As the winter of 2020 continued I was delighted to embark on my second visit to the Holy Land. We arrived at the Sea of Galilee on February 24th with a full itinerary for the week including; Galilee, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Jericho and the Dead Sea.
Really excited to be not just revisiting but re-energising my understanding of the life of Jesus, visiting the same places and walking in his footsteps.
Spiritually it would touch my soul, physically it would give me great hope as I visited further places in my pilgrimages and travel journeys. The Dead Sea has been a place I hadwanted to visit since I learnt about it at school.
Physically, the whole region is set on the edge of the Mediterranean and Europe and the edge of the Middle East and Africa. Never a very settled area of the world. The Dead Sea is at the end of the deepest valley in the world, with the River Jordan flowing through this rift valley.
Every day details of our pilgrimage were posted, with photos and information, plus sights and thoughts which touched my soul and spirit.
Join me in the this journey at the start of Lent 2020.
One week to go before we set off for the Holy Land. Although Jerusalem beckoned me, I knew that one of the most loved areas will be at Lake Galilee.
As a Roman Catholic priest said, “Even if there are many places telling you that Jesus walked here and making claims for his presence in that place, there is one thing that you must do. That is to see the dawn appear over the Sea of Galilee, as it comes up between the dark hills and that first shaft of light hits the water, then you know that Jesus would have seen that same shaft of light so many years ago.”
The tranquillity of the edge of the lake is magical and a timelessness that pervades even the most restless of spirits. The lake feeds into the River Jordan at the south side and forms a backdrop of our journey with Jesus at his baptism.
Geographically, the Jordan Valley is part of a 380-kilometer-long rift valley runs from the Yarmouk River in the north to Al Aqaba in the south. The Dead Sea valley is a fraction of The Great Rift: a fault of some 37,000 miles that was created around 25 million years ago, as an outcome of an asymmetric shift between the Asian and the African shields.
And for now I would start getting my clothes and notebooks ready, and so look forward to getting a little lost in mind and spirit, at Lake Galilee.
An early start from Norfolk saw myself and three fellow pilgrims travelling to Luton airport at 6.00am on a cold, wet and windy Monday morning in February. Every journey has to start somewhere, and we were definitely looking forward to a warmer climate in Israel.
Travel on easyJet was fine and we landed at Tel Aviv airport at 6.30pm. Security was tight but not aggressive and we made it to the coach with our other 52 pilgrims, weary, hungry and ready for the hotel and a hot shower and bed.
But that was not to happen right away and we met with our guide, Hanna or in English, John, who kept us fed with information about the week ahead, Israel, our pilgrimage, the Old Testament and more…. So, by 9.00pm when we arrived at Restal Hotel in Tiberius, we already knew more than previously about the Holy Land.
We started at the Mount of Beatitudes, which overlooked the Sea of Galilee. An enormously peaceful place where we could stay and wander for a while among the gardens and into the church.
From there we had a 50 minute coach journey north along the Route 90, which travels from the southern tip of Israel to the north. The scenery was full of orchards for apples, mangos, oranges, lemons and bananas interspersed with filed of wheat. But quickly this change to more rocky climbs and Hannar explained to us the position of the closeness of Lebanon and Syria. We were 30 miles from Damascus and 50 or so from Beirut. The Golan Heights are quite mountainous and Caesarea Philippi was set at the edge of the mountains.
A beautiful place with springs and invitingly clear and clean water rushing through toward the Jordan. The old cave and temples of ancient pagan worshippers was the site where Jesus came with his disciples as a turning point in Jesus ministry. He was heading to Jeruslem and Jesus needed to know that his disciples were with him. He asked Peter there if he would look after his church.
St Peter’s Primacy, Lake Galilee
I had been to
this place five years ago, but each time is special, and this was no
exception. We had time to wander and listen to the reading.and time
to visit the church which holds the rock that Jesus stood on as he
asked Peter three times if he loved him.
It left me
wondering if Peter knew what he was taking on?
Lunch! St Peter’s fish
By the afternoon the weather had become warm but there were some strong winds and when we arrived at Capernaum it was good to find some places in the sun. This was the place where Jesus mainly lived and also where he cured Simon Peter’s mother in law. The site of the house is still visible and also the synagogue where Jesus would have prayed. But for me the place to be was at the edge of the lake. I sat on the boulders at the waters edge in the sun and thought and thought. As I sat there the wind calmed a little.
Our last visit of the day was on a boat on Lake Galilee at 4.30pm. The sun was already low in the sky and as we set out on the wooden boat called Noah our party of 55 sat around the edge and on the plastic chairs.
After about 10 minutes we were in the middle of the lake and Bishop of Lynn, Rt Reverend Jonathan Meyrich led us in the reading and a period of silence. A very profound and spiritual time, the boat’s engine was cut, there was no wind and even the waves stopped hitting the boat and only the occasional one was heard lapping at the edge of the boat.
