Visit Israel, and watch the Bible come to life. Names such as Bethlehem, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, Mount of Olives and Garden of Gethsemane transform from simple words to awe-inspiring sights where Jesus Himself once stood and prayed.
I recently completed a 10-day pilgrimage with 56 people to the Holy Land and was surprised to discover that many long-held images relating to my Catholic faith were often far different from what I pictured in my mind: Jesus was not born in a stable of wood; the Upper Room, where the Last Supper took place, looked nothing like it was depicted in Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting; and the land is not endless desert, but also offers majestic mountains and forests, green fields dotted with sheep and camels and lush vegetation. As I walked through the historic sites in Israel, I felt my own faith deepen. It is one thing to hear about the Crucifixion: It’s another to see where it actually occurred and imagine the crowds gathered.
Israel is a land of contradictions. It’s both old and new at the same time; many historic landmarks were reconstructed centuries ago after crusaders destroyed them and it was often the practice through the years to build upon the ruins, placing a church on the grounds to commemorate the historical and religious event that occurred there.
Israel is rich in history for those of Jewish heritage, but filled with inspirational and poignant landmarks for Catholics, Christians and Muslims alike. Mosques stand next to churches; at the Western Wall people from all walks of life leave their prayers, but men and women worship on separate sides of the wall; and street vendors sell their wares throughout the Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus took with the cross to his Crucifixion.
Thousands of pilgrims visited Israel during my stay. I walked alongside groups from Germany, Nigeria, Korea and Spain, eager, as my group was, to visit and immerse themselves in the land that Jesus called home.
Bedouins still roam the land, but a shock to tourists and pilgrims is the great poverty among them. Although many still tend sheep much as they have for centuries, without free land to move their flock as they once did, they have created homes instead of using tents, crafted from scrap metal and wood, by caves found in the hills.
One question I was continually asked when I returned from Israel is whether I felt safe while I was there. The answer is yes; there was never a moment the pilgrimage was led into any areas of unrest and a personable and knowledgeable guide was continually with us to assist us through the various locations and checkpoints. Going to Israel was no more of a safety concern to me than going to any other major city, and never did I feel our safety was less than paramount to our tour company, Educational Opportunities Tours, or our guide.
The pilgrimage gave me the unique opportunity to walk in the Lord’s footsteps from Bethlehem to Nazareth to Jerusalem, and to see not only where He rejoiced and performed miracles, but also where He suffered and rose from the dead.
Throughout my visit, Israelis continually greeted pilgrims and tourists with a simple phrase — “Welcome home” — which is fitting, for it is here that my Catholic faith was born.
Church of Saint Anne
The journey of Jesus begins with the Church of St. Anne in Jerusalem. The spot where the church was built in 1140 over the remains of a Byzantine church commemorates the birthplace of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The location is thought to be where the home of Mary’s parents, Anne and Joachim lived. Toni Kulak, 65, a parishioner from Annunciation Church in Clark Mills, was also on the pilgrimage and visited the church of St. Anne. “When I went in, I was very moved,” stated Kulak. “The entire structure just emitted such a sense of peace that I left the church feeling very hopeful and uplifted.”
Nazareth: Mary’s Well and home to Jesus
Mary was raised in the hills of Galilee before she married Joseph. There has always been just one spring that brings water to Nazareth.
Before her marriage, an angel appeared to her one day while she was drawing water from a well and asked her to be the mother of Jesus. The well, still fed today by that one spring, is now known as Mary’s Well. It’s located outside St. Gabriel’s Church, built in 1781 by the Greek Orthodox to replace a church built on the site of the Annunciation in the 12th century.
The image of Jesus born in a wooden stable in a hay-filled manger is depicted in hundreds of songs and images each Christmas season. Surprisingly, Jesus was not born in a wooden stable, but a cave. In those times a woman giving birth was considered “unclean” and gave birth away from the men of the household. Since houses were built upon or near the numerous caves found in the landscape and the family’s flock or animals would be housed in the caves until the following morning to avoid predators, it was likely Mary was offered the cave as an appropriate area to give birth.
The place that marks where Jesus was born can be found at the Church and Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem. To reach the spot, one must travel down a dark, narrow stone staircase into an underground cave that is lit only by chandeliers and candles. There, through a small opening that can only be reached on one’s knees, a large silver star is on the floor, encasing in glass the sacred spot where Jesus was born.
Off to the side of the cave is a small chamber where three carved angels watch over the resting place of a statue of a baby in a stone manger. The manger, according to the guide, was used as a trough for the animals and is almost cradle-like in appearance. This perspective of how Christ’s birth occurred gives visitors a realistic idea of how humble were His beginnings and how little space there was to spare, even in the caves.
The field where the angel appeared to the shepherds is now known as Shepherds’ Field, a place still used today by shepherds for their flocks.
In this area there is evidence of Byzantine convents and a Greek Orthodox church that covers a cave with a fourth century mosaic floor. Antonio Barluzzi rebuilt another church, Shepherd’s Field Church or Church of the Angels, in 1950, for the Franciscans. The unique design of this church represents a shepherd’s tent with light filtering through glass openings at the top of the dome to represent the angel’s light that shone on the shepherds when the birth of Jesus was announced. The walls are decorated with murals or frescoes, depicting the story of the appearance of the angel to shepherds. In the center of the church is an altar supported by bronze statues of shepherds.
