Monthly Archives: October 2010

The Jordan River

The Jordan River, which figures in so many of the sacred stories of the Holy Land, is still vital to this region today.  Though the river winds almost 200 miles from its sources at the base of the Golan mountains in the north into the Sea of Galilee and then on to the Dead Sea in the south, the direct distance from one end to the other is only about 60 miles. The river falls almost 3,000 feet on its way to the Dead Sea,.

The Jordan is sacred to Jews and Christians alike. It became holy to the Jews when they miraculously crossed it on their way to the Promised Land. The great Jewish prophet Elijah came from a town near the river’s banks. Later he returned to that part of the river to be safe from his enemies.

Elijah’s successor, the Prophet Elisha, also from Jordan area, told Naaman the Syrian general to bathe in the river to be cured of his leprosy, and he was cured. Ancient hot springs near Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee fostered the river’s curative reputation then. They’re still used today.

At the time of Jesus, the river’s fresh flowing waters were the life-blood of the land, making the Sea of Galilee teem with fish and the plains along its banks fertile for agriculture. Pilgrims from Galilee followed the Jordan on their way down to the city of Jericho, and from there went to Jerusalem to the temple to celebrate the holy days.

The Jordan Today

The river is still essential to the region. Lake Kineret, as the Israelis call the Sea of Galilee, is the primary source of drinking water for the region and crucial for its agriculture. The use of water from the Jordan is a major point of controversy between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

cf: “The Disputed Waters of the Jordan” by C. G. Smith Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers No. 40 (Dec., 1966), pp. 111-128 Oxford, England

Nourishing Prophets

The river nourished prophets in the past.  Somewhere in the stretch of Jordan near Jericho where people forded the river, John the Baptist preached to and baptized pilgrims going to the Holy City.

The place where John baptized was hardly a desert as we think of it. It was a deserted place that offered sufficient food for survival, like the “ grass-hoppers and wild honey” John ate.  In this uncultivated place,  you learned to depend on what God provided.

That was the teaching of Jesus, remember. “I tell you do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or drink, or about your body, what you will wear… Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” (Mt 6, 25 ff) The desert was a place to put worry aside and trust in the goodness of God.

When he entered the waters of the Jordan to be baptized, Jesus acknowledged his heavenly Father as the ultimate Source of Life, the creator of all things. Water, as it always is,  was a holy sign of life.  Like the prophets,  Elijah and John the Baptist, Jesus remained in this wilderness near the water for forty days to prepare for his divine mission. He readied himself to depend on God for everything.

The Jordan after Jesus

Later, when the Roman empire turned Christian in the 4th century, Christians came to the Jordan River in great numbers on Easter and on the Feast of the Epiphany to remember the One who was baptized there. They went into the sacred waters, and many took some of it home in small containers.

Early Christian pilgrims like Egeria, a nun from Gaul who came to the Holy Land around the year 415 AD left an account of her visit to the Jordan where she looked for the place of Jesus’ baptism.  Monks who had already settled near the river brought her to a place called Salim, near Jericho. The town, associated with the priest Melchisedech, was surrounded by fertile land which had a revered spring that flowed into the Jordan close by. Here’s how she described it:

“We came to a very beautiful fruit orchard, in the center of which the priest showed us a spring of the very purest and best water, which gives rise to a real stream. In front of the spring there is a sort of pool where it seems that St. John the Baptist administered baptism. Then the saintly priest said to us: ‘To this day this garden is known as the garden of St. John.’ There are many other brothers, holy monks coming from various places, who come to wash in that spring.

“The saintly priest also told us that even today all those who are to be baptized in this village, that is in the church of Melchisedech, are always baptized in this very spring at Easter; they return very early by candlelight with the clergy and the monks, singing psalms and antiphons; and all who have been baptized are led back early from the spring to the church of Melchisedech.” p 73

A 19th Century Pilgrim at the Jordan

Christians in great numbers have visited the Jordan River since Egeria. Towards the end of the 19th century, an English vicar, Cunningham Geikie described  Christian pilgrims following the venerable tradition of visiting its waters.

“Holy water is traditionally carried away by ship masters visiting the river as pilgrims to sprinkle their ships before a voyage; and we are told that all pilgrims alike went into the water wearing a linen garment, which they sacredly preserved  as a winding sheet to be wrapped around them at their death.