“What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him? Asked the disciples”. Matthew 8: 27
The place where the Transfiguration happened, on top of the mountain where clouds fly freely in the sudden winds blown around the mountain top. It is also a high vantage point for the fertile plains below.
We arrived at the base of Mount Tabor and took shuttle transport to the top, through winding and steep narrow roads. On the top of the mountain the views were amazing, the fertile plains below full of green crops and blossoming trees.
We held our Eucharist on this special place in an outside covered space. We received the ashing for Ash Wednesday, signed with the cross, not in ashes but in the dust from Capernaum.
A very special service in this deeply spiritual place where Jesus was lifted up into the clouds with Moses and Elijah.
A busy, bustling town with all the normal traffic, horn blowing, people carrying on with their lives, selling souvenirs and pomegranate juice.
We wandered to the Church of the Annunciation, this is a church for all nations, a beautiful interior with some of the most deeply coloured stained-glass windows. Small windows along the stairs were rich, with vibrant colours and smooth glass in the middle and rougher at the edges.
We also went to St Joseph’s church, a quieter and more reflective space with wonderful images of Joseph and Jesus.
Maybe it would have been good to have spent a little more time just wandering in Nazareth, but lunch was calling.
After we had lunch in Cana we went to the Church and had Morning Prayer( we were a bit out of sync with the day!) in the chapel of St Simon the Canaanite.
There were many people around the church and we soon made our way back to the coach to return back to Tiberius. The next day looks to be busy again and much looking forward to Jericho and floating in the Dead Sea.
A day of journeys, of travellers, of walkabouts… This day we have met many people from all over the world; Indonesia, Columbia, Brazil, Germany, Rwanda… travelling, making adventurous journeys across this place and all to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
We began the day travelling to the River Jordan when some rosemary was spotted at the roadside, the coach was stopped and sprigs collected. At the baptismal site, close to the Sea of Galilee the rosemary was used to sprinkle/douse us in the water from the Jordan.
We soon gathered a crowd and people just kept coming to Bishop Jonathan standing in the river. There were people from Columbia, Rwanda and Brazil and others.
The Road to Jericho
An amazing journey, with the countryside starting in intensive horticulture with courgettes, cauliflowers, grapes and date palms. The border with Jordan was at the edge of the roads and in places there were missile launchers pointing to Jordan. After an hour the mountains and terrain changed to rocky boulders and harsher soils with sheep and goats.
The Mount of Temptation
At the edge of Jericho, which appeared a sprawl and chaotic city, ( no sign of the wall!!), we took the cable car to the Mount of Temptation. Halfway up the mountain and the views were incredible and just as I imagine it would have been when the devil was tempting Jesus. We then walked into the monastery and a tiny cave, similar to one where Jesus would have sheltered.
The Dead Sea
My favourite colour is pale blue and this was the total colour of the Dead Sea , the mountains in Jordan and sky. The experience of floating in The Dead Sea was unreal and felt something like being totally weightless. The hardest thing was to try and put your feet on the ground, impossible! Definitely an experience to have though. Photos will follow.
The Road to Bethlehem
The journey to Bethlehem found us travelling past Bedouin camps, young shepherds looking after the sheep on the rocky hillside. Running Parallel with the road was the valley where Jesus based the story of the Good Samaritan, but was also the valley which Jesus described in the 23rd Psalm. It was easy to visualise robbers and isolations.
And then… we became immersed in the traffic around Jerusalem and back in the 21st Century, before going through the checkpoint into Bethlehem to find our hotel The Manger Square Hotel.
Bethlehem, the city where Jesus was born, the place where the shepherds lived, the first to give the message of his arrival into the world. Today, it is a city of surprises. Our hotel is very close to Manger Square and at 7.00am it was slowly coming to life. The coffee shops were open, selling breakfast, the ATM machines were mainly closed (which was a problem as received Jordanian dinar!), but the sky was blue, and it felt good.
The Church of the Nativity
We entered through the narrow door and heard the story of the camels which were pushed through! A long story, so maybe later… Many, many lights and baubles and incense and we queued for a while to go to the place where they think Jesus was born. It was quite elaborate and a special place. We then held Morning Prayer in a beautiful courtyard outside, reading the Christmas story from Luke’s gospel.
The Shepherds’ Fields
High on the hills the shepherds fields were spotted with wonderful red anemones. The view across the valley beyond was impressive, apart from the settlement on the other side. We had a beautiful Eucharist outside overlooking the valley, and Bishop Jonathan spoke about the shepherds being the first to have the news of Jesus birth and their feelings of fear of the angel, a sense of awe, and their courage as lowly shepherds, to be the first to tell the news.
A beacon of hope and an oasis of peace. A Catholic university in Bethlehem where all feel welcome, especially Muslim students. The students talked about their lives and how many things they have to manage to be at university in Bethlehem as Palestinians, whether Christian or Muslim.
