One of the most instructive parts of being in the Holy Land is gaining a sense of the closeness between the sites in the scriptures. This has been especially enlightening in the case of the Sea of Galilee. What would it be like for Jesus and the disciples to cross the sea, visiting the various villages?
The Sea of Galilee is shaped like a harp. Therefore, when one stands on the shore, much of the coastline can be seen with rising hills and mountains in the background. Fog often rests over the water leaving the surrounding peaks in an alluring haze, almost beckoning one to cross over.
Knowing that we had a free day, a group of us set out attempting to bike around the sea. The route was forty miles following the coast, mostly flat with a few sizable climbs. The southwestern side around Tiberius is quite developed, but the rest of the route remains rural, and thus similar to how it was in Jesus’ day. We began in Tiberias winding around the southernmost part of the sea. We then turned north and biked through what used to be known as the Decapolis. This part of the ride was stunningly beautiful. The grassy hills were covered with abundant wild flowers in full bloom. The area is also more tropical than I would have imagined. Fortunately, we did not come across any demoniacs.
We then arrived at the northern shore. As we turned west, we saw a cafe in Bethsaida. Shortly after we passed Chorazin, and then made a quick stop where the Jordan River runs into the Sea of Galilee from the north. Continuing along the route, it is only a few miles to Capernaum, the Mount of Beatitudes, the location of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, and the Beach of Peter’s Primacy. Going up a grueling hill, we then passed Gennesaret, Magdala, and headed back into Tiberias. It was in this last fifteen mile stretch where Jesus performed most of his Galilean ministry.
Riding around the Sea of Galilee was an adventure. Ten started strong and ten finished tired. It was a scenic journey that helped instill a sense of what it was like for Jesus and the disciples to go around the sea. I can imagine following Jesus from village to village, listening to his preaching, and seeing his signs and healings. A sense of great excitement and intrigue would build as news of him spread. Our pilgrimage continues to build in excitement and intrigue as we progress in following Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem.
Good food = good mood. Here on our Holy Land pilgrimage we have come across countless food options. Fish, fish and, oh yeah, fish! Unless you’re vegan, of course; then you just have vegetables and rice. Regardless, food has become an important subject for all of us here. I myself love food. Since coming to Israel, I have tried many different types of foods, fruits and vegetables. So far, my favorite has been Falafel with a side drink of fresh pomegranate juice. It’s the best! Plus, it’s very nutritious. My motto with food so far has been, good food and good company are two of life’s simplest yet greatest pleasures.
Food will always play a major part in our life. Yet as we know, we are more than just our bodies; we are spiritual beings. Our bodies, because they are temples of the Holy Spirit, should be treated with respect and love. By nourishing our bodies with good food, we glorify God for the gift of our bodies. Each time we make a choice to eat healthy, we are honoring God and the body he gave us. Of course, there are times when all you want is a burger with fries followed by chocolate cake. Once in a while a burger doesn’t hurt, but when times get tough we can remind ourselves, “My body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and I want to choose the best food so I can nourish my body to spread the Gospel.” Next time we come across a tub of ice cream let’s hope to swap it with some fruit or a pomegranate juice. Not only will this bring changes to our physical life, but to our spiritual life as well. Good food is a blessing from God.
“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God!”
I wanted to accompany my blog today with a quick video giving you a bit of a tour around our recent lodgings and retreat. That’s the TL;DR version of this reflection. For our more intrepid blog followers, here’s a bit more to go with what I was talking about.
I’m an outdoorsman. I love getting out into the woods around the upper Midwest and taking in the work of God’s creation all around me. Before coming out here I had been really looking forward to going to the places where Jesus grew up and ministered to his disciples. I wanted to feel the ground he walked on. I wanted to smell the smells he smelled. I wanted to hear the livestock and country sounds he heard. But then I remembered something—Jesus was here in Israel 2000 years ago. 2000 years is a long time.