“The scene of the yearly bathing of pilgrims now is near the ford, about two miles above the Dead Sea, each sect having its own particular spot, which it fondly believes to be exactly where our Savior was baptized…

“Each Easter Monday thousands of pilgrims start, in a great caravan, from Jerusalem, under the protection of the Turkish government; a white flag and loud music going before them, while Turkish soldiers, with the green standard of the prophet, close the long procession. On the Greek Easter Monday, the same spectacle is repeated, four or five thousand pilgrims joining in the second caravan. Formerly the numbers going to the Jordan each year was much greater, from fifteen to twenty thousand….”(Cunningham Geikie, The Holy Land and the Bible,Vol 2, New York, 1890 pp 404-405)

The Jordan and Christian Baptism

Today, every Catholic parish church celebrates the mystery of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan at its baptistery where new believers receive new life and regular believers remember their own baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some eastern Christian churches prefer to call their baptisteries simply “the Jordan.”

We will visit a baptismal site near the mouth of the Sea of Galilee. However, the most authentic site is further down the river in Jordanian territory at el-Maghtas, where a large church and pilgrim center are currently being built following excavations begun in 1996 by Jordanian archeologists. It is probably the  “Bethany beyond the Jordan” mentioned in the New Testament where Jesus was baptized and John the Baptist preached.

The Jordan River may offer its own commentary on the mystery of death and resurrection of Jesus, expressed in his baptism.  At one end is the Sea of Galilee brimming with life, and at the other end is the Dead Sea a symbol of death. The river holds these two realities together, and if we reverse its course we can see the gift God gives us through Jesus Christ.

Like him, we pass through the waters of baptism from death to life.

Nazareth–November 7

Where Jesus Was Raised

Some think Nazareth, at the time of Jesus, was a quiet little hill town in lower Galilee cut off from the outside world, but recent historical studies tell a different story. The town was not as isolated as once believed.  Just four miles away was the thriving Greco-Roman city of Sepphoris, recently uncovered by archeologists, and nearby were roads to Tiberias, Jerusalem and the sea coast.

The economy of Galilee was booming then, thanks to the rich soil of the Esdraelon plains and the fishing villages along the Sea of Galilee. A new port, Caesaria Maritima linked Galilee to the rest of the Roman world. Roman rule brought stability and a skillful administrator and builder, Herod Antipas, was firmly in charge. His new regional capital, Tiberias–a model of Greco-Roman city planning– dominated the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Could Nazareth, 15 miles east of the Sea of Galilee and 20 miles west of the Mediterranean Sea, a few miles away from a booming city, be shut off from this world?

How did Jesus get there?

Some historians say Joseph and Mary were not from Nazareth in Galilee, but from Judea. Matthew’s gospel, in contrast to Luke’s, indicates that Joseph was a Judean associated with Bethlehem, David’s city. Mary’s family may have been associated with the temple in Jerusalem. We will visit the Church of St. Ann, which claims to mark Mary’s birthplace in that city.  Another tradition, however, says Mary was born in Sepphoris.

After Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, some believe that his family moved north to the small town of Nazareth to escape the clutches of Herod the Great who ordered the slaughter of infants. When Herod died, he was succeeded by his son Archelaeus,  who  was just as unstable as his father. Did relatives of Jesus living there  invite his family to the safety of Nazareth?

Herod Antipas, another of Herod’s sons yet slightly less dangerous than Archelaeus, inherited power in Galilee after his father’s death in 6 BC and ruled till about 36 AD, over the lifetime of Jesus.  He began building the city of Sepphoris in 3 BC . Wouldn’t it be likely that he recruited nearby workers like Joseph to help in the building?

Jesus and his followers rejected

Nazareth will always be a mystery. Instead of supporting Jesus, the Nazareans turned their backs to him, the gospels say. They drove him out of their synagogue when he announced his mission and said he was mad. (Mt 13,54-58)  After his resurrection, there is no evidence Jesus appeared there; his followers in Nazareth were few. “No prophet is without honor except in his native place,” Jesus said. (Mt 13,54)

A Christian Minority through the Centuries

Followers of Jesus in the town where he was raised continued to be few, it seems. By the time Matthew’s Gospel was written, around the year 90, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD,  scribes and temple officials, as well as the pharisees from that city had moved to the Galilean cities of Tiberias and Sepphoris, near Nazareth, and began a powerful new movement in Judaism.

