The time is near. It is midnight as the El Al Israel plane touches down at the Ben Gurion airport amid the joyous singing of the Israelis on board. Shalom…shalom…Our journey to the Holy Land begins with a Hebrew song…
This is our first trip to Israel. What is an encounter with the “people of God of the Old Testament” like? Amazing! The “olive skin, green eyes and dark hair” combination of young Israelis are strikingly attractive. Like a homecoming, they gather together as soon as the “fasten your seatbelt” light goes off. I remember the divine origin of this race in the bible. “They are Israelites, to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ.” (Romans 9:5)
Today, Israel is made up of diverse cultural groups – Lithuanians, Moroccans, Yemenites, Poles, Germans, Turks, Russians, Americans and Ethiopians, who constitute the Jewish community; and the Palestinians, Bedouins and Druzes, who make up the non-Jewish community. How can one begin to describe a place where the past and the present meet? The land of Israel defies the imagination.
“Welcome to Israel,” our taxi driver greets us. “Where are you ladies from?”
“Philippines,” my sister and I reply in unison.
He turns to us, smiling. “And how is everything in the Philippines? Is it peaceful now? No more revolution?”
This is our introduction to Israeli hospitality. I couldn’t resist posing to him the same question about Israel. I have to admit his answer surprised me. Could this be the sentiment of the younger Israeli generation?
“There will be peace,” he asserts. “We want peace with the Arab world, and the rest of the world too.”
We begin our journey to Jerusalem by passing through the port city of Haifa, climbing up to the summit of the Carmelite Monastery of Elijah on Mount Carmel. What a breathtaking view! We had a panoramic view of Haifa, the Mediterranean Sea, the fertile valley of Jezreel peppered with thousands of olive trees, and the city of Nazareth in the Galilean Hills. Our tour guide recounts the biblical incident at Carmel where the prophet Elijah challenged 450 prophets of Baal in a test of faith. Like Elijah’s sojourn on Mount Horeb, I felt God’s peaceful presence in the “murmur of a gentle breeze” at the summit of Mount Carmel.
Present day Nazareth, our next stop, is an Arab city with a population of 60,000 – half Christians, half Muslims – living together in harmonious existence. It is Sunday and our tour guide points out the closed stores of Christians. There is a rustic quality about the city: Muslim men and women in traditional attire walking down the streets, young boys selling postcards to pilgrims, women preparing pita bread by hand. From a distance, we can see the gray-colored turret of the Church of the Annunciation.
Inside the church, we visit the cave that served as Mary’s dwelling place and where the Annunciation took place. The cave lies beside the altar of the church, which was built in 1966. Beside this church stand St. Joseph’s church and in another cave, his carpentry workshop. Although I was raised in a Catholic school and knew the origin of my faith, seeing the caves where Mary and Joseph lived before Jesus came into their lives is something I will never forget. It’s a humbling experience.
From Nazareth, we proceed to Ginnosar, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret). This freshwater lake gets its water from the River Jordan and is the country’s main reservoir. Here, we have a memorable experience of sailing on a replica of “The Jesus Boat” for half an hour. Like St. Therese, we shall never forget the impression the sea makes on us. We cannot take our eyes from it. We imagine instead the apostles casting their nets out into the sea. “…and Simon Peter went up and drew the net to land full of great fishes…” (John 21:11)
We dock at Tiberias, on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee and have for lunch a local delicacy named St. Peter’s Fish. At $15 apiece, I wonder if St. Peter will find the price exorbitant too. No doubt.
From Tiberias, we travel to the surrounding towns where Jesus preached. In Capernaum, we view St. Peter’s memorial, built over the ruins of the house of St. Peter. We proceed to Tabgha, site of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes. Near the altar of this church lies an ancient mosaic of the loaves and the fishes. Here, Jesus showed his humility, love and generosity when he twice performed the miracle of multiplication.
Then, we recall the Beatitudes when we enter the chapel on the Mount of Beatitudes. With its gray-blue dome, white semicircular arches, and the flora of flowers in full bloom around the chapel, it is truly a delightful place for a retreat. No wonder this hilly haven is Jesus’ favorite place for meditation. We end the day with a visit to the Pilgrim Baptismal site on the River Jordan known as Yardenit. Although not the actual site of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, this is where pilgrims renew their baptismal vows by immersing themselves in the water flowing from the Jordan River.
At the end of the day, I realize that the events and places in the Bible are real. I thank the early Christians for preserving the landmarks of Jesus and the apostles. In my heart, I felt their holy presence in the places that we visited. I couldn’t wait till we reach Jerusalem the next day.
Passing through Jericho, we finally arrive in Jerusalem, meeting up with the city’s traffic in the late afternoon. It’s easy to fall in love with Jerusalem. Situated on the Judean Hills, virtually all the buildings have facades of limestone quarried from the surrounding hills, giving the city a warm, golden look. From the Old City established by King David 3,000 years ago to the modern government buildings and luxury hotels, it’s like seeing two different cities at the same time.