It was clear that their friendships knew no borders and they loved and respected each other. There is hope for the future!
A day full of emotions, crowds and friends. So many places visited today, and this outline is an indication only of the immensity of each place in spirit and history.
The Mount of Olives
We left the bus as the rain poured down and the cold wind blew. This was a different day. The view of the City of Jerusalem panned out before us, the golden dome highlighted against the dark grey sky.
By this time we were cold and wet but undaunted, we held our service outdoors. With the church behind us we walked down the very slippery road to the gates of Jerusalem.
Garden of Gethsemane
Forever a special place, the place where Jesus found his task more difficult than ever and asked God if he had to do this. Peter, James and John could not keep awake with him. The remaining 8 disciples waited as Jesus returned to them when Judas came to betray him. From here the passion began and Jesus remained passive through all that would follow. For us as pilgrims, it was a place to be. A place to stay and to wonder.
The soldiers had taken Jesus to this house and to the dungeons below. Peter followed and denied Jesus three times. In the distance on this day we also heard the cock crow. But a place of sorrows.
This place spoke to me somehow. The sky by now had turned blue and the wind was freezing cold. This is the place where Mary may have died and taken to heaven by an angel. This is not in the gospels but possibly in the Gospel of St Thomas.
The Upper Room
We walked through the narrow streets and as young Israeli recruits were marching past, we looked at the Upper Room, a tiny window next to a pillar, well hidden from any crowds.
Bethesda The Healing Pools
The site where the paralysed man had waited for 38 years to be first in the pool and be healed. Jesus asked him to get up and walk and he did. We held a Healing Service by the pools, which was a powerful way for many to ask for healing.
We started to walk on the Via Delorosa at 3.45pm and it would be dark by 5.30pm But it was a good time as the narrow streets were not too busy and we stopped at all the stations of the cross for a reading and hymn. This was a powerful place full of sorrow and yet in the midst of this the street sellers would have sounded much the same. We stood on a corner of a tiny street at Station 5 were Simon the Cyrenee from North Africa was asked to help Jesus, a young man from Northern Africa came rushing past.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The last 3 stations are in the church and by now it was dark. The church was busy and some of us went straight to the site of the cross and some waited at the tomb of Jesus. It is an Armenian Church and very ornate and a holy place full of pilgrims from all over the world.
These are shortened sections and when I return to UK I will write more on the Via Delorosa, there is much to tell…
We joined the congregation at the cathedral for the Eucharist in Arabic and English. Along with people from Diocese of Exeter and other places in the world. An interesting babbling sound of different languages for the prayers. Some beautiful dates and coffee afterwards.
This is the birthplace of John the Baptist and the site of the Visitation. A beautiful place in the countryside with rolling hills and a deep valley, birds were singing, and a few flowers were appearing. We read the Benedictus on the wall at the place where Zechariah was able to speak again. Hanna told us the meaning of the names; Zechariah – God remember me and Elizabeth – my God is my oath.
A gentle spring of water at the site where Mary stopped for water on her way to see Elizabeth and tell her the news. We stopped for coffee and a bite to eat, soaking up the atmosphere.
Yad Vashem – The Holocaust Museum
A very different and daunting museum, we wandered through, mainly in silence. No photos allowed which would have been a distraction anyway. The museum is built in a triangle and on entering, the film on the wall in front appears to be a place where you are wandering. The film is made up of a map and of Jewish people in their daily lives before the Second World War, children waving with smiling faces.
Between the displays were intersections with memories which need to be remembered, many old books, for instance, and the films of people burning many, many books by writers including Karl Marx . The last but one intersection was a simple train line and the barrier for the end of the line.
Abu Gosh is thought to be Emmaus, where two of the disciples walked to from Jerusalem. Jesus walked with them but they did not recognise him. Finally at supper, they knew him when he broke the bread.
A real place of peace, where spring flowers, anemones, cyclamen and daffodils, were so beautiful. We held our last Eucharist in The Church of the Resurrection.
And finally… before we entered Ben Gurian Airport to go through tight security and our journey home, we had a special treat from Hanna, our guide; he sang The Lord’s Prayer to us in Aramaic, his home language. Hanna had been an amazing guide, inspirational, patient and a source of immense understanding of the Bible.
You can see a very short film of this ‘omnibus celebration’ here…
An amazing end to this wonderful pilgrimage, my understanding of the whole narrative of the Old and New Testament stories has gained so much. And my soul has been filled more and more each day; through being in this place, by hearing more about the scriptures and the company of friends.
Thank you especially to The Very Reverend Jane Hedges, The Right Reverend Jonathan Meyrich, John Hanna Koury, Gemm Travel , Pilgrimage People and to all fellow pilgrims. We have all made this a special adventure, walkabout and pilgrimage to this very Holy Land. Rev’d Sue Martin