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.