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.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Holy Land Pilgrimage Day 3 Caesarea Maritima & Nazareth

Location!  Location! Location! What’s true about the significance of place in terms of real estate rings doubly so when it comes to the Holy Land, both in historical and Scriptural terms.  Our first stop today was a visit to the storied Caesarea Maritima, the  palatial showplace playground of King Herod built in the first century AD. Positioned on the shores of the azure-blue Mediterranean less than an hour north of present-day Tel Aviv, Caesarea Maritima possesses an undeniable elegance even in its present, partially excavated condition.

After a too-early morning  (6:30 am) wake-up call and breakfast buffet, we piled our bags onto and under the bus and headed toward our destination, less than an hour north of  Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city.  Today was Sunday, not a holiday, but a workday here.  I kept having to remind myself of that fact as I noticed the roads choked with traffic—all of it heading toward the center of this bustling city of 1.7 million inhabitants.  Along our way, we drove through thriving new neighborhoods with their upscale apartment complexes lining the waterfront.   As we passed several bus stops, I could not help but notice clusters of armed and uniformed Israeli young people doing their compulsory military service—a reminder that security concerns are never far beneath the surface here, even in the midst of evident prosperity.

As we drove northward along the coast, Amer, our guide, recited the story of the encounter between Peter and Cornelius in the Acts of the Apostles (chapter 10:1-31).  Once we arrived at the sprawling archeological site, it was not at all difficult to make the connection between the Scriptural account  and the physical reality before us.  Even in their present  condition, the amphitheater, hippodrome, coliseum, and palace all testified both to the glory of Rome and its hubris. A copy of a stone tablet bearing the name of Pontius Pilate provided an astounding non-Scriptural corroboration to the actual historically verifiable existence of the Roman official who condemned Jesus to death. Further, our own route from Joppa (Tel Aviv) to Caesear not only made the Scriptures come alive for us, it also made them plausible on the physical plane.  I found myself saying:  “It all really happened.  And it happened here.”

That sense of plausible presence became clear to us as well as we approached the inland city of Nazareth in Galilee, the traditional boyhood home of Jesus.  En route, we stopped at the shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the industrial port city of Haifa.  The shrine features a small chapel built over a cave where the Old Testament prophet Elijah allegedly lived.  Here, by tradition, childless couples have come for centuries to pray for help.  Large stone tablets grace the walls of the sanctuary in memory of Carmelite saints such as John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila.  And the throngs of visitors from all over the world attest to the continuing appeal of Carmel to pilgrims.  We passed groups from Indonesia, Brazil, and Italy, but there  were clutches of Arab Christians and Muslims as well who had come here to pray.

Our lunch stop was at a family-owned buffet featuring falafels (chick-pea ‘meatballs’) with an exotic array of condiments.  Fr. Larry provided dessert in the form of delicious boxes of Turkish Delight from Istanbul.  Continuing eastward along the inland route to Nazareth, we passed through the village of Cana (yes, as in ‘The Marriage Feast of….” ) It was uncanny to see road signs nonchalantly indicating the route toward this and other biblical place names that have persistently endured in the Holy Land over two full millennia.

Nazareth today, we were told, is a thriving hilltop city with a population of 85,000, nearly 40% of whom are Christians of various denominations.  At its center, with its signature lighthouse roof, stands the contemporary Basilica of the Annunciation, a Franciscan church and our guide’s own parish.  As we plugged in our headsets, we strolled the basilica’s courtyard to look at mosaic representations of the titles and apparitions attributed to the Virgin Mary around the world.

Inside the cavernous  contemporary space (capacity 3500), we literally descended into the grotto chapel where tradition holds that Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel and gave her definitive ‘yes” to God’s request that she become the mother of Jesus.  On the top level of the church, we celebrated Eucharist with the readings of the feast of the Annunciation, and hurried out the doors as families prepared the sanctuary for the wedding to take place immediately afterwards.

After a brief visit to the church and shrine of the workshop of St. Joseph (“He was a workman, more likely a stonemason, but not a carpenter!” our guide insisted, pointing to the corruption of the Koine Greek term “tekton” which, for centuries,  has led artists in the West to depict Joseph sawing away at his workbench. “Jesus worked hard alongside Joseph,” Amer continued.  “ He was an accomplished laborer and craftsman who needed his physical strength as well to endure the rigors of His ministry.”  That made perfect sense to me.

After posing for a group photo, we boarded our bus toward our hotel at the seaside town of Tiberius along the shores of Galilee, listening for a second time to the reading from Luke (chapter 1: 26-38) recounting the Annunciation.  Once again, connecting the story with historical/ archaeological artifacts we had seen today,  we as believers could say “It really happened and it happened here.”  Not unlike the words inscribed in the Basilica of the Annunciation itself:  Here the Word was made Flesh.”//