Hi there guys! I landed in Israel on Monday (7/11/16) , and since then it has been a whirlwind of excited exploration of the Holy Land. I’ll have a long reflection after this paragraph, but first I want you to understand how grateful I am. Thank you for sharing your intentions with me! I asked for five pages, and I ended up with more than twelve! There Jesus goes again, multiplying food, this time for our spiritual maturity rather than temporal needs! I am excited to share about my pilgrimage this far, but please do not be upset by the lack of pictures. For one, I am trying to take less pictures and be more in tune with the place in which I am physically existing. Second, posting this on my phone is a challenge. If I have a section in capital letters which reads “CHURCH OF THE NATIVITY, ETC,” for example, this means that, when given the opportunity, I will edit the post and add pictures. Until then, it is not a good use of my time to try to upload a bunch of pictures. Please be patient with me as I share my experience here!
Oh and one more thing: before I tell you anything, please follow this link to Facebook to follow our group’s page.
We will have different people reflecting on different days of the journey, and it will be glorious! Lots of pictures to be found there, too, over the course of our trip.
And now on to my adventures thus far: Monday morning, around 4:30 am, Kayla, myself, and Kayla’s sister, Megan, woke up to drive down to Phoenix to catch an 11:45 flight to Newark. (We ended up being 4 and a half hours early, but it was great – we played cards and made friends and did a lot of people watching.) Then, after a five hour flight across the country, we landed in Newark and had a few hours to wait until our 10.5 hour flight to Tel Aviv. The flight was, among other things, long. Duh, right? Yes. 10 hours is a long time in a plane. But it was uneventful and safe and I learned some things along the way. For example, did you know that as soon as an airplane enters Israeli airspace, all passengers are required to stay seated until the plane lands? Yep, there were flight attendants semi-chasing standing passengers down, calling, “Sir, sir, you cannot be standing. Please sir!”
We landed in Tel Aviv at 4:08 pm, local time, on Tuesday, July 12th. How confusing, since we left the east coast at 11 pm, and the flight was 10 hours, and the time change was 7 or 8! Ahh! How crazy! As Kayla has been reminding me…”Today is today.”
Upon arrival in Jerusalem, passport control and customs were all easy-peasy, and no one lost their luggage. (Please pray for a dear one who is traveling elsewhere and lost his luggage in transit.) We found our bus, and met our guide, Joseph, who has a lot of knowledge, and who is very kind and joyful. He tells a lot of jokes and gives information about social, political, religious, economic, and geographical issues or situations. After arriving to the hotel, we celebrated Mass and ate dinner.
After dinner, I made my way to the roof, from which we could see the Old City of Jerusalem, just a few hundred meters away. There, we saw the Dome of the Rock’s famous golden dome, and the amount of Olives, with the Garden of Gethsemane, where Christ prayed and suffered great agony before His arrest and crucifixion to save us from our sins. One of the big things that has stood out to me is the closeness of everything to Jerusalem. The Mount of Olives and the Garden where Jesus often prayed? Minutes walking from the gates of the Old City. Bethany, where Lazarus was raised from the dead and Mary and Martha lived? Just barely over the crest of the Mount of Olives, on the side not facing Jerusalem. Bethlehem? A mere ten minutes away, beyond the Separation Wall that closes in Palestinian territory. Jericho, the oldest city in the world? Somewhere under 50 minutes away driving. Another comment: when we went up to the roof, we heard the Muslim prayers over city loudspeakers. At first, Kayla and I were thinking of how the public, open-broadcast media reminded us of various dystopia stories, like the “1984” Thought Police or from that book, “The Giver.” I keep thinking about how invasive it would feel to constantly hear these prayers, especially if you understood what they were saying, as a Christian or Jew who disagreed with them. I just asked Joseph, though, and he said that since Israel is a democratic state, there is freedom of religion and Muslims are allowed to broadcast their prayers, not too loudly, in Muslim neighborhoods as long as it does not bother anyone. Last night, in Jericho, was the first night I heard a bit of beauty in the idea of praying as a community like that.
