For many years, we talked about making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. We wanted to see the places where Jesus, Mary and the Apostles lived and walked and to be able to
pray in the holy places there. This month we finally realized that desire and spent 12 days in Israel and Palestine, ending with a short stay in Istanbul, Turkey. The following are
some of the highlights of the trip for me. It will be mostly in chronological order, but not a complete travelogue.
An interesting bit of information that applied to almost every site we visited was a concept of layers. At a site we would see a mosque or a church that was several centuries old or less, but the site had been used for thousands of years. Some sites started with the ancient Jews or the Romans, and then became Christian, often churches which were later destroyed by Muslims and replaced by a mosque, then converted or rebuilt as a church during the crusades and again replaced by a mosque. Often there was evidence of the layers at the sites.
In Nazareth we visited the Church of the Annunciation, built over what is believed to be the site where Mary was living when the angel appeared to her. We could look into a cave which had been part of the house. Outside the Church there was an excavation of the area down to the level of the street at the time of Jesus with evidence of buildings that existed at the time. We visited a Marian center there for our first Mass of the trip. As we sang a song about Nazareth and the words reminded us that Mary and Jesus lived there, I was overwhelmed to realize I was in the place we were singing about and not far away in a place that I could only imagine. That was really the beginning of the spiritual journey for me.
At Cana, we visited a site that appeared to have been built as a place for public celebrations, such as weddings, and might be the place where Jesus worked his first miracle, changing water into wine. There we celebrated Mass and the married couples in the group were invited to renew their wedding vows. We have done this many time through the years, but it was special to be in this place where, two millennia ago, a young couple were blessed by the presence of Jesus at their wedding. I found myself very much aware of how much Jesus has been a part of our married life from the beginning and how blessed I am to share my life with Rita.
We visited the area where Jesus presented the Beatitudes and had a wonderful Mass in a beautiful, peaceful garden setting. Franciscan Friar Bob Powell offered a special homily that brought the Beatitudes alive and helped me to see how I can apply them in my life and how we can apply them in our marriage. It was the perfect place to sit quietly and reflect on my life.
Mount Tabor is the place where Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James and John. It was interesting to discover what a climb they had to get there. The tour bus could not get to the top, so we had to transfer to smaller vans. Fr. Brian Walker celebrated the Mass there and reminded us how astounded the disciples were by the changes in His appearance. Rita saw a parallel with marriage that I found to be profound – Jesus was transformed on the mountain and also after His resurrection – are also transformed/transfigured through the years of our marriage. Through her love, I have grown to be a better person in ways that I could never have foreseen.
The most important event for me on the entire trip was the Mass at Jesus tomb. We had to rise early to make use of a Franciscan privilege that allowed us to have Mass there before the church opened for the day. We stood in the room just outside the tomb itself, while the priests were saying the Mass inside. Then we were allowed to enter the tomb briefly. I was a very emotional moment when we placed our hands together on the stone where Jesus was laid. We put our hands together so that our rings also touched the stone. I will carry that moment with me for the rest of my life.
We saw and did many other things that were interesting and sometimes fun. Among them, we visited Qum Ron, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, went swimming in the Dead Sea and rode a camel.
The power of the trip was enhanced by a wonderful Israeli guide named Yair, and interpretation of the scriptures and history of the area contributed by Friar JohnPaul Cafiero, OFM, Fr. Brian Walker, O.P., Friar Bob Powel, OFM, and Ed Ruscill, theologian from Villanova University.
It was a great privilege to be able to make this trip. Only a tiny fraction of Catholics and other Christians ever have the opportunity to do so. I am humbled and thankful that God provided us with the resources to do so.
We have just returned from the Land which is Holy as our guide referred to Israel and Palestine. After a 12 hour flight I’m still a little jet-lagged but the experience is something that anyone who likes travel should put on his/her bucket list. In some ways it was a “you have to be there” trip and in others there is much to share. While not specifically aimed at married couples it most certainly enriched our marriage. It was our first adventure on a tour and while some aspects of a tour are not for us, we are so glad we were on this tour. To dispel any fears, never once did we experience any fear about being in the country. There is little to no police presence that we saw. The military is present at border check points.