As soon as we touched down in Tel Aviv it blew me away how very developed Israel is. Throughout the last 2000 years people have continued living here, developing the land around the Mediterranean, and building into big cities what used to be O Little Towns. For the first half of the trip I had a difficult time praying and quieting myself down enough to paint the mental picture I’d been looking for. All the noise and busyness of many of the holy sites we’ve seen quickly had me ready to get out of the city.
Then we came to Galilee. Galilee is awesome. For such a naturally beautiful spot—not to speak of the significance of Jesus’ ministry here—I was blown away by how agrarian and quiet it is surrounding the sea (read: big lake). There was still a bit of noisiness, especially from pilgrims during the day, but at last we had come to a place where I could rest. In this idyllic spot I entered into our pre-ordination canonical retreat.
Throughout our retreat, much of my prayer focused on Jesus’ ministry with his disciples and especially the way he drew his apostles around him. This was highlighted for me in the middle of the retreat when a few of us stayed up at the nearby Mount of the Beatitudes—the place where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. As a group, we had already gone up for a visit, but (again, the noise thing) the number of pilgrims had made it tough for me to settle in. After checking in late to the guesthouse on top of the hill that night, I set out to wander around and spend some time by myself taking in the gardens.
If you’re not familiar with the Sermon on the Mount, here’s the quick breakdown. This is where Jesus lays out the heart of his moral teaching. Over the course of three chapters (Matthew 5-7), we drink from a firehose of heavy hitters, ranging from the Beatitudes to the Our Father to encouragements to trust divine providence. All at one time Jesus laid out this series of exhortations, and all of this was right at the top of this mountain where I was wandering around after hours.
But what surprised me the most wasn’t any of the individual teachings from the Sermon. It wasn’t a new insight into the Beatitudes, and it wasn’t a new encouragement to pastoral zeal. It was simply picturing Jesus up on this mountain, talking to thousands of his followers. Imagine the noise. Imagine the crying babies. Imagine the background conversations, the murmuring, and the sounds of surprise at his words. Even with all this noise, Jesus conveyed his message to the people that were following him around, enough for us to still have his words 2000 years later.
This experience gave me new insight into our pilgrimage. The noise will still be distracting. I’m really going to miss looking out of my bedroom window at the Sea of Galilee. I’m going to miss the sound of fish jumping and the parrots calling to each other (they have wild parrots out here!). But even while Jesus went off by himself into the wilderness and up in the mountains to pray, he came back to minister among the busyness and messiness of people, and there is something beautiful in that messiness.
But Galilee was still an awesome place for a retreat.
During Jesus’ lifetime, Magdala became a flourishing fishing and boat-building town along the Sea of Galilee. Jesus would have ministered to being on the lake and so close to the Via Maris trading route which passes nearby.
It was that way for several decades, at least, before it was destroyed in 67 AD by the Roman General Vespasian. It wasn’t fully uncovered until a pilgrimage center began construction in 2009, beginning with a mandatory excavation period, during which a first-century synagogue was revealed. Later, the rest of the town was exposed and made available for pilgrims to see, complete with a marketplace, homes, and purity washing baths.
This day was a perfect way to start back up our site visits after our diaconate retreat, for four main reasons:
Firstly, Mary Magdalene, who lived in Magdala, was a close disciple of Jesus and the one who in Luke Chapter 7 washed his feet with an alabaster flask of ointment, drying them with her own hair. A Pharisee named Simon questioned why Jesus allowed her—known to be a great sinner—to do so, and the Lord explained how the one who is forgiven much loves much, calling out Simon for not loving him enough to anoint his head, give him water, or greet him when he came in the house. The schola sang a Communion meditation on this scene about Mary of Magdala titled “Drop, Drop, Slow Tears.” This is one song I was really looking forward to singing, as the words are very beautiful.
Secondly, the altar in the Magdala Boat Chapel was modeled after St. Peter’s boat, and the theme for our retreat was John 21, when Peter jumps out of his boat once Jesus appears to the disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. After eating breakfast together, Jesus asks for Peter’s three-fold love, giving him the opportunity to reconcile after his three-fold denial before the Crucifixion. Jesus then gives him the great task of tending his flock, something we are going to partake in as ordained ministers.