Did they drive the followers of Jesus out of the Galilean synagogues just as his contemporaries drove him out of Nazareth?  Matthew’s gospel offers numerous warnings that the disciples would be handed over to the courts and scourged in the synagogues. (cf. Mt 10, 17)

“Slender evidence suggests that a Jewish Christian community survived in Nazareth during the C2 and C3 AD, “ writes Jerome Murphy-O”Connor. (The Holy Land, 423) The nun Egeria, one of the few Christian visitors in the 4th century, found a cave considered part of Mary’s house but she does not stay long in the town.  In 570 AD a pilgrim from Piacenza found Nazareth a hostile place:  “there is no love lost in the town between Christians and Jews.” Two Christian churches were built at that time, but after the Muslim conquest of Palestine in the 7th century the number of Christians in Nazareth declined further and their churches were destroyed.

When the Crusaders conquered the town in the 11th century, they rebuilt the Byzantine shrines and added their own buildings; some remains are visible today. But after the defeat of the Christians in the 12th century, Nazareth once more became a Muslim stronghold and Christians a minority.

Through the ages, the Christian presence in Galilee remained small, dependent mostly on Christian pilgrims coming to the Holy Land. After the crusades, it was considered dangerous for Christians to enter Nazareth.  In 1620 the Franciscans bought a site in the  town where the house of Mary was said to be and they continued to nourish a Christian presence in the town. Through their efforts the large Basilica of the Annunciation, built over the early Byzantine and Crusader churches and archeological remains from the ancient town, was dedicated in 1968. The Greek Orthodox church also continued its ministry in this revered spot.

Nazareth itself remained poor and undeveloped from the time of Jesus until recently, when it became the provincial capital of Galilee and its population soared. From less than 1,000 inhabitants in Jesus’ time, the number has grown to 70,000, mostly Muslim, today.

The large basilica of the Annunciation, with its extensive collection of art from all over the world honoring this mystery, is a gathering place for Catholic pilgrims. Here faith attempts to interpret this mysterious town “where our feeble senses fail.”

19th Century Nazareth

An English vicar left this quaint description of Nazareth as he approached it towards the end of the 19th century. Unlike its neighbor, Cana, the town then was experiencing a modest revival:

“Our horses began to climb the steep ascent of 1,000 feet that brings one to the plateau in a fold of which, three miles back among its own hills, lies Nazareth.

“At last, all at once, a small valley opened below, set round with hills, and a pleasant little town appeared to the west. Its straggling houses of white soft limestone, and mostly new, rose row over row up the steep slope. A fine large building,with slender cypresses around it, stood nearest to us; a minaret looked down from the rear.

“Fig trees, single and in clumps, were growing here and there in the valley, which was covered with crops of grain, lentils and beans. Above the town, the hills were steep and high, with thick pasture, sheets of rock, fig trees now and then in an enclosed spot.   Such was Nazareth , the home of our Lord. (p 513)

“The town is only a quarter of a mile long, so that it is a small place, at best; the population made up of about 2,000 Mohammedans, 1,000 Roman Catholics, 2,500 Greek Catholics and 100 Protestants – not quite 6000 in all; but its growth to this size is only recent, for thirty years ago Nazareth was a poor village.”  (p 516)

The Catholic shrines of Nazareth were not among the English vicar’s favorite places to visit, but he does recognize one of the town’s enduring holy places:

“The water of Nazareth is mainly derived from rain-cisterns, for there  is only one spring, and in autumn the supply is precarious. A momentous interest, however, gathers around this single fountain, for it has been in use for immemorial ages, and, no doubt, often saw the Virgin and her Divine Child among those who frequented it morning and evening, as the mothers of the town, many with children at their side, do now.” (p.515)

“The Virgin’s Spring bursts out of the ground inside the Greek Church of the Annunciation, which is modern, though a church stood on the same site at least as early as 700 AD.They say that it was on this spot that the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin; and if there is nothing to prove the legend there is nothing to contradict it.  Indeed, the association of the visit with the outflow of living water from the rock has a certain congruity that is pleasing. “ (p.516)

The Word Made Flesh

Nazareth, where Jesus lived most of his time on earth, offers few traces of the town he knew. Those were hidden years when the Son of God “humbled himself” by living inconspicuously, immersed in the steady, ordinary rhythms of a small 1st century Jewish town.  Jesus “became flesh” in Nazareth,  “one like us in all things but sin.”