PICTURE DOME OF THE ROCK
On Wednesday, we traveled into Palestinian territory, to Bethlehem (“The House of Bread”) where we celebrated the Holy Mass at the Church of the Nativity, and then toured the stables underneath where Catholic tradition holds that Jesus was born. To all who sent me intentions: I presented our book of prayers in the same place where the three magi presented their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to our Little Lord. (A note about these locations we are visiting: The sites may not be totally 100% accurate. The place I kissed the ground, where we Catholics believe that Jesus Christ, our Incarnate God, was born, may not be the exact ground where Mary gave birth to the Son of God. It very well might be, since Christians began venerating this area directly after Christ’s death. But other things, like a rock that hid St. John the Baptist from Herod’s soldiers during the murder of the Holy Innocents, may not be the real deal. Whether or not these sites are totally accurate, climbing down into the tomb of Lazarus, touching the spot where the magi presented their gifts to the Infant Savior, and renewing my Baptismal vows in the water where Christ Himself was baptized by St. John the Baptist are all sacred experiences. They help me understand Christ’s life and the reality of the gift of His Incarnation. As Marissa said, the actual location does not matter as much as what we are here to do: walk in the footsteps of Jesus; put ourselves in Christ’s place, walking at His side as His disciples and asking Him to show us what He desires to move in our hearts.)
After the Church of the Nativity, we took our bus to Shepherd’s Field, to a small chapel above the caves where shepherds in the area would have cared for their flock in the winter months. Then, after lunch, we drove to the Valley of the Visitation – Ein Karem. The valley was beautiful, though at first I was a little confused about the topography of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is not flat. It is all valleys and mount(ain)s. There is no flat spot to say “from here, I’m descending into a valley” or “from here, I’m ascending a mountain.” Nothing of that sort for Jerusalem! We climbed a bunch of stairs to the Church of the Visitation, which was beautiful. The Magnificat was translated into many different languages, and the paintings of Mary were very stunning. Baluchi (Canadian who built plenty of churches in the Holy Land) added onto a church that was already here. Afterwards, we went to Mary’s Well, where there is a natural spring that the Virgin Mary likely stopped at on her way to stay with St. Elizabeth. Then, we walked to the other side of the valley (not as far as it sounds), to where St. Elizabeth gave birth to St. John the Baptist. (Since Zechariah was a high priest, he could not have had his wife give birth in their home, because the blood in the house would have made him impure — very simplified explanation of a more detailed situation.) At this Church of St. John the Baptist, there was another wall, this time covered in different translations of the Canticle of Zechariah.
PRAYER BOOK AT MANGER, VISITATION CHURCH FACE, MAGNIFICAT WALL, CANTICLE OF ZECHARIAH, STONE THAT COVERED ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST
Then, we went to see the Menorah and Knesset building (the government building) in Western Jerusalem. There’s a very marked difference between the western and eastern parts of Jerusalem: from the transportation, to the state of the streets, to the way the men and women dress, to the ratio of Jews/Muslims you see in traditional clothing versus modern apparel, it is all very visible if you pay attention.
Whew. That was day one! Yesterday (Wednesday), we went to Bethany and visited the tomb of Lazarus, where Jesus raised him from the dead after four days in the tomb. The tomb surprised me because of the humility of its location. You walk up a wide section of street, with stairs, only for foot-traffic, and after you pass by the Church of St. Lazarus on your left, you walk a little further and all of the sudden, there it is: a doorway cut out of the rock, with a multilingual blip about the site and a small yellow sign pointing at the doorway. I descended into the tomb. After some 6-7 steps, you can see where the stone would have been rolled in front to seal the tomb. Then, you keep descending down the curvy, slippery, narrow staircase into a small section that flattens out. This would have been the preparation room for the body of Lazarus. There were cavities in the walls and a (new) plaque which read “O death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory?” There was another verse as well, talking about how the glory of God has overcome the darkness and we do not have to fear, but I don’t remember which it was. From Corinthians, I believe. From there, we went down to the Church of St. Lazarus, where I really enjoyed some quiet prayer time of meditation with the images of Lazarus emerging from the tomb, and Christ’s words “Ego sum resurrecti et vita” — I am the Resurrection and the Life.
Then, we made our way to the Judean wilderness, to the Jordan River were we enjoyed the Holy Mass and subsequently renewed our Baptismal vows in the River Jordan, where Jesus Himself was baptized. That was beautiful. What an image I will be able to call to mind when we read the readings about the Jordan and about the Baptism in the Jordan! What memories, what movements of the heart! The Gospel was the short and endlessly sweet “Come to me, all who are burdened, and I shall give you rest. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Let’s talk about the yoke. Not yolk, yolk of an egg. But rather, the yoke is the section that connects two animals of burden, perhaps oxen, when they are pulling a load. This homily was the first time I learned that Christ’s message is infinitely more sweet than I realized before. His yoke is easy means that He and I are together in the struggle. The burden Christ pulls is light. (How can it be? Oh glorious God, You whose innocent and only Son took on my sin and carried the Cross for me…You invite me to Yourself and say that the burden we carry is light? You can only be pure love, full of compassion and pity and mercy, if You are able to call this burden light. You can only be the One True God!) If Christ and I are hitched together in this journey of life, I can be confident that God will not leave me to struggle on my own, and neither will He allow me to waste away in uselessness, not working out my salvation alongside Him with fear and trembling.
After lunch, we were dropped off part way up the Mount of Temptation, where Jesus spent forty days in the desert, facing temptation from the Devil and uniting Himself intimately to the Father. At the top of the trail, we found a monastery. (I wish I knew the name of the monks there, but I do not.) In the monastery were two special sites which tradition relates to Christ’s temptation in the desert: first, a cave where it is said He meditated for forty days, praying and uniting Himself to the Father. The second is a rock, where Jesus sat while He battled the Devil’s temptations. The caves on the Mount of Temptation are where the lepers lived after being cast out of Jerusalem. How very like Christ to go into retreat with the Father in the most “impure” place known at that time. How fitting that He would take such a disgraced place and make it holy with His prayers.
CAVES OF THE LEPERS & MONASTERY
We descended the mountain and went to the Dead Sea to float and cover ourselves in mud. The water was very warm, and it was crazy to sit up in the water with absolutely no problem. You could float easily with your feet out in front, or underneath you like you are treading water (but you didn’t even have to move your legs), but as soon as you put your feet behind you, past your center of gravity, they would shoot up until you were on your stomach. It was momentarily frightening every time, because the water’s high salt concentration means it burns your eyes pretty good if you get water in them. I do not have pictures on my phone of the experience, but I loved it. It was so fun and relaxing, though very hot, and I enjoyed the time spent with friends. After retiring to our hotel, we had time for swimming at the pool, journaling, relaxing, and enjoying our time.
Today, Thursday, we left Jericho and went to Haifa. In Haifa, a northern port city on the Mediterranean, we visited the Church of Maris Stellis — Star of the Sea — on Mount Carmel when Elijah was at one point (1 Kings 18:40-19). Words do not describe, and can you imagine how much more wonderful Heaven will be? From there, we moved on to Nazareth, where we ate lunch and then went to the Basilica of the Annunciation, rather close to our hotel. The Basilica here reminded me of our faithful Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Y’all, I am tired, but I am telling you that Mary is absolutely incredible! I am sorry, but I am just not doing this day Justice. I am too tired! Today, we also had a lovely three-course lunch served by a Christian family and their employees. We toured, were left time to walk around and explore (I went up some stairs to the Holy Family Church, which was especially beautiful), and had Holy Mass at the Basilica. After Mass, we left directly for Cana, where we visited the wedding church, saw Becky and Wayne renew their Marriage Vows, and celebrated their love.
Whew. That was a lot. Thanks for tuning in!
St. John the Baptist, pray for us!
St. Elizabeth, pray for us!
St. Zechariah, pray for us!
St. Joseph, pray for us!
St. Lazarus, pray for us!
St. Mary, pray for us!
St. Martha, pray for us!
St. George, pray for us!
St. Anne and St. Joachim, pray for us!
In Christ through Mary,