Thirdly, since there was an atrium with eight stone pillars commemorating the women disciples of Jesus, past and present, we offered Mass particularly for the women in our lives and for those who support the mission of the Church. We also considered those who helped us in prayer and support for our vocation and took time to give thanks for them.
Lastly, the main building in Magdala—home to the atrium, six chapels, and numerous mosaics and paintings depicting Galilean Biblical scenes—is titled “Duc In Altum.” These words were given by Jesus to the disciples to drop their nets into the deep to catch a great number of fish. As Bishop Barron explained to us why he chose these words to go above the altar in the Mundelein house chapel, they can mean “into the deep” or “to the heights,” both conveying a confident urgency of going out on Christian mission. How fitting it was, then, that we next ascended “to the heights” of Mount Arbel. After first appearing to Mary Magdalene near the tomb, Jesus had her give the disciples instructions that they should meet him in Galilee. It was possibly on this cliff towering over the north-western shores of the lake that Jesus met his disciples and gave them the Great Commission to preach and baptize throughout the whole world. We will be doing the same as deacons, so this was a perfect place to meditate on what received in the retreat and what we are next approaching.
I can remember watching the news as a kid growing up and seeing something about a town that had just been destroyed by a tornado and the survivors were walking on the ruins of their homes searching for anything that had survived the destruction. Everything they found was so precious to them and represented so much about their history and who they were as family.
In some ways, this is how we act as Christian pilgrims. The holy sites we visit here are not just the rubble of someone else’s past but pieces of our own history and who we are as a family. Everything we see and find is precious to us.
A few weeks ago, as we were finishing Mass at the Church of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, we were approached by a Brazilian Friar who asked us if we would like a tour of the Friary. We answered, “of course”, reverenced the spot where John the Baptist was allegedly born, and left through the sea of blue tile that covers every wall of the church and entered the Friar’s private quarters.
It is easy to forget as you go from one place to the next in the Holy Land that there are people who have given up their lives in order to care for these holy places. The Franciscans most notably, have been taking care of these holy sites since Saint Francis went strolling into the Muslim camp of Sultan Melek el-Kamel during the height of the Crusades and impressed him so much that he was allowed to stay and care for the Christian holy places.
Our Brazilian guide happily led us through the labyrinth of ancient portals and tunnels that make up the friary until finally our tour ended outside of a little garden in front of the friary. The Friar then turned to us and said, “oh, and to your right before you leave is an engraving that was made during the 200’s, we think of John the Baptist. It is one of the oldest known Christian images in the world.”
The image is as you can see, quite simple but obviously very Christian. I left it thinking how glad I was that Christian art had advanced from 1800 years ago and then forgot all about it.
That was until a few weeks later, when we were touring the ruins that composed the ancient city of Nazareth. The city that Jesus grew up in was only about two football fields in size and was made up of very simple homes that were built into the stone of the mountain.
Our guide was showing us a stone from a home that is beside the place that is traditionally believed to be the childhood home of Mary, that had some graffiti on it from 2nd and 3rd century pilgrims. The graffiti was mostly messages written to and about Mary. Which was cool to see that the first Christians (like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus) also had this devotion to Mary that Christians do today. But what was more interesting than that, was what we saw next to the graffiti about Mary that our tour guide just skipped over.
It was another image of the man from the wall at the birthplace of John the Baptist. I showed our guide the image from the other site and he thought we were just showing him the image from the wall of Mary’s house. His eyes lit up with excitement when we held both images next to each other and it dawned on him what was happening.
We were following in the footsteps of Christians from across the centuries. Walking in the rubble of our own family’s history. From the moment the shepherds left their flocks in search of the Holy Family, Christians have not ceased to go to places where they have been. Picking up anything they could find that has any connection to the one they love.