Instead of Nazareth of the past, then, we may find him just as well in Nazareth of the present–or in any town or city or anyplace today, for that matter.

Pope Benedict XVI spoke recently of  the “adventure of God.” Beyond us, above the events of history,  “God did not remain within himself; he came out from himself, he united himself so radically with this man, Jesus, that this man Jesus is God, and what we say about him we can always say about God as well. He was not born only as a man who had something to do with God, but in him God was born on earth. God came out of himself. But we can also say the opposite: God has drawn us into himself, so that we are no longer outside of God, but we are inside, inside God himself. “ (Address to the Middle East Synod, October 2o10)

Jesus did not come only for the world then, he comes also for the world now, to dwell among us. Nazareth may help us understand the mystery of the Incarnation.

Later apocryphal gospels that date from the 2nd century relate miraculous stories about Jesus as a child in Nazareth, but they lack credibility. Jesus did nothing remarkable here. They did not watch his every move as he grew up here.

He worked no miracles; he did not impress or convert anyone in Nazareth, as far as we know. He was only “the carpenter’s son.”  His hometown did not recognize him as a prophet. Like any human being, he seemed to be part of the world in which he lived, under the influence of his time and place. Subject to Mary and Joseph and, hardly noticed, “ he grew in wisdom and age and grace before God and man.” (Luke 2,52)

Cana in Galilee

Cana in Galilee–November 7th

Cana and Nazareth, only a few miles apart in Galilee, figure intimately in Jesus’ early life and the beginning of his mission. People then probably looked down on Cana, like Nazareth, and wondered if anything good could come for there. We will visit these two places.

At that time, people from Cana worked the rich farmland of the plains of Esdraelon on the edge of their town. The couple whose wedding Jesus and his disciples attended likely came from the town’s farm families; they were probably related to Jesus and his mother, or at least friends. That day they were just two young people from the little town getting married. That’s all.

Yet, John’s gospel calls the miracle Jesus performed there, turning water into wine, the first “sign” of the promised kingdom to come. (Jn 2, 1-12) The family faced a nightmare that people dread on occasions like this: a celebration heading for failure. The wine was running out and embarrassment was sure to follow.

The miracle has special meaning, the gospel says. It’s more than an act of relief for a family’s embarrassment or a firm endorsement of marriage. It’s God’s sign to this ordinary town and its ordinary people–and to ordinary places and people everywhere– of God’s great love. God delights in them. The Prophet Isaiah, whose words are read on the 2nd Sunday of the year (C) along with the account of the Cana miracle, says that God loves down-trodden Israel with all the ardor of a “young man marrying a virgin.” God’s love is bountiful, restoring, overflowing with delight.

So, Cana stands for this world’s overlooked, forsaken places and people, whom God does not overlook or forsake. God will not be silent about them or let them down. Listen to the prophet’s words:t

“For Zion’s sake I will not be silent,

for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet,

for her vindication shines forth like the dawn

and her victory like a burning torch.

Nations shall behold your vindication,

and all kings your glory.

You shall be called by a new name,

pronounced by the mouth of the Lord,

You shall be a royal crown in the hand of the Lord,

A royal diadem held by your God.

No more shall men call you ‘Forsaken’

or your land ‘desolate’.

But you shall be called ‘ My delight’

and your land ‘espoused’

for the Lord delights in you

and makes your land his spouse.

As a young man marries a virgin,

your builder shall marry you,

and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride

so shall your God rejoice in you.”  (Is 62, 1-6)

We shouldn’t forget that Jesus performed two miracles in Cana, according to the gospel of John, two “signs” of the coming kingdom. Besides changing water into wine at the wedding, Jesus cured the son of a government official from Capernaum. The boy was “at the point of death, and his father came to Cana because he heard that Jesus was there. (Jn 4.46-54)

That miracle points to the ultimate gift of God to us: the gift of life to those who face death.

Cana in the late 19th Century

Cana, a humble little town in Jesus’ day, declined even further in the centuries afterwards. It’s revived somewhat since the late 19th century when an English vicar visiting the Holy Land commented on its poverty and the neglected land that surrounded it.

