I studied bible history from the time I was 5 years old and a kindergartner at St. Bonaventure Catholic Elementary School. I have heard over and over all of the stories of Jesus’ life on earth – from birth until his death at age 33 (well, except for that large period of life that is missing from the scriptures). But I never actually gave much thought to visiting the Holy Land, particularly after it got more and more dangerous.
Little thought, that is, until taking a bible study class a couple of years ago, and listening to the teacher talk about her trips to Israel when she was able to spend time where Jesus was born and lived his short life. “I could hardly breathe, she told us. “I couldn’t believe I was visiting the places where Jesus actually lived and did his work.” I knew it was some place I’d like to visit some day.
So when my sister Bec decided she was going to the Holy Land as part of a tour sponsored by a Catholic priest – in fact, the pastor at All Saints Catholic Church where Bill and I attend Mass each Sunday when we are in AZ – I was ecstatic that she was going to have that opportunity. One of the things that was important to her was that she go with a Christian group that would make visiting the holy places actually a holy experience, and this fit the bill.
Bec travel days were packed with the opportunity to see the history of the Jews in the Old Testament as well as the important places in Christ’s life. They visited the cave in Bethlehem at which it is believed that Mary gave birth to her precious baby. She saw the field where the angels sang glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, good will towards men. Her group went to Cana to see the city where Jesus performed his first miracle at the behest of his mother. She saw the places where Jesus taught and rested and ate meals with his friends – and even raised one of his friends from the dead. She walked the path that Jesus himself walked as he carried the cross to the place where he would be murdered – Mount Calvary. She witnessed where he died, where he was buried, and where he rose from the dead three days later.
All of this was amazing, she admits. Imagine walking the same path that Jesus walked. Still, those events took place over 2,000 years ago, so clearly it was unlikely that she was looking at the actual stones on which Jesus sat. Nevertheless, she was able to get a really clear picture in her mind of the places we read about every week in the gospel.
As she walked the path to Mount Calvary, she – along with three others – carried a wooden cross, similar (though not as large) as the one Jesus himself carried. As she walked, she said at first she was bothered by all of the talking and the noise around her, wanting to quietly experience Jesus’ passion.
“But I reminded myself that the day Jesus carried the cross, it wasn’t quiet,” she said. “In fact, there was noise all around him. People crying. People jeering. The noise of the city.” After that realization, the experience became more meaningful for her.
“I couldn’t believe how close together some of those towns were,” she said. “It became really clear to me why Jesus’ apostles kept saying ‘Are you sure you want to go there? That’s reeeeeeeally close to Jerusalem, and you don’t have a lot of fans in Jerusalem, if you’ll recall.’”
In fact, a lot of the geography hit a note with Bec. In addition to being struck by the nearness of the places Jesus visited, other geographical conditions took her by surprise. Mount Tabor, for example, which is the mountain upon which Jesus took John and Peter and James, and he becomes radiant with light, and Moses and Elijah appear.
“It is REALLY STEEP!” Bec said. “This excursion was not just a simple ‘let’s take a quick walk up to the top of this mountain.’ It was a serious hike.”
The locations of many of these historical and religious events are apocryphal, of course, since Jesus lived thousands of years ago. And yet, it is believed by most historians that the locations are pretty accurate. It wasn’t that long after Jesus rose from the dead – no more than a few hundred years – that people began thinking, hmmmm, perhaps we should mark these spots in some way. And it was the original members of the Catholic Church (the ancestors of Jesus’ original followers) who were responsible for building the churches that indicate the locations.
In some case, while it isn’t certain that what they saw was actually touched by Jesus (the jars holding the wine in Cana, for example), what WAS certain was that the jars are LIKE the ones that he would have touched, and from the same time period. There was only one case, Bec says, in which the guide told them that it was historically confirmed that a particular rock was one on which Jesus sat. It was for this reason that Bec really liked visiting the Jordan River (where Jesus was baptized by St. John the Baptist, and where she and her fellow travelers were sprinkled with the river water and blessed by Fr. Caruso) and the Sea of Galilee, which she was able to wade into and imagine Jesus walking on the water in the distance.
As we know, Jerusalem (a spot that was perhaps Bec’s favorite) is an important city for three major religions – Jewish, Christian, and Islam. The complex religious atmosphere was clearly apparent one evening as her group stopped on their way to the Western Wall to observe a bar mitzvah. As they listened to the band playing, joyfully honoring a young Jewish boy coming of age, she said she heard the call to prayer for Muslims in the background. It was a somber reminder that the struggles which have gone on for centuries continue.
When I asked her if she would make the trip again, she said, perhaps, at least to Jerusalem. She is so very glad to have had the opportunity to visit the Holy Land. There is no doubt that each Sunday when she listens to the Gospels – the stories of Jesus’ life – the impact will be profound as she will be able to picture what life looked like as the Gospel was taking place.