Final day for reflection and study

Our last day in the Holy Land has been characterized by reflection and study of the contemporary political situation in this country. We met with two unique individuals, each with a perspective hard-won through personal experience. We spent two hours with Father David Neuhaus, S.J. at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in West Jerusalem. His multi-faceted identity along with profound learning and erudition equip him to be an excellent guide for understanding anti-semitism, Zionism, Islamophobia, and all the other ideologies that beset this land (and ours). Father Neuhaus comes from a German Jewish family; his relatives were decorated German soldiers in WWI, only to later perish in the Holocaust. He himself was born and raised in South Africa during the Apartheit regime. In his twenties he became a Catholic Christian and ultimately a Jesuit. He lives in Israel and teaches mostly Palestinian students in Bethlehem. All of us were spellbound by his lecture and the ensuing conversation with…

A day focusing on Israel

Yesterday, sadly, we had to say good-bye to our outstanding guide Ibrahim Salameh, “Bethlehem’s Guiding Star” as it says on his business card. For the next two days we have the services of his brother Hassam. Today the focus was on learning more about the Jewish experience. After a quick visit to En Karem, the traditional birthplace of John the Baptist, the group visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in West Jerusalem. The words in Hebrew mean “A monument and a name.” Photography was not allowed inside, but we were able to capture some of the architecture and outdoor sculpture. Needless to say, this was an unforgettable experience that will last a lifetime, and many students report learning things they never knew before about the Holocaust. After this, the group headed toward the Israel Museum with its 1/50 scale model of Jerusalem in the first century. The museum is also famous for its “Shrine of the Book” dedicated to preserving the original Dead Sea Scrolls. I was in my glory …

A day to explore Bethlehem

We have stayed many nights in Bethlehem, but until now, we haven’t really had a chance to get to know the city. We remedied that today by starting with a visit to Bethlehem University, a Catholic institution with 3000 students, about 70% Muslim and 3/4 female. The chair of its Religious Studies Department has his Masters degree in Theology from Saint Michael’s College! Then we headed to the Church of the Nativity, one of the oldest church buildings in the world, still intact as established in 326 AD by Helena, the mother of the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine. Getting under the altar to see the birthplace of Jesus was not for the claustrophobic, but it was a moving experience nonetheless. Because tomorrow is Epiphany, we saw a number of parades and celebrations in the street. We traveled out of the city to see the Shepherds’ Fields, traditional site of the angels appearing to “poor shepherds in fields as they lay.” Nearby was a restaurant under a huge tent serving tradition…

Friday’s profound journey

Our journey from Tiberias back to Bethlehem, through the heart of the West Bank, was one of great profundity. We had an amazing encounter with the Samaritan community on Mt. Gerizim. There are only about 800 Samaritans left in the world; we met the high priest and his 24 year-old nephew, who helped translate for his uncle. The Samaritans are the remnants of two Northern tribes of Israel (Ephraim and Manasseh, sons of Joseph), along with Northern Levites. They are not Jews, who descend from the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and southern Levites. The Samaritans have their own version of the Torah that differs significantly from the Jewish version. Each side claims to have the more original text. Next we visited the Well of Jacob in Nablus, traditional site of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John 4. Our archaeological site for the day was ancient Sebaste, which had something from every era, in reverse chronological order: ruins of a Byzantine Church, Herodian era Rom…

Photos from Thursday

Now from Thursday: the Mount of Beatitudes, the famous Byzantine mosaic of the loaves and fishes from Tabgha, students experiencing the Sea of Galilee (complete with Brandon walking on water), the Synagogue and ruins of houses at Capernaum, and finally the site of Magdala, only discovered in 2005, with excavations still going on. Magdala photos include the first century synagogue, complete with Torah-reading lectern, a mikveh (ritual bath) that could have been used by Mary Magdalene herself, and a modern chapel with boat-shaped altar overlooking the lake.

Photos from Wednesday

We’re back in Bethlehem, so now I can play catch up on the pictures. From Wednesday we have the Church atop Mt. Tabor, exterior and interior, lunch in Nazareth, and several pictures from the Church of the Annunciation at Nazareth, including the mass we held there.

In the footsteps of Jesus

We have to be content again with a picture-less post today because of the wi-fi situation. I hope to get some pictures loaded tomorrow once we’re back in Bethlehem. This morning we visited three sites on the Sea of Galilee first described by the Spanish pilgrim Egeria in 381 AD. She wrote that local people had been venerating these sites, and each one had an early Byzantine Church, destroyed by the pre-Islamic Persians in 614 in their wars against the Byzantines, and now succeeded by modern 20th century structures. They mark the locations of the Sermon on the Mount, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, and the resurrection appearance of Jesus in John 21. Each one had a unique spiritual quality, and many students took the opportunity for quiet contemplation. We had a great lunch of “St. Peter’s Fish” outside on a terrace overlooking the lake. All the other tourists thought it was too cold to sit outside (about 60 degrees F), but for us Vermonters it was like an early summer day…