing as well. 

From Cana, we made our way to Mount Tabor, site of the Transfiguration of the Lord, an event recorded in the Synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  The Mount , a  geological anomaly called a monadnock, rises some 1600 feet above the sea-level plain below.  It was a steep climb; consequently, we transferred from our large touring bus to smaller vans for the final approach.  After negotiating a dozen sharp, hair-raising turns,  we arrived at the Mount.  It was well worth the minor inconvenience.

The hilltop ‘campus’ of the Mount includes an exceptionally beautiful church, circa 1924,  designed by the Italian architect Antonio Barluzi.  Nearby excavations give evidence of the multiple settlements over the past millennium.  The Franciscan friars have ‘custody’ of the shrine and live in a convento on site, sharing space with Mondo X, a faith-based recovery program originating in Italy.

With the kind assistance of Fray Gustavo, our sacristan, Frs. Larry, Cesar, and I—along with Deacon Falk Gosdschan donned our albs and  beautiful gold vestments for the Feast of the Transfiguration.  This particular feast is actually celebrated twice a year— August 6, as well as the Second Sunday in Lent—a fact underscoring its significance as the manifestation of the Lord in His Glory at the end of time.

Our entire group was able to sit in the sanctuary, which added to the intimacy of the event for us.  Mount Tabor does not receive the volume of pilgrims that other, more celebrated shrines do, so we essentially had the place to ourselves.  Fr. Larry presided and I got to preach, following Deacon Falk’s proclamation from Matthew 9.
I essentially spoke about our responsibility to allow God to love us by lowering our defenses in order to enable the Lord to enter our hearts and lives more deeply and completely.

After Eucharist, we strolled toward the parking area, but only with the greatest reluctance.  There was something so wonderfully appealing about the shrine.  A feeling of tremendous peace and calm—in the midst of a country which appears to be constantly on the alert for terrorist actions or military intervention from abroad.

Lunch was at Kareem’s, a local restaurant in Cana.  While the shwarma and falafel were delicious, there was no question about the wine.  No alcoholic beverages served.

The rest of the day we were free—to rest, swim in the Sea of Galilee right outside our door, or else catch up on sleep.                                    

Monday, May 19, 2014

Holy Land Pilgrimage Day 4: A Galilean Sojourn

After the day’s excursions in Galilee, I found myself coming to a rather obvious reflection—obvious to everyone but me, that is.  Namely, that Jesus must have spent the greatest part of His ministry outdoors.  Not in the conspiratorial confines of the Temple precincts, but out in the sweet fresh air, feeling the rush of wind and waves.  Sitting in the shade and listening to the leaves rustle while unknown and unseen birds made their presence and music known.  Watching the sun rise and set over the blue, clear waters of the Sea of Galilee.  Trekking in the hot sun on long, patient journeys from one village to another throughout the province.  And all along the way, while meeting and listening to people, at the same time feeling the press of the earth beneath His sandals and inhaling the redolent scent of fields and meadows.

Today we spent most of our time outside, too.  And everyone seemed to love it.  Right after breakfast, we boarded our bus and headed due north from Tiberius to the region of Capernaum.  We stopped first at the small chapel of the Church of the Primacy of Peter, one of the numerous shrines in the Holy Land administered by the Franciscan order.  We sat in a cool, shaded grove for Mass and read the post-Resurrection story of Peter’s encounter with the Lord on the shores of the Sea of Tiberius, aka the Sea of Galilee. (John 21:1-19): “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”…. “Lord, you know everything.  You know that I love you.”…. (Then), “feed my sheep.”…. (And, finally) “Follow me.”

The Primacy of Peter is the primacy of loving service.  Jesus offers Peter neither a crown or a throne, but rather—a broom!— the primacy of a life of humble service to others His Name.  The implications for us and for all leaders, both ecclesiastical and other, are evident. . . . After Eucharist, we took some time to go wading or just mill around the water’s edge, enjoying the mild breezes off the Sea.

Our next stop was only a couple of miles up the road in Capernaum.  Jesus’ adult hometown and the geographical  and cultural epicenter of His ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing.  We sat on low benches under the trees before the home of Peter.  From a Scriptural standpoint, the strategic importance of the village became immediately apparent.  To our left were the ruins of the town’s synagogue (not the same building in which Jesus preached, but rather a later replacement).  Behind the synagogue was the Via Maris, the Way of the Sea, a major Roman artery stretching from Damascus to Egypt.  Capernaum was an important point for the collection of tolls and taxes.  No wonder that Matthew (the Tax Collector!) should have been called to the Lord’s service here.

Directly in front of us lay a modern chapel literally suspended over the ruins of the house of Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:  21-34).  And immediately to the right of the home lies the Sea of Galilee itself.  Again, no stretch of the imagination to see how convenient it would have been for Jesus to meet and invite the members of the fishing firms of Peter & Andrew and  James & John (Zebedee), Inc. to join him in His itinerant ministry.  Seeing certainly helps the believing process.

Not content just to “hear” the story of the call of the first disciples of Jesus, we needed to  understand for ourselves the importance of the sea in His ministry.  A few miles outside of Capernaum, we boarded our very own excursion boat for a brief “cruise” on the Sea of Galilee.  Our captain and crew hoisted the Stars & Stripes as we all stood to sing along with a recording of the national anthem (true).  Then, we settled down for a presentation by Amer, our tour guide, on the importance of this particular Sea in the live of Jesus, followed by a brief reflection on the miracle of Jesus’ calming of the storm at sea (Matthew 8:23-27).

A sit-down lunch at Tanureen, a restaurant in the town of Magdala (as in Mary Magdalene!) run by a Christian family.  Seated at long tables, we munched on olives, hummus, Greek salad, and blanched, marinated carrots while we waited for our entrĂ©e:  Peter’s Fish.  After a quick sip of complimentary coffee (laced with cardamom), we returned to our bus for a siesta ride through the orchard-studded countryside.

The final stop of a very long (but also very satisfying) day was a visit to yet another Caeserea—this time, Caeserea Philippi, perched against a rocky hillside in the Golan Heights.  On the way a,  our guide pointed out the border between Syria and Israel, as well as the frontier with Lebanon.  The low, rusting fencing along fields and wildflowers proved deceptively innocuous.  Small signs posted every few yards warned would-be trespassers of land mines in the area.

Among the ruins of  Caeseara Philippi, we sat in the shade and reflected upon the Scriptural reading about Peter’s impassioned declaration of the identity of Jesus:  “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  (Matthew 16:16).  Our guide termed the event as Peter’s Bingo Moment— a lucky and utterly fortuitous guess about the person and persona of Jeus that, against all odds,  proved to be exactly right.

Today was a day spent on the road, along the coast, in the shade, among the birds, bushes and wildflowers. Listening to the Word amid the signing of  birds.  It all  gave one such an odd and oddly affirming sense about the connections between Scripture, faith and verifiable reality:  It was all real; it all really happened.  And it continues to “happen” in our own lives.