Known as the site of the first miracle, Cana is not far from Nazareth where Jesus grew up. According to John 2:11, Jesus and his mother attended a wedding in Cana. Once the event ran out of wine, Mary turned to Jesus for help. She told servants to do whatever Jesus wanted. Jesus requested six stone jars filled with water, which he then turned into wine.
The area where the wedding took place now holds two churches built on the remains of a sixth-century sanctuary where it was believed the village synagogue was located. Below the church is a crypt and behind the glass is (believed to be) a replica of one of the six original stone jars used at the wedding.
“We learned so much on this trip,” stated Kulak. “It wasn’t just about religion, but I learned about the culture, the history, archeology and geography of the region. You hear of these miracles in the Bible but once you see things like the wine jar from Cana, you get the sense you were there when it happened.”
There are two baptismal sites on the Jordan River, but only one is considered the actual site where John the Baptist baptized Jesus.
The first area is known as Yardenit, the Place of Baptism, where thousands of pilgrims go each year to be baptized. Donning white robes, the candidates for baptism are immersed in the water as onlookers watch from a raised deck.
The other baptismal site is east of Jericho on the Israel-Jordan border. This is considered the actual site where Jesus was baptized. The two opposite sides, both with military presence, offer pilgrims an opportunity to walk into the water and be baptized. The water itself is cordoned off between the two sides. Due to the political unrest, members of the Kibbutz Kinnereth developed Yardenit to provide pilgrims an opportunity to be baptized in the Jordon, making it a popular tourist site.
“I was moved to tears when we traveled to the Jordon River,” stated Joyce Dearborn, 65, from Cleveland, Ohio. “Seeing the border between Israel and Jordan…seeing the division we as humans have put up between people of faith…it all seems so unnecessary when you are standing on the banks of the river. It made me cry tears of heartbreak as well as tears of joy for those being baptized.”
Jesus called his first disciples, Peter, Andrew, James, John and Matthew, in Capernaum. It was here that Jesus performed the miracles of healing Peter’s mother-in-law of fever, bringing a dead child back to life, curing a leper,and casting spirits out of a centurion’s servant. The original house of St. Peter was discovered beneath a Byzantine octagonal church, and the original building consisted of many rooms around a central courtyard. It is believed that Jesus lived here.
Tabgha is located on the northwestern side of the Sea of Galilee, south of Capernaum. Three important events occurred in Tabgha: the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord appearing to Peter for third time after His Resurrection.
Between Tabgha and Capernaum is the Mount of the Beatitudes, where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. In 1935, the Franciscans rebuilt a modern, octagon-shaped church on a hilltop overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The church has eight blessings or beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount inscribed on the walls of the octagon, and a ninth blessing, “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34-35), inside the church’s dome roof. Surrounding the church is a garden with a stunning array of flowers and plants that offers pilgrims an opportunity to rest and reflect on the words of the Sermon on the Mount.
Sea of Galilee
Despite its grandeur, in Israel the Sea of Galilee is considered more of a lake than a sea such as the Mediterranean Sea or the Dead Sea.
The Sea of Galilee is a wealth of religious history. It’s the place where Jesus walked on the water, the site where Jesus calmed the storm for the apostles, the area where Jesus preached to a crowd of thousands from a boat and the area where it is believed Jesus told parables including the Seed and the Sower to the crowd.
Along the shore of the Galilee is the Church of St. Peter’s Primacy, which marks the spot where Jesus, after the Resurrection, showed himself again to his disciples (Jn 21:1) as they were fishing. It is also here that Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Peter, feed my sheep.”
Mount of Olives
On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus spent a great deal of time in the town of Bethany. As he traveled to and from Bethany, he passed through an area known as the Mount of Olives, richly populated with groves of olive trees. On the slopes of this mount is the Garden of Gethsemane a striking garden with numerous flowers, plants and olive trees where Jesus came often to pray. Within the garden is a large rock that Jesus leaned upon on the night of the Last Supper to pray, leaving the disciples to fall asleep. It is here Jesus cried out the words, “Father, if you are willing, let this cup pass from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Mt. 26:39; Mk 14:36; Lk 22:43; Jn 18:1). It was also here in the garden that Jesus was betrayed by Judas and first captured.
In 70 AD, Romans cut most of the olive trees down, but left a small number that flourished. One such olive tree still remains and is considered the “oldest tree in Israel,” having survived over 2,000 years.
Norm Velt, 50, from Warrington, Pa., found the Garden of Gethsemane one of the most moving sites on the pilgrimage. “The slab of rock that he prayed upon…he must have felt so alone, so frustrated. To know that he was doing all of this for us and there below him the apostles lay sleeping…it makes me realize how much we forget how tremendous the sacrifice was that Jesus made for all of us.”