“ (Kefr Kenna) lies on high ground, but not on a hill…A broad prickly pear led to the group of houses which perhaps represents  the New Testament Cana. Loose stones were scattered around the slope. There may be, possibly, 150 inhabitants, but one cannot envy them their huts of mud and stone, with dunghills at every corner. Huge mud ovens, like great beehives, stood at the sides of some of the houses.

“ In one house a worthy Moslem was squatting on the ground with a number of children, all with slates on which verses of the Koran had been written, which they repeated together. It was the village school, perhaps like that at Nazareth eighteen hundred years ago.

“ A small Franciscan church of white stone with a nice railed wall, with a beautiful garden at the side, had over its doorway these startling words in Latin: ‘Here Jesus Christ from water made wine.’ Some large water jars are shown inside as actually those used in the miracle, but such mock relics, however believed in by simple monks, do the faith of other people more harm than good.”   535

The town of Nazareth up the hill from Cana suffered a similar fate after the time of Jesus. Both were places people didn’t think much of.  In fact, many wonder today if the Cana we are visiting is really the Cana of the gospels. A tradition dating back to the 8th century says it is, and also locates here the birthplace of Nathaniel, or Bartholomew, a disciple of Jesus mentioned in John’s gospel. (Jn 21,2) But the sweep of time in this part of the world can erase a place like Cana, and perhaps that carries a lesson for us. God’s work endures even if human works do not.


Nov 6 Tel Aviv to Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee

The drive from the airport to Tiberias is about two hours. Israel and the occupied territories are about the size of New Jersey, so our trips to different sites will not be too long.

This is the land of Jesus and we’re going first to where he was raised and began his mission: Galilee. In the scriptures he’s called a Galilean, from Nazareth. Our hotel is in Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, where we will be staying for four days. It’s not too far from Nazareth and Capernaum and other Galilean towns mentioned in the New Testament.

On a map of 1st century Palestine you can see where these places were.

Our official guide will tell us a great deal about Tiberias and the surrounding area, but let me say something about the city where we will be staying.  Today it’s a Jewish city of modern resorts, hotels and spas, but it’s also one of Judaism’s holy cities. Let’s look at it at the time of Jesus.

Herod Antipas

It was built by Herod Antipas,  Tetrarch of Galilee, around the year 20 AD. He made the city his capital and  named it after his patron, the Roman Emperor Tiberius.

Herod Antipas (4 BC-39 AD) is mentioned a number of times in the New Testament. Jesus called him “that Fox.”  He ordered John the Baptist beheaded and later wondered if Jesus might be John come back from the dead.

Pontius Pilate sent Jesus to Herod before sentencing him to death, but Jesus didn’t say a word to him. One other interesting connection to Herod: Johanna, wife of Herod’s steward Cusa, was a follower of Jesus who stood with Mary and the other women at his cross.

Like his father, Herod the Great, Herod Antipas loved to build, and his splendid Greco-Roman city of Tiberias arose from 20 and 27 AD, while Jesus lived in Nazareth. It had a Roman gate, stadium, spacious squares with marble statues,  a grand palace with a golden roof and a large synagogue. To pay for it, Herod relied on his tax-collectors in the cities and towns in his district–places like Capernaum and Nazareth– to squeeze the fishermen and farmers for whatever they could get.

The ruins of Herod’s city lie south of the present city of Tiberias.

Talmudic Judaism

After the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Romans in 70 AD,  pharisees and scribes from the city flocked to Tiberias and made it a base for reconstituting Judaism. Instead of the temple, they made the synagogue the center of Jewish life and worship. Tiberias itself became the site of over 12 synagogues and an important place for Jewish learning.  A rabbinic school established in the city eventually produced the Palestinian Talmud, a written collection of rabbinic teachings on Jewish laws and traditions, around the beginning of the 4th century. Jewish historians describe the early centuries after the destruction of Jerusalem as the Time of Talmudic Judaism.

The Gospel of Matthew

Some scholars say the Gospel of Matthew, the most contentious and polemical of the gospels, may have been written near Tiberias around the year 90 AD. (Other places they suggest are Antioch in Syria and Sepphoris, not too far from Nazareth)  The gospel certainly reflects the struggles between the Jewish authorities in Tiberias and the Jewish Christians of Galilee over the future of Judaism. The sharp critique of the scribes and pharisees in the 23rd chapter of Matthew is an example of the contentious spirit that must have existed on both sides.

It would be good to keep Matthew’s gospel in hand as we travel around Galilee.