We detour first to the nearby town of Bethlehem in the West Bank, six kilometers south of Jerusalem. Bethlehem’s charm is more heartfelt than visual. The terrain is hilly, and the town remains humble as it was 2,000 years ago. Its inhabitants, who are mostly Christians and Arabs, depend largely on pilgrims for their livelihood. Religious articles such as wooden crosses, rosaries and Nativity scenes are made from olive wood grown in the area. Looking at the rows of wooden crosses, I recall reading in a book that the cross of Jesus was made from olive wood. Legend had it that when Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden, they were allowed to take with them a branch of an olive tree. From this same branch which they planted when they arrived on the Mount of Olives became the cross that Jesus carried 2,000 years later!
We head for the Church of the Nativity built by Constantine in 330 A.D. This is the traditional site of the birthplace of Jesus. Entering the small doorway, we find no pews inside. We walk up to the Orthodox altar, passing by tattered columns and mosaic underneath the stone floor, and descend a flight of steps to the manger site. Here, we kneel in homage before the silver star- marking the spot of Jesus’ birth. It is a poignant moment. Like the Magi, we traveled from afar to bring homage to our King. There are no material gifts this time. Only the gift of our lives, our hearts.
From Bethlehem, we return to Jerusalem to retrace the passion of Jesus. We commence at the garden of Gethsemane in the Kidron Valley, on the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives. Here, we come across an orchard of ancient olive trees resplendent in the morning sun. At the heart of the garden is the Rock of the Agony, a sizable mass of rock marking the agony of Jesus on the night of his arrest. We find this rock inside a modern church known as the church of all Nations. I recall the suffering of Jesus, how he sweated in blood.
Legend has it that the legions of Lucifer (and Lucifer himself) surrounded Jesus on the night of his agony, and in his anguish, Jesus saw in a vision how he was going to suffer and die for man. Even the angel who came down from heaven to comfort Jesus felt an intense pity. It is said that Jesus died for the sins of man for all-time; past, present and future sins to be committed till the end of the world.
Leaving Gethsemane on a somber note, we enter the Old City of Jerusalem via the Dung gate. We stroll past the Western Wall on the right, where we observe devout Jews praying the Sidoor. The Western Wall or “Wailing Wall” contains Herodian stones of the Temple Mount (Second Temple) built in 20 B.C. by Herod. We traverse narrow streets to reach Mount Moriah, site of the Temple Mount during Jesus’ time. Today, the majestic Dome of the rock stands on the bedrock of the highest point of Mount Moriah. We stand in line at the plaza, sans our los angeles dodgers t shirt , to view the sacred rock inside. To Jews and Christians, Mount Moriah is the site of Abraham’s sacrifice of his only son Isaac (Gen. 22:2). According to Muslim tradition, meanwhile, Allah took his servant Mohammed on a night’s journey from Mecca to Jerusalem (in al Aqsa) where he ascended to heaven from the rock, then returned to Mecca. Devout Muslims prostrate before the Dome of the Rock.
From Mount Moriah, we cross the road leading to Via Dolorosa where we begin the Way of the Cross. There are 14 stations on the Way of the Cross, nine along the narrow street of Via Dolorosa and five inside the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. From the Chapel of Flagellation and Condemnation (Second Station), we recall the scene of the brutal beatings and flagellation of Jesus. It is said that Jesus was tied to a pillar above the ground during the flagellation and his cries resembled those of a lamb being butchered in a nearby slaughterhouse.
In silence, we marched in procession along the cobbled streets of Via Dolorosa, passing by merchant shops and peddlers, and pausing and praying at each station. It’s difficult to meditate amid the noise and onlookers. Nevertheless, I’m grateful that we could experience indirectly the passion of Jesus in its actual setting.
We reach the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre at the 10th station. Our tour guide relates how Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, toured the Holy Land in 325 B. C. in search of the Cross and the Holy Sepulchre. She ordered the excavation of Golgotha and discovered not one but three crosses. According to Christian tradition, Helena halted a funeral procession passing by, and held the three crosses over the dead boy. When the shadow of the third cross fell upon the boy, he stirred and came back to life! Likewise Helena dreamt of the tomb buried underneath a pagan shrine in Calvary. She instructed the removal of the pagan shrine and surrounding hill, and built a church around the whole place. This is now the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre.
Inside we pray before the altars of the last five stations of the Cross, contemplating the death and resurrection of Jesus. Christian tradition has it that an earthquake occurred when two angels carried the crucified body of Jesus from the sepulchre up to the Father in heaven. There is no doubt in my mind that after all this time Jesus is still among us through the holy spirit. At some point in this pilgrimage, I felt my heart, bruised and broken by life’s painful experiences, beginning to heal. The transformation is subtle; the experience is life-changing. Time is short. Our journey ends with a prayer. Tomorrow is a new day, a new beginning.
write by Fidelma