The Gospels leave out so much of the first part of Jesus life that it is impossible to know everything about the early life of Jesus, Mary, or Joseph. That time is sacred and shrouded in mystery and that’s okay. But we can know a little, and every little bit is precious. It helps tell us more about who we are as a family.
In the St. John Paul II Chapel in the Theology Residence Hall back home at Mundelein, there are two inscriptions above the tabernacle: “Nolite Timere” and “Duc in Altum.” Both phrases come from the 5th chapter of Luke’s Gospel and are translated as “Do not be afraid,” and “Put out into the deep.”
I was reminded of both phrases today during our visit to the Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter in Galilee. The church is built on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and commemorates the site where Christ appeared to the Apostles after the Resurrection which we read of in the final chapter of John’s Gospel.
Throughout the grounds of the church, there are various plaques mixed in with the stones of the walls and buildings. On an outside corner of the church, facing the shore, sits a plaque with a line from Luke: “At thy word I will let down the net.” They are the words of Peter immediately after Christ instructs him to “put out into the deep.” After a miraculous catch of fish, Peter pleads with the Lord to depart from him because he is a sinful man and our Lord replies with those words we all wish to hear when we face challenges: “Do not be afraid.” It is from here that he made them fishers of men.
The words on the side of that Church recount events from 2000 years ago, and the temptation exists to treat the site as a historical artifact, a museum piece, or something that has no bearing on us today. That temptation is countered by the words on the plaque accompanying the passage from Luke that are so fitting they bear repeating in their entirety: “The deeds and miracles of Jesus are not actions of the past. Jesus is waiting for those who are still prepared to take risks at His word because they trust His power utterly.”
This brings us full circle to the passage from John which was the cause for our visit. Peter wasn’t perfect. He doubted, and Christ asking him three times, “Do you love me?” is a response to the times where Peter failed to live up to Christ’s calling. All of our vocational paths whether it be to the priesthood, as all of us here believe we were called, married life, single life, or religious life will have moments when we fail, when we doubt, or when we fear when we are asked to “put out into the deep.” In those moments, we must remember to trust and to not be afraid. When we do that, we will surprise ourselves in our ability to follow the command of Christ spoken on that very shore where I sat this morning: “Follow me.”
” And on the third day, there was a wedding in Cana, of Galilee and the Mother of Jesus was there…”
The text of this miracle story contains the saddest verse in all of sacred scripture: “…They have no wine!”
Some time ago, we had the opportunity to venerate the church in Cana, where there once was a wedding that Jesus attended. The church was small but beautiful. It’s a different experience than I thought it would be visiting these holy sites. There are so many people coming at once to see these churches. Even when you are in the middle of celebrating Mass there is a constant flow of people just behind you trying to see and experience the same thing. It teaches you perseverance in prayer for one thing, and for another, it tells you that the Gospel really is for everybody.
John the Gospel Writer places the wedding at Cana as the first of Jesus’s great signs. The wine runs out. It happens to the best of us. We know that at the time of Jesus a wedding was a week-long affair. Plenty of parties, plenty of need for wine. And yet there’s a certain embarrassment when the wine runs out. What happens to us when our prayer runs dry? It’s normal, it happens to the best of us. Yet we feel embarrassed, or panicked, or unprepared. Sometimes we lose that connection with Jesus, or it becomes out of focus. Our lives seem to be unraveling. The things that were once good and beautiful for us turn as generic as water — sometimes to our own embarrassment.
One can see the true humanity of Mary and Jesus in this scene. Mary, like a good Jewish mother, sees fit to try to help in any way that she can, including volunteering her son, who had no idea that he was going to get dragged into this. When he realized he had, he acted — immediately! The first of the great signs occurred in the water becoming wine. Jesus is doing the same for us. He turns our water into wine. He turns our dryness in prayer, our weak spirit, our very lives into something as beautiful as good wine at a wedding.
Jesus is doing the same thing for us, we who are on this pilgrimage together, we who are preparing for ordained ministry. We are preparing for our very lives to be changed into something different. The effects of our ordination, just like Jesus intervening in our lives, will be as instantaneous as the water becoming wine.