Peter’s confession at Caesaria Philippi that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God”, the highpoint of the Matthew’s gospel, makes a claim that the Jewish authorities from Tiberias would fiercely dispute.  After all, Jesus came from nearby, inconspicuous Nazareth where his own neighbors rejected him.  Did he really rise from the dead? Rumors were that his disciples stole his body from the tomb. Perhaps he resembled Elijah, or John the Baptist, or one of the prophets, but he could be a false prophet too.

The Jewish authorities would also question the credentials of the chief followers of Jesus–  uneducated fishermen and unpopular tax-collectors. Could they be authentic teachers in Israel?

Modern scriptural studies point out the real life situations that influenced the creation of our gospels. They didn’t drop down from heaven, they came from people struggling over the questions Jesus asked Peter: “Who do people say that I am?” “Who do you say that I am?” They were written to answer his critics then, and we hear these old disputes even now.

For example, Matthew’s gospel speaks to questions about the origins of Jesus, born of a virgin and conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Matthew’s Jesus speaks to the crowds from a mountain, like Moses, not in a synagogue like the Pharisees. The gospel is filled with Old Testament references backing up his claims. Matthew’s gospel  challenges the story that after his resurrection his body was stolen by his own disciples. Matthew takes on the task to disprove that story.

Finally, Peter, the fisherman, and Matthew, the tax-collector are star witnesses of Matthew’s gospel. “Flesh and blood” hasn’t revealed this to them, but the Father in heaven.

Did the Christians Lose?

I think the followers of Jesus lost the battle with the new Jewish establishment in Galilee at the end of the 1st century, and many moved on to other places. Only some  remained in Galilee. The final words of Jesus to his eleven disciples in Matthew’s gospel seem to indicate a call to other places.

“The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.  When they saw him they worshipped, but they doubted. Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”  Mt 28, 16-20

Fourth Century Christian Expansion

The Christian presence in the Holy Land increased when Constantine gained control of the Roman empire in the 4th century and favored the Christian Church. As Christians came to the Holy Land and built churches and shrines over the places where tradition said Jesus lived and ministered,  Galilee remained a Jewish stronghold.

When Muslims conquered the Holy Land in the 7th century, Christians and Jews alike came under their rule. Because of harsh Muslim rule under the Seljuk Turks and their destruction of the great Christian shrine of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem in the 11th century,  Crusaders from Europe invaded Palestine and re-established a Christian presence again. Evidence of Crusader churches and fortresses can be seen today.

Muslims, Jews and Christians

Muslims regained control of the Holy Land in the 13th century and remained in power  till the 20th century. Under Ottoman rule, Jews were treated more favorably than Christians, but as the fortunes of the Ottoman Empire declined so did the economy of Palestine. By the 19th century , Jewish and Christian and Muslims saw a land that was poor and neglected.

As the nation states formed in Europe in the 17th century, persecutions of the Jews increased and Jewish aspirations to return to their ancestral lands strengthened. By the 19th century Jews from Russia and Poland were settling again in parts of Palestine, in Jerusalem as well as in Galilee. After the holocaust, the Jewish population dramatically increased.

The Christian presence today is small and increasingly limited to shrines at Christian holy places, sustained especially by religious like the Franciscans.

Tiberias Then and Now

An English visitor to Tiberias towards the end of the 19th century offers an interesting glimpse of this Jewish city at the time:

“The Jews are very numerous in Tiberias,  it and Safed being, after Jerusalem and Hebron, the two holiest towns; for the Messiah is one day, they believe, to rise from the waters of the lake and land at Tiberias, and Safed is to be the seat of his throne.

“Prayer must be repeated at Tiberias at least twice a week, to keep the world from being destroyed. The worship in the synagogue seems to be in some respects peculiar, since the congregation seek to intensify different parts of the service by mimetic enforcement of its words.  Thus, when the Rabbi recites the passage, “Praise the Lord with the sound of the trumpet,” they imitate the sound of the trumpet through their closed fists; when a tempest is mentioned , they puff and blow to represent a storm; and when the cries of the righteous in distress are spoken of in the Lesson, they all set up a loud screaming.

“The Israelites of Tiberias are chiefly from Russian Poland, and do not speak German. Poor, thin, and filthy, they are certainly far from attractive;  but the women are neatly dressed, many of them in white and look much better than the men. “  Cunningham Geikie, The Holy Land and the Bible,Vol 2, New York, 1890 p 543

Tiberias today little resembles the city the visitor describes then.