With that aside it was a wonderful 12 day experience. A few highlights for me were arriving in Nazareth. For as long as I can remember I’ve had a devotion to Mary. Seeing what is believed to be her house and where the Angel Gabriel spoke to her was emotionally touching. Being on a pilgrimage versus a tour meant we had Mass each day. This first day it occurred in a Marian chapel used by all nations of the world. We followed that with a stop in Cana where all the married couples in the group and those whose spouses weren’t present renewed our marriage vows. The next day we took a boat ride across the sea of Galilee and stopped in the middle for prayer and reflection. It was good to think about the times that Jesus walked on water to help me at various times in my life and to reflect on the beach story when Jesus prepared a meal for the apostles after the Resurrection. Following that we renewed our baptismal vows as we each stood in the Jordan River and one of the priests in the group poured water on each of us. While each of these stops was individual to me it was the sharing of them with Bob and talking about our thoughts and feelings that made them ever more of a wonderful experience.
I found the place where it is believed that Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount, namely the Beatitudes, to be the most peaceful and serene. Mt Tabor the sight of the Transfiguration was spiritually uplifting as it was a reminder that we were married on the feast of the Transfiguration and one of the priests we were with celebrated his first mass on the same day and year that we were married. The story speaks loudly to married couples in that we are called to listen, to understand what it means to be beloved and the final words of Peter, James and John, “Lord, it is good that we are here.” While marriage isn’t meant for everyone I was struck with the fact if those who are married reflected, if not each day from time to time, on the fact that marriage is the good place to be. It is in loving each other that we come to know God.
While Galilee was more mountainous than I had envisioned, it was the journey through Judea and Samaria that was totally different than I had ever envisioned. I knew it was desert but I didn’t expect it to be mountainous. It brought the difficulty of travel, whether it was Joseph and Mary going to Bethlehem, or families going to worship at the temple and Jesus and the Apostles traveling to preach, into a new perspective. Jesus being in the desert for forty days and nights now has a different meaning.
For some reason I found the entry into Jerusalem a powerful experience. We sang as the bus made its assent into Jerusalem. In my mind flashed those who came before; Abraham, David, Solomon and Jesus and His final days. Many of the life, death and resurrection moments of my life flashed through my mind. In it was the hope that everyone before me must have experienced as they too entered into this Holy City that surrounded me.
Jerusalem was filled with faith-filled moments. They included taking turns carrying the cross as we walked what is believed to be the path Jesus walked with His cross, celebrating Mass in the Tomb and singing “Come Holy Ghost” in the room that is believed to be the site of the Last Supper and Pentecost. We ended our journey with Mass in Gethsemane, a peaceful place over looking the city of Jerusalem, which still has olive trees that were likely there when Jesus prayed there.
Nothing is Scripture will ever be the same, most especially Christmas, Holy Week and Easter. My/our hearts were filled to overflowing as we rode the bus to the airport. I am most struck with the faith of the people through the centuries, beginning with Abraham when God took a land which has no natural resources, little fresh water, a desert and mountainous terrain and said this is the Promised Land, the Land which is Holy and it is the place that is spiritual home to three of the world’s largest religions.
Would we go back again? Perhaps! The tour guide spoke to us about leading a pilgrimage for married couples. It would be a wonderful opportunity for couples to reevaluate and a reaffirm the presence of God/Jesus/Holy Spirit in their life together. We are always looking for things to challenge us – maybe this will be our next call. The journey is not for the faint of heart. In ten days we walked over fifty miles but all worth each step.
We are thankful to Friar JohPaul, OFM, Friar Brian Walker, OP, Friar Bob Powell, OFM who enhanced the spiritual part of the journey and also Yair Mazur, our tour guide in Israel. While Jewish, he knew more about Jesus and his journey than many Catholic Christians and of course our fellow pilgrims. If you have ever had the desire to walk Jesus journey, do it. AMI travel is a wonderful place to help you plan your journey. If you might be interested in a couple’s pilgrimage let us know. Running through my head is the song we sang as the bus left Jerusalem, David Haas’ version of Psalm 41:
Do not be afraid, I am with you
I have called you each by name
Come and follow Me
I will bring you home
I love you and you are mine
Today’s scripture readings, reflection and prayer