Jericho is considered the oldest city in the world and is also known as the “City of Palms.” It lies 800 feet below sea level and is approximately 34 miles from Jerusalem. Jericho was the first city to be taken by the Israelites after Joshua surrounded it.
Within Jericho there is the sycamore tree climbed by Zacchaeus, a tax collector wanting to see Jesus preach. Being too short to see over the crowds, Zacchaeus climbed the tree. As Jesus passed by, he looked up and informed Zacchaeus he would be going to his house that day (Lk 19:1-4).
Jericho also is the home to the Mountain of Temptation, where Jesus was tempted by the devil.
The capital of the Roman province of Judea for 600 years and the official residence of its governors, including Pontius Pilate, was in Caesarea. It was here that Pilate made his home and was forced to leave to head into Jerusalem to deal with Jesus.
Caesarea was also the place where Paul was sent out on his missions and where he was ultimately imprisoned.
There is a reason the city of Jerusalem is called “The City of Steps;” everywhere there are numerous stone steps up and down. The city is divided into two parts, the Old City, or The City of David, which is home to numerous landmarks of faith, and the New City, a more modern Jerusalem filled with malls, restaurants, a railway and hotels.
Jerusalem’s old city is home to the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, a remnant of a Holy Temple built by Herod. The original temple stood on an elevated plateau during the time of Jesus. Since its destruction in 70 AD, people have prayed at the Western Wall, placing written prayers into cracks within the wall.
The Christian quarter of Jerusalem houses religious landmarks of Christ’s death. Just southwest of the Old City is an area known as Mount Zion. The location of the Upper Room, or the room where the Last Supper was held. This stone room of such significance is located on the second floor of what is now a synagogue.
The Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, where Peter denied Christ three times, is also located in Mount Zion, as is the House of Caiaphas, the high priest that Jesus appeared before for sentencing. This area also is home to the Church of the Ascension, which marks the place from where Jesus ascended into heaven after death. Finally, there is the courthouse or the praetorium, where Jesus was condemned to death. A careful examination of the stone floor reveals grooves worn into the stone where prisoners stood for sentencing.
Within Mount Zion is also Via Dolorosa, known also as the “Way of Sorrow” or the “Way of the Cross,” and it is considered a sacred route. It is the path followed by Jesus from the judgment court to Golgotha Hill (or Calvary) also known as the “the place of the skull,” or the place of the Crucifixion. The face of a skull is still present today, though the bottom half has begun to wear away. “Walking the walk that Jesus did was very emotional,” stated Kulak. “It clarified and deepened my faith to visualize the way he traveled with the cross and the agony he must have been in.”
Today the Via Dolorosa is heavily lined with vendors selling everything from souvenirs to fresh bread. These vendor stalls are strangely intermingled with areas acknowledging where nine of the 14 Stations of the Cross occurred. The remaining markers are within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which refers to the tomb in which Jesus was laid to rest. It is believed that Joseph of Arimathea owned the tomb, which was carved out of stone and sealed by a large stone across the opening. A small piece of what is believed to be the stone that was rolled away is on display in the church.
The cross that Jesus died upon would have been erected outside the walls of Jerusalem on Calvary since burials were not permitted inside theTo approach the Church of the Holy Sepulcher there is a flight of steps from Cardo, the main street in Jerusalem. There, pilgrims enter into the basilica and to an open area or “holy garden,” where the rock of Golgotha is located. From there, pilgrims can go to the Holy Sepulcher itself.
It is believed that in 326 AD, Constantine’s mother, Saint Helena, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and discovered a portion of the cross of Jesus (the “True Cross”). In the 11th century a cave deep below the ruins of the basilica came to be known as the Chapel of the Invention of the Holy Cross. In 614 AD, a Persian army destroyed the church and the True Cross was taken away, but in 631 AD, the Byzantine emperor Heraclius negotiated its return. A piece of that cross is now on display at the Vatican.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was reconstructed in 1149 and is the church that is seen by pilgrims and tourists today. Within the church is a pale pink anointing stone that Jesus was laid upon after death and anointed with oils by his mother.
Once the pilgrimage was complete, our group gathered together to share our thoughts before leaving for the airport and returning home.
“This was a powerful trip,” stated Mike Loomis, 47, from Pittsburgh, Pa. “It’s my second time going to Israel and even seeing some of the sites again still moves me emotionally.”
Edward Werden of Walton Hills, Ohio, agreed. “I have a greater appreciation for people who express their Christian beliefs and their love,” stated Werden. “It reinforces my faith to see how many people travel here and what it has meant to them to see these religious sites.”
For me, after walking in His footsteps and seeing how Christ suffered for me, my connection to my faith has strengthened. I can now picture Jesus in the breathtaking gardens; walking on water of the Sea of Galilee; healing those who came up to him as he traveled to Jerusalem; eating the Last Supper with the apostles in the Upper Room; and being baptized in the Jordan. These places and events are no longer descriptions just in the Bible to me; they are real events that will forever touch my heart and my faith.
Historical reference information provided by The Holy Land, The Land of Jesus by Palphot Ltd., and Educational Opportunities Tours Holy Land Study Guide.