Holy Land Pilgrimage

Itinerary: November 5-16

Pilgrims in the Holy Land

Over the centuries, countless Christian pilgrims have gone to the Holy Land. Among the first were women like Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, who is largely responsible for building Christian shrines over places like the Tomb of Jesus, Calvary and Bethlehem in the early 4th century AD.

A nun from Gaul, Egeria, visited the holy places later in the 4th century and left a wonderful account of her visit. Here’s what she did at every place:

“It was always our practice when we managed to reach one of the places we wanted to see to have first a prayer, then a reading from the scripture, then to say an appropriate psalm and another prayer. By God’s grace we always followed this practice whenever we were able to reach a place we wanted to see.”(9)

We are going to do that too. At most of the places, we will read from the scriptures associated with the place and celebrate Mass. Though our trip is primarily a pilgrimage, it’s also an opportunity to broaden our understanding of this part of the world and its place in our history.

On Egeria and other early women pilgrims:

Where are we going?

Here’s an outline of the places we’re going to and the scriptural readings at Mass. I’ll provide some material beforehand and as we go along. We’ll have a professional guide with us who is certified by the State of Israel.

The guidebook I follow is The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide, by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP  NY 2008

The Gospel of Matthew is an important gospel to have as a reference in Galilee. The Gospel of John is important for Jerusalem.

Nov. 5 Newark departure

Nov. 6 Tel Aviv to Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, where we will be staying for four days.

The drive from the airport to Tiberias is about two hours. Israel and the occupied territories are about the size of New Jersey, so most of us should feel right at home. Our trips to different sites won’t be too long in Galilee– less traffic than the Garden State Parkway.

Nov. 7 Tiberias to Cana. (Mass) Is 62,1-5   Jn 2,1-12.  John’s gospel also recalls a Jewish ruler came to Jesus at Cana asking him to cure his son. (Jn 4,46-54)

Then to Nazareth, now a city of 70,000 people, mostly Muslim, and the capital of Galilee.  At the time of Jesus it was an insignificant village of about 500.

Nov. 8 Mt Carmel, where the prophet Elijah, who is closely connected to Jesus,  defeated the priests of Baal and King Achaz and his Queen Jezebel. In the ancient world, mountains like Mt. Nebo and Mt. Tabor, were places to get your bearings. (Mass) Sirach 48,1-15 Mt. 16,13-20  From Mt. Carmel to a baptismal site on the River Jordan near the Sea of Galilee.

Nov. 9 Sea of Galilee sites where Jesus lived, taught, gathered disciples, left a memory. Mt. of Beatitudes, Primacy site along Sea of Galilee, (Mass) Jn 21,1-19  Acts 5, 27-32,40-41 Tabgha, Capernaum, Peter’s house. Synagogue.

Nov. 10 Tiberias to Mt. Tabor, where Jesus was transfigured. (Mass) 2 Pt 1,16-19  Mt 17,1-9) Jericho, Qumran, Jerusalem.

Nov. 11 Bethlehem (Mass: Shepherd’s Cave) Luke 2,1-2 Tit 2,11-14

Dead Sea Scrolls: Mystery Solved? Cf: National Geographic Special, Robert Cargill, 60 years ago.

Nov. 12 Jerusalem, Old City  Western Wall, Temple Mount, St. Stephen’s Gate, Upper Room (Mass) Mk 14,12-16.22-26  Heb 9,11-15   Jesus is the new Temple.

Nov. 13 Mount of Olives. Peter in Gallicantu (Mass)   Jn 18,15-27 Is 50,4-9a

Nov. 14 Via Dolorosa, Church of Holy Sepulcher (Mass)

Nov. 15 Return to Newark

The Political Situation

We are going to the Holy Land as negotiations between the Israeli and the Palestinians have reached a critical point. You may find these background stories from the website of the  BBC  helpful to understand the current situation:

Obstacles to Peace: Jerusalem

Obstacles to Peace: Borders and Settlements

Obstacles to Peace: Refugees

Obstacles to Peace: Water

There’s an important Synod on the Middle East involving Catholic and other religious figures that convened at Rome now to discuss the situation of Christians in that area.  You can follow it at the Vatican Radio site: