We were all sorry to leave behind the Pilgerhaus at Tabgha – such a peaceful, restorative place. Several kind Franciscan nuns from the Philippines staff the gift shop, and they bid us farewell with prayers this morning. We traveled along the Jordan River to the site believed to be the likely place for Jesus’ baptism by John. Renewing our Baptismal promises while standing in the murky water of the Jordan was a powerful experience for our group. This spot on the Jordan is about 15 feet wide, with the country of Jordan just a few feet away from us. Pilgrims were coming down the the steps to the river on the opposite bank. Several groups were singing. As we sang “Shall We Gather at the River,” some other folks came and joined in.
After drying off, we rode to the ancient city of Jericho, where we had a chance to purchase hand blown Hebron glass and Medjool dates (some treats will accompany us home). Lunch in a garden restaurant was lovely; the day was warm and dry (in February, all of you in Seattle!). Then we went to Qumran, to see the site of the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls. We’ll see the replicas of the scrolls later at the Israeli Museum of Antiquities, so for now, we could see the caves from a distance and get a sense of the desert conditions in which the community lived which created and stored scrolls of the books of the Old Testament as well as of their own community’s life (and rather extreme religious practices).
The best way to enjoy the beach at the Dead Sea
The salty, salty sea.
For the rest of the afternoon, most of the group swam (or tried to swim) in the Dead Sea. Cynthia and I, along with others, waded or merely enjoyed the breezes. Our guide Tony told us how to enjoy the mud of the Dead Sea, how it would make us 40 years younger. Who knew that this pilgrimage would also be a spa adventure! Then, on the road to Bethlehem, we stopped to ride camels. One camel was well-behaved but another thought that he might take George back to the Dead Sea.
Now, we’ve gone through the wall to the Casa Nova hotel on Manger Square in Bethelem. No birdsong surrounding us in this city. Now we hear the Muslim call to prayer and traffic out our windows.
I’m relaxing on the patio overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Birds are singing as the sun sets. The water is absolutely calm, and the colors are a delicate pastel.
After breakfast this morning at the Pilgerhaus, our guide Tony took us to the archeological site at Megiddo, where he told us there are 30 layers of excavations. The hilltop is Tel Meggido, a human-made hill, because of the millenia of habitation on that site. One group of people after another defended the location overlooking the Via Maris…the historic trade route from Africa to the East … then they were defeated, and another group built on the spot. Archaeologists have evidence of stables and gates that they think are from the time of Solomon and Ahab after him. We climbed to the top of the Tel, seeing a circular spot that people who didn’t worship the God of Israel made infant sacrifices … we were reminded of the story of Elijah and Ahab. Then we climbed deep into the excavation, into a tunnel where water flowed into Megiddo from a spring.
We drove from Megiddo to Nazareth where we prayed and sang at the Basilica of the Annunciation. This modern church commemorates the angel’s announcement to Mary that God has chosen her to bear a child and her agreement. At the center of the lower level is a cave that has been revered as “the place.” When I went to that area, a Roman Catholic bishop was leading a service of vow renewal for a group of nuns … all from the Philippines. When they finished, I talked with them, congratulating them. The bishop removed his vestments and looked like any other pilgrim.
After gathering with our group in the tiny Synagogue Church, we had lunch then went to Cana. There’s a small church there that commemorates Jesus and the wedding. The wine tasting at a nearby shop was fun and tasty. Pomegranate wine (which our guide suggests has medicinal purposes) is quite tart.
Tomorrow we leave this wonderful place for the next step of our journey. ..on to Jericho, the Jordan River, Qumran, and the Dead Sea.
Today, we began our exploration of Galilee at the Mount of the Beatitudes, where a lovely small church is set in a garden on the top of a hill. Coming down to the shore of the Sea of Galilee, we celebrated the Eucharist at an outdoor chapel on the shore. What a beautiful spring day, with a light haze over the water. The excavations at Magdala were fascinating, along with the new church that has incorporated some of the newly uncovered ancient town marketplace. The church is dedicated to the ministry of women, and ironically we female Anglican priests were not permitted to celebrate in it. Here are photos of these places
After a 6 AM flight from Seattle to Newark, then a flight overnight to Tel Aviv, our group is not quite sure which day it is. Our guide Tony (who teached Biblical archeology at Hebrew University as his primary employment, so a fount of knowledge) and driver Naill met us at the airport. Tony told us about the very low percentage of Christians living in Israel … less than one percent, if my tired brain heard him correctly.
We drove to Mount Tabor, which figures in various stories from the scriptures. It’s one of the likely places that could be the site of the Transfiguration story (Mount Hermon is as likely, but it’s not uncommon to find multiple sites claiming to be THE place that is referred to in a Biblical story). We careened up the 2 miles of switchback road to the mountaintop in small vans. After a lovely lunch at a Franciscan monestery, we worshipped and toured the beautiful church of the Transfiguration, built by the architect 1920’s who designed the Vatican. A mosaic of Elijah, Moses, and Jesus is glorious over the altar. From a balcony to the right of the church, we overlooked the Valley of Armageddon, a fertile agricultural valley (despite its name). The various religious sites have a sign in one version or another; this is on Mt. Tabor.
After coming down the mountain even more rapidly than we ascended, our bus took us to the wonderful Pilgerhaus on the Sea of Galilee. From the terrace overlooking the water, early-blooming fruit trees are in glorious flower. Tomorrow we will experience more of the area around Galilee. But first … sleep!
Some friends have asked what I’m reading as I prepare for this Holy Land pilgrimage. After my first trip to the Holy Land, my spiritual director recommended that I read James Martin’s Jesus: a Pilgrimage. Martin’s reflections on the life of Jesus as revealed in the modern day locations that he encountered on pilgrimage are just what I’m looking for as I get ready to return to the region. I’m also taking with me the guidebook that Martin used during his trip: Jerome Murphy_O’Connor’s The Holy Land: an Oxford Archaeological Guide. It has scholarly detail about many of the sites that we’ll be visiting. I suspect that we’ll pass it around the tour bus.
Cynthia prepared a longer list of titles, in addition to the above:
The Bible, especially 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, the Gospels
My Promised Land, by Avi Sharit
Jerusalem, by Simon Sebag Montefiore
The Lemon Tree, by Sandi Tolan
The Secret Chord, by Geraldine Brooks (a fictional account of King David)
In the summer of 2014, I made my first pilgrimage to the Holy Land, along with clergy from Great Britain and my own Diocese of Olympia. To walk in the places Jesus may have walked, to explore the sites that pilgrims have revered as holy for centuries, and to meet the people who live there today was a life-changing experience. The photo is taken of the Sea of Galilee.
Now, on February 22, a group of fellow pilgrims from St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Bellevue, WA, (where I serve as Rector), from St. Hilda St. Patrick Episcopal Church in Edmonds, WA (where my colleague the Rev. Cynthia Espeseth serves as Vicar), and from Grace Episcopal on Bainbridge Island will leave for a Holy Land pilgrimage. I hope to share some of our experiences in this blog for friends back home. This year, some of our Lenten practice will be not only to read the scriptures but to walk some of the Way that Jesus walked. I imagine that my fellow travelers are doing what I am doing … beginning to pack for the journey, reading and thinking about what is to come, and getting eager for Monday to arrive.