Jonathan's Blog

Reflections on the glory of God

A Morning Reflection – Raging Grace

In a few days I will be 59 years old and it has me remembering my parents.  When they were this age they were looking forward a few years in their lives and dreaming about their retirement together.  During a vacation trip in the mountains, they found a little piece of property my Dad would later call a “Bit O’Heaven” and they purchased it.  It came with two rustic little cabins situated at the bottom of a ridge nicely hidden from the road and just about everybody driving along it.  The greatest feature of this little bit of heaven however is the creek of cold flowing mountain water which defines one of the edges of the property.  The steady flow of the water over and around the clay earth and many rocks which help define its path give the place a feeling of calm and peace.

Creek in Calm

Mom and Dad loved it and shared it often with my brother and I and our families.  They absolutely reveled in having their grandchildren be with them at “the cabin”.  My parents are now citizens of the real heaven and now my wife and I are blessed to have this little slice of heaven on earth.  We too enjoy being there very much and we hope and plan to share it with our grandchildren someday.   We were there earlier this year for a little over a week enjoying the sounds of the creek and the beauty through which it flows..  Our oldest son was with us there for most of that time and we all enjoyed a restful, quiet and peaceful break from the rest of the world and all the craziness of it.

One early evening about dinner time our little Bit O’Heaven and the surrounding area experienced a very fierce storm.  There was not very much wind, but the rain came fast and furious and it kept raining hard for quite some time.  The water in the creek started turning an orange-brown color from the clay of which the earth is made there and it began flowing much faster as all the water from the rain came flowing down from the mountain peeks above us.  Before long our peaceful little creek seemed more like a raging river!  The creek runs within just a few feet of the cabin, so we had a front row view.  It was an awe inspiring site to see.

Creek in Storm

Somehow, I saw in all of this a reminder of our all-powerful and ever-loving God and His inexhaustible mercy.  I was reminded by His Holy Spirit that God’s grace is always flowing in our lives.  It is always present whether we recognize it or not, whether we want it or not and even whether we believe in it or not.  His grace flows through our days just like the steady mountain creek which never runs dry and never overflows.  You can always hear it if you listen for it and yet it is so easy to be distracted by other things and forget that it is there.  When the storms of our lives come along, those we create through our own knucklehead decisions and those which come through no fault of our own, well that is when His grace flows even more and rages through our hearts longing to be received.

So today whether your life seems calm or stormy, remember that the Creator of the universe, Who made you and loves you, is with you always!  His grace is flowing out to you right now.  Receive it!  Receive it through prayer, fellowship with others, learning about your faith, participating in the sacraments of the Church and in serving others.  He is always with us and when the storms unleash their fury upon us, His grace becomes like a raging river flowing through our lives.

September 1, 2020 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Morning Reflection – The Storm

Stormy Men's Meeting 2020-06-23

A few weeks ago I was blessed to participate in the most amazing men’s group meeting I have ever experienced.  I am part of a men’s small group which meets twice monthly on Tuesday evenings.  The group currently consists of about 10 men and typically about 8 of us make it to the meeting.  We have been meeting for about 10 years in our local parish facilities.  These regular meetings help each of us keep focused on our spirituality and being the men that God created us to be.  It works really well for all of us so we have made it a priority in our lives.

Of course when the COVID shutdown came about we could not meet at the parish anymore and still can’t.  For a few months, we met virtually using conference calling and a virtual meeting app.  We found a way to meet.  We finally decided we would return to meeting in person and conduct our meeting outdoors.  We agreed to meet at the statue of Our Blessed Mother Mary on the parish campus.  And so we did.

On one Tuesday evening a few weeks ago, as we gathered with our lawn chairs near the statue, it was clear a thunderstorm was brewing.  We decided to retreat to the pavilion on campus where we could be protected from the rain.  The pavilion consists of a covered concrete slab which is a little larger than a standard basketball court.  The cover is at least 15 feet high and probably even higher.  We settled onto picnic tables near the north end of the pavilion.  However, when the rain came, it came sideways and we were chased to the south end of the pavilion.  Still our backs were getting wet as we stood to pray.  As the storm moved overhead, the direction of the rain shifted and we were forced to move once again toward the middle.  We still felt the moisture but at least we weren’t actually in the rain – or the lightning.  We saw several lightning strikes and we saw at least one lightning bolt at the same time we heard the thunder clap.  This thing was right over the top of us!

Throughout all of this, we proceeded with our typical meeting of prayer and discussion on spiritual themes.  At this meeting we were discussing chapter 2 of the book, Be A Man by Fr. Larry Richards.  So, as we were getting a little wet and witnessing this thunderstorm all about us and right on top of us, we continued our mission and discussed what it means to be a beloved son of God; to be utterly and completely loved by God and how we respond to that.  We were at least a little uncomfortable, yet not a single man ever suggested we stop the meeting.

As our meeting neared its conclusion in prayer, the lightning and thunder, rain and wind had subsided and all was calm.  The setting sun came peeking through the clouds and provided a beautiful evening sky to behold.  Jesus was with us just as He was with the disciples in the boat during storms on the Sea of Galilee!

So, brothers and sisters, no matter the storm you are enduring, be not afraid and press on about the mission God has given you for He is with you every step of the way.  He will never leave you or forsake you and no matter how it feels, the storm will pass you by and the sun will come peeking through the clouds!

July 29, 2020 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Our Holy Land Pilgrimage – Day 13

Day 13 – Saturday February 23

Arrival Home – After over 11 hours on a plane, we landed back in the USA at 3:45 AM in Newark, New Jersey.  We were early, but it didn’t help us because customs did not open until 4:15 AM and we were not allowed off the plane until customs was open.  After sunrise, we were on another plane for our final flight home.  As we climbed up into the sky above New York Harbor, we were granted one more surprise blessing as we could clearly see the Statue of Liberty in the center of our small little window!  What a beautiful sight to confirm we were back in our home country!

Finally, we were on the ground feeling the warm air of home again.  Oh it felt so good and off came all the layers but the last.  How wonderful to only need one shirt again!  Only a short bus ride remained of our long awaited journey.  Our rides home greeted us as our bus arrived in the church parking lot.  We parted ways feeling joyful and exhausted.  Home sweet home never seemed so good!

One year later, I can say that this journey has truly changed my life.  When the Gospel is proclaimed at Mass each Sunday, I hear it in new ways.  I can picture the places that are mentioned.  I know more about the geography and how close places are to each other.  I remember the hilly, rocky terrain and the journeys of Mary and Joseph and later Jesus and His disciples have so much more meaning and depth.  Then there are simply the memories of where we were.  In a 5 day span, we sailed on the Sea of Galilee, touched the spot where Jesus was born in Bethlehem and I placed my very hands in the hole where the cross was placed and on the stone slab where He lay in the tomb!  Absolutely an amazing adventure!  I will never be the same.  Praise be to God!!!

I have told anyone who asked that our journey was an adventure.  It was amazing and it was also exhausting.  I am so thankful we were blessed to be able to go and experience this special place with a really special group of people.  If you ever get the chance to go, just do it!  It is worth all the expense and effort it takes to get there.  It is amazing!

February 23, 2020 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Holy Land Pilgrimage – Day 12

Day 12 – Friday February 22

Holocaust and Heroism Memorial – We visited this mostly outdoor exhibit in Jerusalem named Yad Vashem on a cool and sunny morning.  This is where the Jewish nation remembers the Holocaust.  Yad Vashem which is Hebrew for “a monument and a name” was established in 1953 on 2.5 acres of land.  The name Yad Vashem comes from Isaiah 56:5, “I will give them, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name.  Better than sons and daughters; an eternal name, which shall not be cut off, will I give them.”  Despite the subject matter, this was a peaceful and beautiful place.  It is a living memorial with a focus on the “Righteous Gentiles” who stepped forward to help their Jewish neighbors even at great personal risk.  We walked along the “Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations” solemnly viewing outdoor exhibits in beautiful gardens honoring these courageous and loving people.  We slowly and quietly trod single-file along a path through the dark Children’s Memorial building lit only by candle reflections as the names and ages of some of the 1.5 million children who died during the Holocaust are read aloud.  We visited the Hall of Remembrance which honors those whose lives were lost at the many Nazi death camps.  It is here, in the year 2000, where Saint Pope John Paul II stood near the “Eternal Flame” on the floor of this memorial and asked the Jewish people for forgiveness on behalf of the Catholic Church.  This memorial consists of a dimly lit two-level large room with a balcony around two sides of a huge dark tile floor containing the “Eternal Flame” and the names of 22 of the Nazi death camps and killing sites.  It was a solemn beginning to our day, but also an opportunity to celebrate the resiliency of the human spirit.

Church of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist – Tradition holds that John the Baptist was born in the village of Ein Karem about 4.5 miles southwest of the old city of Jerusalem at the winter home of his parents Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-24,57-80).  Ein Karem means “Spring of the Vineyard”.  Today this small village has been incorporated into the municipality of modern Jerusalem.  The church is built over the remains of a Crusader church which was destroyed during Muslim rule.  The Franciscans purchased the site in 1621 and after decades of struggles with local Muslims completed a church in the 1690s.  The church was most recently remodeled in 1939.  Mass was in progress and it was crowded when we entered this beautiful church lined with blue ceramic tile.  To the left of the main altar are several dozen steps down into a natural grotto and the marker of the birthplace of John the Baptist.  After waiting in line for a while, Sharon and I were able to kneel down together and briefly pray and touch the marker of the spot where the cousin of Jesus was born.  By then, Mass was completed and we were able to see the main altar up close and get a picture of Sharon and I.  To the right of the main altar is an altar dedicated to Elizabeth.  The courtyard of the church is lined with the Canticle of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79) in many languages.

Church of the Visitation – After having lunch in a nearby mall, we returned to Ein Karem and climbed the steep slope to the Church of the Visitation which sits on the site of the winter home of Zechariah and Elizabeth.  This location is just up the slope from the summer home and birthplace of John the Baptist.  This is where Mary visited Elizabeth after being visited by the Angel Gabriel.  A mosaic on the outside of the church depicts Mary’s visit to help her cousin.  Mary’s journey from Nazareth, about 70 miles away, ended in Elizabeth’s greeting when her baby leapt in her womb (Luke 1:39-41).  A touching bronze sculpture of the two pregnant women meeting sits in the courtyard.  All around this courtyard are tiles of The Canticle of Mary also known as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) in some 50 different languages.  We celebrated our final Mass in the Holy Land at 3:00 in the upper church of this beautiful two-tiered church built in 1955.  The pillars and art work around us contained the names and images of women throughout the Bible.  I had a nice blessing here in having a few moments to sit in quiet prayer and collect myself before Mass began.  This really has not been the case throughout our pilgrimage.  After Mass, in a niche in the lower church, we saw a large rock known as the Stone of Hiding about which there is a tradition that John the Baptist was hidden behind as a baby to escape the soldiers carrying out Herod’s murder of the Holy Innocents.  Neither Sharon nor I had ever thought about John the Baptist being caught up in that horror but as we are told in Scripture he was only 6 months older than Jesus.  We had a little time here both before and after Mass to look around and take things in although we were not alone as many other groups were there also.  Even during our private Mass, other visitors were drifting in and out of the back of the church.  As we walked back down the steep slope, we had beautiful views of the local neighborhoods below.  We were able to briefly stop and visit a spring at the base of the slope where tradition holds that Mary stopped briefly to refresh herself before making the climb to the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth where Elizabeth greeted her so humbly and Mary uttered her now famous words of praise in the Magnificat.  I left this place also feeling very blessed to have visited although the walk down was cloudy and cold.

Abu Gosh (Emmaus) – This Arab-Israeli village about 6 miles west of Jerusalem along the highway to Tel Aviv is one of three sites associated with the ancient village of Emmaus where two weary disciples unknowingly entertained Jesus just after His resurrection.  They finally recognized Him in the breaking of the bread, in the Eucharist, as described in Luke 24:13-35.  Here the Crusaders built a church in 1140 known as the Church of the Resurrection which is now one of the best preserved Crusader remains in the Holy Land.  It was raining now, but we made it into the church and actually stayed there for a while for refuge from the storm.  While there, we read Scripture, prayed and sang.  The amazing acoustics in this ancient church with high-arch ceilings, mosaic floors and mosaic art on the walls actually made us sound like pretty good singers.  It was a moving moment perhaps knowing that this was the final site we would visit on our journey through the Holy Land.  We went down some steps at the rear of the musty smelling church to the crypt level where there are the remains of a well to a spring which runs below the church.  There was a small amount of water deep at the bottom which was hard for me to see but Sharon confirmed for me.  Then it was back up the steps and out into the rain to get back on the bus and head for our farewell dinner before heading to the airport for our overnight flight home.

February 22, 2020 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Holy Land Pilgrimage – Day 11

Day 11 – Thursday February 21

This day was the longest touring day of our trip being 13 hours in length taking us from Jerusalem (2500 feet above sea level) in the morning at about 40 degrees out into the desert, down to the Dead Sea (1400 feet below sea level) with the temperature in the low 70’s and eventually back up to Jerusalem as the sun set and the temperature dipping into the 30’s.  It was definitely a day of variety!

Day 10 - Prima Kings to Western Wall Plaza

Bethany – This little village on the south-eastern slope of the Mount of Olives about 2 miles east of Jerusalem was the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  It is believed Jesus would often stay with them here when He was visiting Jerusalem.  This is where Martha served Jesus on one of His visits and complained to Him while Mary sat listening to Him (Luke10:38-42).  Jesus must have been very close to Lazarus because He wept when He heard that Lazarus had died (John 11:35) and He raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44).  Not long after, a dinner was held for Jesus in Bethany (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, John 12:1-8) and during the dinner “Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil … and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair” (John 12:3).  This is also where Jesus began His entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (Mark 11:1, Luke 19:29) and near where he departed from His disciples as He ascended into Heaven (Luke 24:50).

We had Mass in a small chapel followed by a quick tour of the church with three readings and a song. We did not receive any history about the church which was built in 1954 and contains mosaics depicting the events which occurred here in this village.

Just a short walk from the church, we were able to visit the tomb of Lazarus.  The entrance is right off of a pedestrian street through a wall with shops all around.  There was even a camel near the bus available for pictures (just “one dollar”) or a brief ride.  We were able to enter the tomb in very small groups of about half a dozen or less since the tomb itself is an extremely small space.  The tomb is down a set of 24 very steep, old and uneven stone steps.  First, one comes to a small open area referred to as the vestibule which according to tradition is where Jesus stood to call Lazarus from the tomb.  The tomb itself is 3 more steps down through a very small opening in the rock which we literally had to crawl and squeeze through.  The only way out was squeezing back through the small opening and climbing back up the same steps we came down to get in which are only wide enough for one person at a time.

Today, Bethany is located in the West Bank and thus is separated from Jerusalem by Israel’s separation wall.  This area is not really wanted by either the Palestinians or the Israelis, so the people who live in this area need to fend for themselves.  Our guide informed us that both sides officially claim it, but neither side really wants it.  So neither provides any services.  We saw first-hand what this does for a community as we witnessed cars driving on the wrong side of the road, garbage piled everywhere and half-finished buildings.

On our way back to the bus, there was an opportunity to have your picture taken with a camel.  Some of us were even able to ride the camel!

Masada – It was very interesting and somewhat thrilling to see Masada.  Although it is not part of the Christian history we came to the Holy Land to see, it is an important part of Jewish history and an amazing geographical site to behold.  This isolated rock plateau is located on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert about a 60 mile drive from Jerusalem.  We headed east out of Jerusalem past Jericho and then turned south and drove along the western shore of the Dead Sea to near its southern end.  It took about an hour and half to drive there.  This giant rock plateau is flat on the top and shaped somewhat like wide cruise ship being about 1,800 feet long and 890 feet across at its widest point.  On the east side the cliffs drop very steeply about 1,300 feet straight down to the floor of the desert.  On the west side it is a little less foreboding at only a 300 foot vertical drop before it slopes a little more.  Thus, the elevation on the top of Masada is about sea level!  It sure doesn’t look that way!  The view of the Dead Sea from Masada is more than spectacular.  It is possible to walk to the top on trails snaking up from the western side and wrapping around to the eastern side.  We rode the cable cars to the top; an amazing engineering feat in itself.  Each of these cars carried about 75-80 people and rode very smoothly with a spectacular view of the eastern face.

Herod the Great built a fortress here between 37 and 31 BC with two grand palaces and a 13 foot high wall around the perimeter which was about 4,300 feet (~0.8 miles) in length.  This wall was actually two walls; one inside the other with barracks and storehouses in between and fortified by many towers.  In addition to storehouses and barracks, the fortress also contained an armory, the two palaces and cisterns that were refilled by rainwater.  A sophisticated water system channeled rain water to the cisterns.  Allegedly, the run off from a single day’s rain could sustain 1,000 people for 2 to 3 years.  We were told it rains here only about 7 days a year.  Only three narrow, winding paths led from below up to fortified gates.  We were able to walk through the ruins of the palaces and cisterns and even a bath house; some of it reconstructed by archeologists after an earthquake.  They even marked the walls with a line so we could see what was reconstructed!  We stood on a balcony of one of the palaces that seemed to ‘hang’ off of the northern edge of the plateau.  From here we could shout and hear it echo back.  It is said that the Jewish and Roman leaders would talk to each other in this way during the Roman siege in 73 AD.  There is an amazing view from anywhere on the eastern side of the plateau of the Dead Sea over a thousand feet below but only a few miles away.  It was a nice sunny day and very warm compared to Jerusalem.  Most of us were shedding layers of clothing as we strolled around this amazing park.  After 10 days in mostly chilly or cold conditions, the warm sun felt oh so good!  Groups of Jewish school children were also touring this Israeli National Park.  Our guide told us that Masada is a big rallying call for the Jewish people.  The children are brought here and taught the history and then reminded again when they enter the military.  Never again Masada.

A Jewish revolt against Rome persisted from 66 to 73 AD.  In 66 AD, a small extremist group of Jewish rebels known as the Sicarii overcame the Roman garrison at Masada and inhabited the fortress.  When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem including the Temple in 70 AD, more of their group migrated to Masada.  In 73 AD, the Romans laid siege to Masada, the only Jewish encampment left.  The Romans built a wall and a ramp on the western face of the fortress.  We could see the remnants of this ramp from our vantage point on the plateau.  It was built largely of natural material with wood supports.  The ramp was completed in the spring of 73 after probably several months of siege.  The Romans were finally able to breach the wall of the fortress with a battering ram.  What they found when they rushed in was both shocking and amazing.  There was almost no one there.  Only two women and five children were found alive.  About 960 people had all killed themselves.  The men were instructed to kill their families and then kill each other and the last one living committed suicide rather than live under Roman slavery leaving the Romans with a hollow victory.

Qumran – These ruins of a village a mile from the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea are near the set of 11 caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered between 1947 and 1956.  Nearly 900 scrolls in all were discovered most of which were written on parchment and some on papyrus.  We toured the ruins of the village and stood outside one of the caves on a covered platform in a light and chilly rain shower as our guide told us of the history of the village and the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The scrolls were first discovered by a bored shepherd boy who was throwing stones to entertain himself while watching sheep.  He heard a strange sound, entered a cave to investigate and discovered the clay jars which contained the scrolls which had been hidden in these desert caves in the 1st century.  These scrolls opened a new and huge door to scripture study allowing scripture scholars to study the Old Testament writings in their original form.  It is believed by many that the village of Qumran about 34 miles north of Masada was inhabited by a Hebrew sect known as the Essenes.  The excavations at Qumran have revealed cisterns, Jewish ritual baths, cemeteries, a dining or assembly room, pottery kilns and a tower.  Many scholars believe the Essenes are responsible for the protection of these priceless treasures by hiding them from the Romans who destroyed the village possibly as late as 73 AD around the time of the destruction of Masada.  Today, the scrolls are safely kept in an Israeli Museum named The Shrine of the Book which we visited on our first day in Jerusalem, just after seeing the Model City of Jerusalem.

The Dead Sea – Only a few miles away from Qumran where we were chilly and wet was the shore of the Dead Sea where it was comfortable to be outside in your bare feet or in a swim suit.  It was mostly cloudy with a little sun and probably in the very low 70’s.  A few of our group even went into the water.  You can’t really swim due to the density of the water (1.24 kg/liter), you mostly just float.  It was crowded with people from many different places on the earth.  Sharon and I took our shoes off, rolled up our pants and stepped into the water.  We stayed for a minute or two and helped another one of our group get in and out.

The Dead Sea is the lowest point on the face of the earth at 1412 feet below sea level and is about 31 miles long (north to south) and about 9 miles across (east to west) at its widest point.  However, the Dead Sea is receding at a swift rate with its surface area today (234 square miles) being only about 57% of what it was in 1930 (410 square miles).  The Dead Sea separates Israel on the west side from Jordan on the east side and is fed mostly by the Jordan River.  The water is about 10 times more salty than the ocean and at a salinity of 34% is one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world.  The water makes your skin feel soft and new yet it can also irritate your skin.  The water is way too toxic to be consumed.  After dipping our feet in, we rinsed them off in an outdoor shower and hurried back to the bus for our return to Jerusalem.  We were only there for a very short time; probably less than 30 minutes.

The Western Wall – We arrived back in Jerusalem as the sun was setting and the temperatures were dipping down into the 30’s.  We next visited one of the iconic images many people have of Israel; the Western Wall or Wailing Wall.  The Western Wall of the Herodian Temple is what is left above ground from the Temple of the time of Jesus.  The Jewish people pray at “The Wall” constantly as it is the closest one can be today to what was once the “Holy of Holies”, the center of the Temple where the Jews believe was the presence of God.  To the west of the wall is a large stone paved plaza.  We had to go through a security check to get in and men and women are separated in different sections which are separated by a partition.  It was dark, about 6:00 in the evening and crowded but not packed.  It was kind of noisy with a buzz of excitement which was unexpected for me.  We were able to find a spot at the wall to pray for a few minutes, each in our own space.  We could leave prayers in the crevices between the stones, but it was hard to find a space.  Somehow I managed to find a spot for my two written prayers on one piece of paper.  Bruce our guide told us the stones at the bottom of the wall were the 2,000 year old stones from the time of Jesus and the ones above were newer, only about 1,000 years old!  I knelt on one knee for my prayers to be sure to touch the stones that were there with Jesus.  One of my pilgrim brothers helped guide me to and from the wall so that I could re-connect with the group afterwards in this very busy maze of people.  It was moving for me to pray here even for such a brief time as it was.  I thought of my deceased parents and my whole family.  It may be the holiest place on earth for Jews, but for me as a Catholic man, the holiest place on earth where I can be the closest to God is in the Holy Eucharist!

After our time at The Western Wall, we entered into a building on the side of the Western Wall Plaza for a very impressive and interesting journey down about 70 feet or more underground to the original streets of the time of Jesus.  It was long believed that the stones at the current street level did not follow the same path of the streets of the time of Jesus in 30 AD.  It took a long time for the archeologists to get permission to start going underground to discover how many layers were built and built over again to form today’s street level!  It was a very interesting tour of about 45 minutes to an hour even after such a long day.  The most amazing part of the whole tour for me though was near the end where we had reached bedrock and the street level at the time of Jesus right at a main entrance to the city.  Jesus surely entered and left the city along this street.  We were able to stand on and walk along an old original roman road paved with stones which Jesus Himself walked across.  Sharon and I both not only walked on but bent down and touched our hands to this pavement where once upon a time, our Savior walked!  What an amazing way to end the day!

February 21, 2020 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Holy Land Pilgrimage – Day 10

Day 10 – Wednesday February 20

Stephen’s Gate is one of 7 gates in the eastern wall of the old city of Jerusalem.  It is also known as the Lion’s Gate or the Sheep Gate.  In the times of Jesus and before, the sheep for the sacrifices performed in the Temple were brought in through this gate due to it’s proximity to the Temple.  This is the traditional starting point for the Via Dolorosa (the Way of the Cross).  St. Stephen was martyred on this spot, stoned to death by an angry mob overseen by Saul who later became St. Paul (Acts 7:54-8:1).  Just inside the gate in an open area, we read the scripture relating Stephen’s death and sang a song.  Just a short walk in front of us is the beginning of the Via Dolorosa.  We had a couple of other stops on a short detour before we made our way to the Chapel of Flagellation and Chapel of Condemnation which mark the start of the Stations of the Cross.  It was here at Stephen’s Gate where we witnessed several Israeli soldiers wearing shoulder arms taking a few moments for morning coffee.

The Pool of Bethesda – This site of one of the miracles of Jesus is just inside Stephen’s Gate.  It seemed just a few steps away and around a corner.  It was here that Jesus healed the man who could not get into the healing waters of the baths when they were stirred up (John 5:1-18).  This was one of several public Jewish ritual cleansing baths which were known for their healing powers.  Later, the Romans used them for their own baths.  Today, there are only ruins which were first excavated in the late 19th century and took over 100 years to clearly identify as a Jewish ritual bath.

Church of Saint Anne – This church is practically next door to the Pool of Bethesda site near Stephen’s Gate in the Muslim Quarter of the old city.  This is where it is believed that Mary was born, and lived with her parents when in Jerusalem.  This church is protected by the White Fathers from France and belongs to the French government.  It has amazing acoustics!  Although plain in appearance, this church originally built by the Crusaders in the 12th century on the site of previous churches was spared in the Muslim conquest because one of the designs on the outside resembled Muslim royalty.  It was restored in the 19th century but most of what remains today is original.

Via Dolorosa – Walking and praying The Way of Sorrow is a very different experience than praying the Stations of the Cross in our modern churches.  The Via Dolorosa is about a 500 meter (0.3 miles) walk in Jerusalem’s Old City beginning in the Muslim Quarter and ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter.  The Way of Sorrow begins near the Lion’s Gate and winds through narrow passageways in shopping areas filled with people going about their daily business.  There are 9 stations along the way marked by usually small signs and sometimes chapels which are often closed to the public.  The final 5 of the 14 total stations are located within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The stone paved ‘streets’ are narrow with slopes up and down, steps, ramps and sharp turns.  They are lined with shops with merchants often standing near the entrance encouraging us to stop and shop.  Shoppers filled the shops and the streets also with no care to what we were doing.  We encountered some of what Jesus probably did when He carried the cross through the streets to Calvary.

The exact route that Jesus took that day is uncertain at best and we are walking on streets 70 feet above the level of the city at the time of Jesus.  The shops and streets are certainly not placed the same as they were 2,000 years ago and 70 feet down.  However, we marked each of the 9 outdoor stations with scripture and prayer.  We took turns carrying the cross.  Sharon and I were blessed to carry the cross with two others between Stations 4 and 5.  It was extremely crowded inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and thus very difficult for us to complete our prayers at each of the 5 final stations.  We did the best we could.  It was impossible for us to get close to the sites of the crucifixion and the tomb due to the large crowds so we went through the church rather quickly.

One of our ladies took a tumble off of a step she never saw right near the beginning near stations 1 and 2.  She was okay but a bit shaken so Sharon helped her navigate most of the course from there and I carried her backpack along with ours.  Those were our crosses for the day.  They were, I think, much lighter than the cross Jesus carried for us.  So, this was not a hugely spiritual experience for either of us, although it was not completely devoid of prayer and spiritual thoughts.  There were so many distractions, so many physical things to be watchful of.  We did take two small detours along the way to visit a small chapel somewhere in the middle and to go down into a lower cave type area near the beginning where it is believed Roman soldiers probably played games while ‘hanging around’.  Possibly Jesus was held here before He began His walk to Calvary that day.  While we sat in this area, I imagined the Roman soldiers cursing Him and spitting on Him as Scripture describes.  This may have been for me the most moving moment along the Way of Sorrow on this particular day.

The Con Cathedral – We walked through the Christian Quarter from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to the church of the Con Cathedral, the seat of the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem.  We celebrated Mass in this beautiful church completed in 1872 which is also known as the Co-Cathedral of the Most Holy Name of Jesus or also as the Holy Name of Jesus Con-cathedral.  Sharon and I were blessed to read the readings.  I also read the Prayers of the Faithful.  We were in the company of saints as some of our popes have also celebrated Mass in this location when they visited Jerusalem.  After Mass, we had an audience with the Auxiliary Bishop who assists the Latin Patriarch in providing services to the Catholic community in Israel.  He is a native of Nazareth, and a delightful man, who gave us an extended visit!

Church of the Holy Sepulchre – This very large church which preserves the sites of both the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is located in the Christian Quarter of the old city of Jerusalem at the end of the Via Dolorosa.  The last 4 stations of The Way of the Cross are within the church itself.  The church was first constructed in the 4th century thanks to St. Helena.  She discovered the site of Calvary (or Golgotha) and the relic of the “True Cross” on which Jesus was crucified during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 326.  St. Helena’s son, the now Christian Roman Emperor Constantine I ordered the temple of Venus to be demolished in order to make way for a church.  In the process of the temple demolition, a tomb was discovered which was believed to be the tomb of Jesus.  Two structures were originally built to protect each site and later ‘connected’ by a columned covered atrium or courtyard.  The original church was consecrated in 335.  The church has gone through many phases of destruction due to war, earthquakes and fires and has been renovated and reconstructed many times, most recently in the 1860’s, 1990’s and 2016.

On this day, when we visited the church was literally packed wall-to-wall with pilgrims from all over the world.  Our guide tried to show us all the major sites within the church as we completed the final 5 Stations of the Cross with much difficulty.  It was very difficult for me to see anything.  We were unable to get close to either the site of the crucifixion or the Holy Sepulchre itself.  I called the scene a zoo.  There were so many people going in so many different directions and pushing up against each other.  I was so thankful to escape back outside still connected to our group!  This is why in our free time after our very late lunch nearby in the old city, some of us decided to return to the church and try again.

I am so thankful we did!  These are maybe the two most revered holy sites in Christianity.  This is where Jesus was crucified and where He rose from the dead.  I wasn’t leaving Israel without giving every possible effort to see these spots.  It took much patience and persistence, but we were blessed to finally put our knees and hands on both sites.  Just to the right of the main entrance is a set of stairs up to Golgotha.  It took us about 45-60 minutes to ascend the stairs and reach our goal.  Sharon and I kneeled together under the altar and put our hands in the hole which held the cross and so very briefly prayed a prayer of thanksgiving.  From there we went down another set of stairs and made the very short walk to the Holy Sepulchre passing along the way the Stone of Anointing which emitted a very strong scent of roses.  We knelt here for prayer too and this time I thought to touch my rosary, my Dad’s rosary to the stone.  We were told this is not the actual stone and only a marker of the location, yet the rose scent was clear from feet away even to those who are challenged in the sense of smell.

The tomb of Christ is protected by a small building known as the Aedicule within a large building.  During our two and half hour wait in which we circled almost completely around this structure, we took in the beauty of this large rotunda and its columns, we talked with each other and together as a group we prayed a decade of the rosary.  Just before we were able to enter, along came a group of Franciscan Friars for Evening Prayer (Vespers).  We had an okay view and were able to listen and join them in prayer.  Then it was finally our turn.  Two at a time, we were able to pass through the outer chamber into the smaller and lower inner chamber containing the original limestone slab on which Jesus lay in the tomb.  We had to duck a bit to enter and in our 30 seconds or so in the tomb we went to our knees, touched our rosaries to the stone and again prayed together as husband and wife prayers of thanksgiving and awe.  It really didn’t sink in about where we were until after we got home and I am still in awe that I was blessed to be even so briefly in these two holy places!

February 20, 2020 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Holy Land Pilgrimage – Day 9

Day 9 – Tuesday February 19

Mount of Olives – This mountain, also known as Mount Olivet, is on the east side of Jerusalem and is part of a mountain ridge of three peaks which runs 2.2 miles.  It is directly across the Kidron Valley from the Temple Mount and the Eastern Gate through which Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  The peak to its north is Mount Scopus (2,710 feet), while the peak to its south is the Mount of Corruption (2,451 feet).  The highest point on the Mount of Olives is 2,684 feet.  On the south-eastern slope of the Mount of Olives lies the ancient village of Bethany, the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus.  The eastern side of the ridge is the beginning of the Judean Desert.  From Biblical times until the present, Jews have been buried on the Mount of Olives.  Some say there are over 150,000 graves here and we saw many of them as we made our way down toward the valley.

Day 8 - Prima Kings to Ben Yehuda Street

Chapel of the Ascension – This small mosque like chapel at the top of the Mount of Olives is the site where it is believed that Jesus ascended into heaven.  On the floor in this small chapel is a rock believed to be the point from which Jesus ascended.  Many see a footprint in the rock.  I did not see a footprint, but I took a few pictures and kneeled down and touched the rock.  We had a reading and a song in the open air courtyard area outside the chapel but within the walls of the facility.  The courtyard is about 40 feet across with the chapel approximately in the center.  There was not room for all 51 one of us to be in the chapel at the same time.  Our guide told us that the chapel was originally uncovered when it was built in the 4th century thanks to Saint Helena but that at one time the Muslims controlled it and covered it over making it a mosque.  The chapel was recovered in the Crusades.

Church of the Pater Noster – On the Mount of Olives, this site is remembered as the place where Jesus taught his apostles how to pray.  The Our Father is displayed in beautiful ceramic plaques in 140 languages all around the courtyard and sanctuary.  We were unable to go inside the church itself which was completed in 1874.  Earlier churches on this site were constructed in the 4th and 12th centuries.  We were able to go into the cave under the church, where it is believed Jesus would have taught His disciples.  The cave very much resembled a typical Jewish tomb at the time of Jesus.

Mount of Olives Overlook – From this vantage point one can see all of the old city of Jerusalem with the Eastern Gate and the Temple Mount front and center across the Kidron Valley.  The Eastern Gate is where Jesus triumphantly entered the city on Palm Sunday.  It has now been completely closed off (walled in) by the Muslims, as if a little concrete could keep out the Almighty!  It was a cold but beautiful view on a clear day.  The Kidron Valley below is full of graves as are the hill sides down and back up to the city walls.

Palm Sunday Walk – We walked down the Mount of Olives tracing the steps of Jesus on the beginning of the journey which led to His triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  We stopped briefly in a Jewish cemetery for a reading and a song.  From here we had another view of the “old city” and Temple Mount.  We continued our journey down the slope on a paved but narrow road with a low wall on either side to the Church of Dominus Flevit (“the Lord wept”).  This church, which was built in the mid 1950”s and is shaped like a tear drop, marks the spot where Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44).  We could not go into the church.  We did read the associated scripture reading and sing a song.  We had yet another great view of the eastern side of Jerusalem, much closer than before, but still with the Temple Mount and Eastern Gate front and center in our view.  This view made it easy to understand why Jesus would pause here and contemplate the city as He did.  From here, we continued our walk down to the Garden of Gethsemane.

Garden of Gethsemane – This garden filled with olive trees was also filled with many people on this cloudy day.  Some of the olive trees date back to the time of Jesus.  These trees felt his tears as He prayed that the “cup might be taken from Him.”  The olive trees are protected inside a grated fence with a paved walkway all around.  This walkway was literally filled with people.  We made our way through the crowd and around the garden to a small chapel on the side of the large Church of All Nations.  We celebrated Mass in this small very cave like chapel called the Grotto Chapel of the Garden of Gethsemane.  This is where the apostles fell asleep while Jesus was praying.  After Mass, we again made our way around the garden and walked a short way down the street to our next site.

Orthodox Tomb of Mary – This Orthodox Church is dedicated to the final earthly resting place of Mary.  It was very dark with many lamps hanging from above and many steps down on a nice slow gradient.  At the bottom and to the right was a tomb with a very low entrance.  The orthodox believe Mary died and was laid to rest here before she was assumed into heaven.  The Catholic Church is silent on whether Mary actually died and was then assumed or directly assumed into heaven.  We were there just long enough to walk down the steps, spend a few seconds in the tomb and walk back up the steps.  We then walked back to and around the Garden of Gethsemane again to enter the large church there.

Church of All Nations – This large church is built over the rock that is believed to be the place where Jesus prayed on Holy Thursday.  This church is shaded, kind of dim and gloomy, to reflect the sorrow in the heart of Jesus on the night He was betrayed and deserted.  We read scripture and sang before going inside.  As we entered, Mass was in progress but we were able to see two side altars and between the people worshipping at Mass we could see the main altar and the big rock in front of it where Jesus prayed.  The current church was completed in 1924 on top of earlier churches from the 4th century and the 12th century.  Remains of these earlier churches were discovered and excavated during the construction of the current church which took over 5 years.

Church of Saint Peter in Gallicantu – After leaving the Garden of Gethsemane we returned to the bus and drove across the Kidron Valley which lies between the Mount of Olives and the city walls of east Jerusalem to the house of Caiaphas who was the high priest at the time of Jesus’ Passion.  This is the site of Peter’s three-time denial of Jesus.  The word Gallicantu is a Latin word meaning “cock’s crow”.  A golden rooster sits prominently on the sanctuary roof to honor the events which took place here.

The church is located on the eastern slope of Mount Zion just outside the walls of the “old City” of Jerusalem.  The first church here was finished in 457 AD, destroyed in 1010 and rebuilt by Crusaders in 1102 and given its present name.  The church fell into ruin again before being rebuilt in 1931.

When Jesus was removed from the Garden of Gethsemane, He was brought across the Kidron Valley to the home of the high priest, Caiaphas.  It was there He was questioned by the Sanhedrin, and imprisoned over night before being brought to Pilate.  There is a dry cistern in the basement of this church where it is believed that Jesus would have been incarcerated overnight.  He would have been lowered and hung from straps until dawn.  Outside, Peter, who had followed Jesus, is sitting by the fire when he is questioned by one of the servants who claims that she knows Peter was one of Jesus’ followers.  He denies Jesus three times before the cock crows twice.

We were unable to enter the church itself, but we were able to go into the caves underneath the church believed to be part of the palace of Caiaphas.  All 51 of us crowded into a small cave, a dry cistern believed to be where Jesus was probably kept overnight.  This was a moving moment for me as Bill Gent talked about how they would have lowered the bound Jesus through the small opening at the top and left Him hanging alone and bound in a harness in the darkness of the early morning hours of the night.  Yet, because of His prayers in the garden and His connection with Our Father, He was never really alone.  We sang the song “Lord I Need You” by Matt Maher (which I love) and I teared up a bit.  Just imagine Jesus’s heart crying those words out to His Father in those hours.  Abandoned and alone.  Agony.  His prayers sustained Him.

The Upper Room – This holy site was preserved by the Crusaders.  It is the room where Jesus met with His apostles on Holy Thursday and instituted the Holy Eucharist, and Holy Orders (priesthood).  It is where He appeared to the apostles after His Resurrection when they were hiding in fear and said, “Do not be afraid”.  This is also where the Holy Spirit descended on them at Pentecost.  The building is only 1,000 years old but is built on the site of the original Upper Room.  Three different religions occupy this three story structure.  One floor above the Upper Room is a mosque and the bottom floor is the traditional tomb of King David which is an active Orthodox Jewish synagogue.

King David’s Tomb – Men and women had to separate to visit this sacred Orthodox Jewish site.  We passed through a room with men in full orthodox Jewish dress silently praying and reading scripture.

Dormition Abbey – This is the Roman Catholic site in memory of the Assumption of Mary.  Dormition is Latin for “falling asleep”.  This church is a very short walk from the Upper Room so it is also on the eastern slope of Mount Zion just outside the walls of the “old city” of Jerusalem.  We were able to tour this circular church with several side altars.  Under a large dome, was a model of a “sleeping Mary” with kneelers and a railing where people could pray.  Sharon and I knelt together and said a brief prayer together quietly.  A church was originally built here in the very early 5th century (before 415) and was destroyed in 614.  Its foundations were recovered in 1899 during an investigation of the site.  Construction on the current church was begun in 1900 and completed in only 10 years in 1910.

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Ben Yahuda Street – After arriving at our hotel, but before dinner, some of us walked several blocks to this outdoor, pedestrian only shopping area.  There were all kinds of small shops, some larger stores and some places to eat with tables outside in the “street”.  There were signs in Hebrew and signs in English.  It was growing dark, cold and damp, but we wandered around for a while.  There were quite a few people moving about including one group of a dozen or so youth dancing to, of all things, American pop music.  After taking in the scene for over an hour, we returned to the hotel for dinner.

February 19, 2020 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Holy Land Pilgrimage – Day 8

Day 8 – Monday February 18

Bethlehem – We spent the entire day in this town which is about 5 miles south of Jerusalem and in Palestinian controlled territory.  We passed through a security checkpoint at a literal concrete wall that was higher than the bus, but we never had to leave the bus.  I understand that having a Palestinian bus driver was a key to the ease of our passage.  This is another busy town built on hills.  There is a dwindling Christian community living and working here and one young lady among them was our tour guide for the day.  She is part of a group that has committed to staying here to keep a Christian presence in this birthplace of Jesus.

Day 7 - Prima Kings to Bethlehem Sites

Our Day 8 Journey

3 Arches Olive Wood Store – Our first stop in Bethlehem was this large and lovely store where we were able to select from a wide variety of items crafted from olive wood.  Our purchases help to support the Christian community in Bethlehem.  We got to meet some of the carvers and there was also beautiful jewelry with the Jerusalem crosses, rosaries, and other items.  This was one of less than a handful of places we actually stopped to go shopping.  We were happy to support the Christians here.

Chapel of the Milk Grotto – After parking in the bus garage, we made our way up a hill along a busy street to this chapel for our daily Mass.  We walked passed and between Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity.  We briefly lost one of our group but she was found and returned during Mass.  We celebrated the Mass for Christmas here in this very simple and ordinary room.  We were all so relieved and gave thanks to God when our lost fellow pilgrim was returned to us during Mass.  There are so many people here and things happen more quickly than it feels like.  We were all so very thankful our lost sheep was not lost for long.

This grotto just a few feet from the Church of the Nativity is believed to be where the Holy Family hid while the soldiers were looking to kill the baby boys 2 years old and younger as ordered by Herod who thought Jesus would be a threat to his power.  The story is that Mary fed Baby Jesus while they were waiting to leave to flee to Egypt and a drop of her milk fell to the ground turning the walls of the cave a powdery white.  Today, the Franciscans in Bethlehem who live and work in this church collect the powder and put it in small bags.  It is believed that the powder taken in prayer, can help cure diseases and infertility.  With faith and prayers, many people seeking healing have been cured.  People sick with cancer and women who are looking to conceive all use this powder as a prayer aid.

After Mass, we were allowed to briefly wander through the grotto, a cave like space with several small alcoves and small altars.  We didn’t have much time to hang around and absorb.  I wandered around quickly while the guide was talking.  I touched the cave roof and got a powdery substance on my fingers.  I made the Sign of the Cross on Sharon’s forehead with it.

Lunch – We were shuffled off to lunch, back down the hill to the garage where the bus was parked.  However, we went upstairs to a restaurant where we were served a 4-course meal.  Of course none of us knew so many courses were coming.  It was way too much food and we were stuffed.  We even had entertainment with students from the Christian high school dancing native folk dances for us.  They even invited us to join them and several of us including Fr. Peter got into the action!

Church of the Nativity – Once we left the restaurant, we walked back up the hill to Manger Square and this time entered the Church of the Nativity.  This church is one of the oldest in Israel, and it houses the cave where our Lord was born.  The church was first dedicated in 339 and later rebuilt in 565 after being destroyed by fire.  We had to bend low to enter through the door of humility as the door was built very low (about 4 feet) to prevent enemies from riding in on their horses.  It seemed appropriate to bow to enter the spot where the most humble act ever occurred.

The church is undergoing extensive renovations.  Due to careful study by the archaeologists, the beautiful artwork on the walls and columns have been uncovered and restored, after being hidden for hundreds of years because of the soot from the candles and incense.  We can now see the gold artwork that graces these walls and the intricate paintings on the columns.  However, due to the fences with placards on them around the renovation areas, we could not see most of the main area of this huge church.  Under the main altar in a cave are the spots where Jesus was born and where Mary laid Him in the manger.  The two spots are literally just a few feet apart in the same small cave.

Before we could descend into the Holy Grotto of the Nativity, we had to wait.  This church is shared by the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic churches.  Each group gets some prayer and ritual time in the Grotto.  Today, the church is packed with people from all over.  Some are more patient than others.  We had to form a line of men at the rear of our group to keep other groups from pushing through and mingling in with ours.  I actually felt as honored to do this as I felt annoyed at having to do it.  The wait was worth it.  We waited over an hour but it could have been worse.  There is a set of curved steps down into the cave.  The spot where Jesus was born is marked with a 14-point silver star.  There is a place to kneel and touch the star.  You only get a few seconds.  From that point, right behind you around a column just a handful of steps away is the spot of the manger.  I really honestly could not tell you what was there.  Some lit candles and what seemed to be a short metal fence.  Our few seconds were up before I could absorb it.  I tried to spend them in prayer, a prayer of thanksgiving.

We were able to move to the back of the cave and stay for a few minutes as other groups venerated the two sites now in front of us.  Our group gathered and we read the Christmas story (Luke 2:1-7) and sang Silent Night.  This was very moving to me to sing and hear that song in the very cave where our Lord and Savior was born!  Still the whole scene, after such a long wait, passed by so very quickly.

Church of Saint Catherine – There is a maze of walkways and paths that lead from the Church of the Nativity to the Church of Saint Catherine.  Saint Catherine is the home of the local Catholic Community in Bethlehem.  It is here that the Catholic Mass in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve is celebrated.  Under one of the altars is the statue of Baby Jesus that is paraded around Manger Square on Christmas Eve.  We only briefly stayed in this church but we stood in a corridor outside over the cave where St. Jerome translated the Scriptures into Latin.  Our guide explained to us that many of the Christians in Bethlehem are leaving to find employment outside of Israel.  They are on the bottom of the economic ladder in Bethlehem.  She is part of a group of young Bethlehem natives who have commissioned themselves to stay and be a presence of the Christian Community in Bethlehem.  She and her family are Catholic, and Saint Catherine is their home parish.

Shepherd’s Field – Our day in Bethlehem ended with a visit to Shepherd’s Field.  “GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST!” was the message from the angels to the shepherds.   They were invited to be the first to witness the newborn king, and worship the Messiah.  This was significant, because the shepherds were not well liked.  They spent their time in the fields with their sheep and were uneducated, dirty and smelly.  They were considered the lowest of the low.  Yet, these are the people God chose to be the first witnesses of the baby Jesus, the long awaited Messiah!  These are the people that God sent choirs of angels to in order to announce the greatest event so far in all of history (Luke 2:8-20).  Shepherd’s Field has a lovely chapel depicting many of the scenes connected to the birth of Jesus.  There is also a cave where a large nativity set is on display.  Shepherds would live in these caves with their families and also would secure their sheep in these caves, protect them by laying across the opening so the wolves and other predators could not enter.

February 18, 2020 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Our Holy Land Pilgrimage – Day 7

Day 7 – Sunday February 17

The Jordan River – We renewed our Baptismal vows where Jesus was baptized by John in this river.   Although it may have occurred more to the south, here we recommitted to living a life that reflects our love of God as Fr. Peter “sprinkled” us using a water bottle filled with water from the Jordan River.  This was a joyful moment in an absolutely beautiful spot with lots of trees and greenery and clear water.  Twice I dipped my fingers in the river and made the Sign of the Cross just as we do with the holy water as we enter church.

Church of Peter’s Primacy (Mensa Christi) – It was here on the shores of the Sea of Galilee that Jesus prepared breakfast for the apostles after His Resurrection.  In the small chapel, there is a large stone believed to be the stone on which Jesus prepared and served the fish.  We went in the chapel and touched the stone.  Outside, is a beautiful bronze statue of Jesus asking Peter, “Do you love Me?” (John 21:1-22)  I spent most of the brief time we were here on the beach, which was black gravel rather than sand, looking at the water and the large stones on the shore near the water trying to imagine Jesus standing or sitting there.  We had a reading and a song while on the “beach”.

Mount of Beatitudes – This was an incredibly beautiful and peaceful place and it was a lovely day.  We celebrated Mass in a small outside chapel.  There is a magnificent view of the Sea of Galilee from this park filled with trees, shrubs, lots of green grass with markers bearing the words of Jesus in the 8 Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12).  I was somewhat distracted during Mass by the lawn mowers and people talking in other areas of the park but I did have a peaceful moment with Jesus after communion and taking in the view of the Sea of Galilee from the rear of the chapel.  We had only a brief few minutes to tour the beautiful church built in the 1930’s after Mass outside.  The monstrance in the center of this round church is in the center of a cross.  I actually missed it as we kneeled to pray there.  It was only later through someone sharing their experience that I realized the host was in the cross.  The outer walls of the church are filled with stained glass windows that state the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount.  It’s a special place that we could have stayed all day!

The Road to Jerusalem – It was time to leave the region of Galilee and make our way to Jerusalem. From the Mount of Beatitudes on the north western shore of the Sea of Galilee we drove around the north and east sides of the lake with the lake on our right and as we turned to the south, Jordan on our left just over the mountain ridge.  We stopped for lunch along the way before we entered the desert.  The change in scenery as we left the Galilee region was extreme from grassy, rocky slopes to sand covered rock mountains.  There was literally nothing but sand and boulders everywhere, except for the oasis where Jericho is located just before the turn to the west to head into Jerusalem.

Model City of Jerusalem – Our first stop in Jerusalem was the Israel Museum where we viewed this 1/50th scale model of the city as it was just after the time of Jesus (~ 44 AD).  This model gave us a perspective of the important locations we would visit while in Jerusalem.  It’s hard to imagine the city as it was during that time, and seeing the model made it seem more real and understandable.  This is the best visual representation of the Jewish Temple at the time of Jesus I have ever had.  Bruce gave us a great explanation from multiple vantage points and pointing out the different sites we would be seeing.  Still, it went so quickly and it was often difficult to follow the visual clues he was giving.

The Shrine of the Book – Our last stop of the day before checking into our hotel was this museum where the Dead Sea Scrolls are preserved and on display.  We didn’t stay very long, yet it was interesting to see some of the actual scrolls discovered in caves in the desert south of Jerusalem beginning in 1948.  Later in our trip, we were able to visit the site of these caves near the Dead Sea.

February 17, 2020 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Our Holy Land Pilgrimage – Day 6

Day 6 – Saturday February 16

Multiplication Church – Another rainy and cold morning, but our spirits are warm as we visit this church on the site where Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.  The church has a mosaic floor from the 5th or 6th century.  We walked on it!  We knelt before the altar for a brief thought and prayer.  There is a “5+2” theme throughout this site.  Jesus multiplied 5 loaves and 2 fish.  In the days of the mana (Exodus), the people had 5 days a week when they collected mana only for that day and one day a week when they collected a 2-day supply of mana so that they did not collect on the Sabbath Day.  There was a 7-sided little pool with a 7 fish symbol in it.  There were more than 7 real fish in the water in the pool.  With the rain, we didn’t get to look around much outside.

Capernaum – Sometimes the name of this village is also spelled Capharnaum.  Two spellings for one special town where Jesus went to be with his friends and relax.  It was here that Jesus called His disciples, showed them how to “fish”, preached in the synagogue, taught us about the Bread of Life (John Chapter 6), and healed Peter’s mother in law.  A large “space ship” looking church sits over the site believed to be the home of St. Peter.  Although it rained while we were there, it didn’t dampen our enthusiasm for this holy site.  This small fishing village right on the northwest shores of the Sea of Galilee would have likely been “home base” for Jesus during His ministry.  St. Peter’s house is very near the water and just a few steps further away from the water we were able to stand and walk in the ruins of the synagogue where Jesus taught.  We touched the foundational stones which were there in the time of Jesus!

Sea of Galilee Boat Ride – What an adventure!  The Sea of Galilee in a storm!  It was wet, cold, and windy, but our heat came from the smiles, and fun we had sailing on a fishing boat!  This was a very joyful hour on the sea where the apostles fished and Jesus walked on the water and calmed the storm.  We read the reading where He calmed the storm (Mark 4:35-41) and amazingly it got a little bit calmer as Bill Gent read it out loud.  We sang spontaneously and shared gleefully taking in the sites around us.  We could see Tiberius where our hotel was, the Mount of Beatitudes, Capernaum where we had just been and other towns on the seashore.  We had one incredible holy party on this boat and this is one of my top highlights of the entire pilgrimage.  Jesus walked on this water and breathed this air!

The Sea of Galilee is 13 miles long (north to south) and 6 miles across (east to west) and averages about 150 feet deep.  This body of water is actually the lowest fresh water lake on the earth at about 700 feet below seal level.  As our sail began, they raised the American flag with the Israelis flag and played the national anthem.  We sailed for a bit and then the engine was powered off and we just floated for a while taking in the amazing scene.  They even cast the net over each side of the bow, but no fish for us this day.  When we returned to shore and the museum, we saw the 2,000 year old fishing boat unearthed on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and from the time of Jesus.  Could this have been one of the boats of the apostles?

Nazareth – We spent the afternoon after lunch in this now bustling large city.  This is now the largest city in northern Israel and the capital of the northern portion of Israel located about 15 miles west of the Sea of Galilee.  It is believed that at the time of Jesus, Nazareth would have been a small village comprised of about 100 families or less.  This is where Mary and Joseph were betrothed and where they returned with their child Jesus after the exile to Egypt to avoid Herod’s attempt to have Jesus killed.  This is the place where Jesus grew up and matured into a man.  We visited a couple of churches honoring Mary and Joseph and then briefly went to Mount Precipice where the people of Nazareth once tried to throw Jesus off the cliff.

The Church of the Annunciation – We celebrated Mass where Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel and said her Yes that changed the course of mankind!!  (Luke 1:26-38)  Sharon and I were blessed to proclaim the readings at Mass.  We toured the church and saw the grotto where the angel Gabriel is thought to have visited Mary.  We could see it from the level above where we had Mass and we were able to wait in line and venerate the altar up close and personal.  This is a gorgeous huge church filled with beautiful art.  The current structure was built in 1969 but previous churches over the same spot go at least as far back as the 4th century and Constantine.

The Church of St. Joseph – This church was built over the site where it is believed that Joseph brought Mary and Jesus when they returned to Nazareth.  Joseph worked from here and provided for his family.  Mary and Jesus lived, worked, and prayed alongside Joseph in this spot.  It was from here that Joseph and Jesus would have traveled to Sepphoris to work.

Mount Precipice – This site on the southern edge of Nazareth was cold and WINDY!!!  It was from here that the community of Nazareth tried to kill Jesus by throwing him off the side of the mountain, but Jesus disappeared from their midst (Luke 4:16-30).  The slope up to the top was very rocky and somewhat steep and I am talking boulders not garden rocks!  From the top (~1,300 feet) was a great view of Nazareth to one side and the Jezreel Valley on the other including Mount Tabor and Mount Carmel in the distance.

February 16, 2020 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Holy Land Pilgrimage – Day 5

Day 5 – Friday February 15

Caesarea Philippi – It was here that Jesus asked His Apostles, “Who do you say that I am?”  This is where Jesus told Peter, “Upon this rock I will build my church” and “the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:13-20).  This giant rock face (500 feet wide and 100 feet high) which is pretty much vertical is located in very north eastern Israel very near the Lebanon and Syrian borders.  We saw the border fence with Lebanon from the bus along our drive.  Caesarea Philippi is on the road to Damascus later travelled by Paul.  The rock face is absolutely huge and geographically beautiful.  The top is a level plain.  The water springs from the rocks here and this is one of the three sources of the Jordan River which runs north to south near the eastern edge of Israel.  The Jordan River is but a small creek this far north when we crossed over it on our bus ride.  There is beautiful flowing water here and this was a large Roman city.  In the rock face is a cave with water in it and a boulder which the ancients believed was a cap to an entrance to hell or the “netherworld”.  The size of this mountain of rock and this belief of the ancients of an entrance to hell here, gives so much meaning and emphasis to the words of Jesus spoken here.

And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”  ~ Matthew 16:18

There are ruins from two pagan temples right at the base of the rock face and just to the right of the cave.  The temples date to the time just after Jesus, one in 98 AD and the other 212 AD.  This was a Roman city so these were temples to Roman gods.  We were able to walk amidst the ruins of these temples right at the base of the rock face.

Safed – This is an Orthodox Jewish Community and the traditional birthplace of Noah.  This village is still in the north but south of Caesarea Philippi.  We walked through a marketplace which was a covered street, more like an alley, narrow, no vehicles, with small shops on both sides.  Here we had the opportunity to visit a synagogue, where our tour guide explained the connection of the Christian and Jewish communities.  He also explained the structure of the Jewish worship space.  The people sit in a circle around the outside with a pulpit structure in the middle.  All face Jerusalem to pray.

St. Peter’s Restaurant – We had lunch in this restaurant on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Some of the daring in our group tried the “St. Peter’s fish” cooked, but left whole.  Although no one found a coin in the fish’s mouth, we all had a good time!  It was crowded and noisy with many large groups.  The service was very efficient.  We had a brief moment to go out by the water after lunch before having to return to the bus.

Magdala – Our time at this archaeological site allowed us to walk along the streets that would have been in use during the time of Jesus.  The “Magdala Stone” was the foremost artifact discovered that dated this town as being a vibrant community during the time of Jesus.  It’s proximity to Capernaum would have made it a likely site of Jesus’ ministry along the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.  We were able to touch the wall of a synagogue where Jesus most likely would have taught!  Wow!!  We had Mass here in “the Boat Chapel” which is a very modern building with the altar in the shape of a boat.  This site is just north of Tiberius which meant for a very short bus ride back to our hotel.

February 15, 2020 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Holy Land Pilgrimage – Day 4

Thursday February 14

Sepphoris – We saw the remains of a once vibrant and upscale city that could have been a workplace for Joseph when he lived in Nazareth.  Jesus would have accompanied him when He got older.  They would have likely walked here from Nazareth to work for several days at a time.  It was a wet morning with some light rain on and off as we toured these remains on the slope of a mountain.  We walked on Roman roads and saw mosaic sidewalks and floors likely built around the time of Jesus who may have walked these very same roads while in town working with Joseph.  We toured a Crusader fortress tower on the site, climbing to the top with a vista view of the Galilee area including Nazareth only about 6 miles away.  We could also see a red-roofed monastery which is one of several places claiming to be the birthplace of Mary, the Blessed Mother.

Cana – We renewed our wedding vows in a very small and thus crowded outdoor covered chapel during a rain shower on the site where Jesus performed His first miracle.  We had light to heavy rain during much of our time in Cana.  Cana is a crowded and busy town today.  In the middle is a small church and monastery.  It was raining as we got off the bus and walked up a small and narrow alley having to step aside for an occasional car.  After renewing our marriage vows and a brief wait during which the sun came out and it warmed up a bit, we were able to very briefly tour the small but beautiful church including the basement with a replica of a stone water jar of the type discussed in the story of the wedding feast at which Jesus changed water into wine (John 2:1-11).  We had lunch in the town of Cana after our visit to the church.  Sharon and I shared a Schnitzel after trying Falafel yesterday.

Mount Tabor – Jesus’ Transfiguration took place here.  Here He showed His divinity to Peter, James, and John.  They wanted to build three tents (Matthew 17:1-8).  The beautiful church which stands at the top of this mountain today was built in the early 20th century using mules to haul huge stones and other building materials up the steep mountain slopes.  The church was completed in 1924.

Mount Tabor was a long awaited site for Sharon and I after her miracle picture received six months earlier.  Tears started flowing from her as we walked toward this incredible church as it first came into our view in the courtyard outside.  Little did we know that day, that she would receive a second miracle picture.  Six months earlier while in Washington, DC, we visited the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America which has a beautiful depiction of the Transfiguration.  Sharon took a picture thinking how we will never fully understand what the three men with Jesus saw that day.  Later, we discovered in her picture Jesus is brightly shining except that is not how we saw it in person.  He gave us a small taste of what the disciples saw on that amazing day!  Now here we are on that very site where it actually happened!!

Mount Tabor is unusual geographically as it is not part of a mountain ridge.  It is a mountain all to itself, like a giant bubble popping up out of the earth with an elevation of 1,886 feet above sea level!  It is very steep.  No busses to the top.  We rode up in vans.  It was about a 4-5 minute ride.  Imagine the climb for Jesus and the three apostles!  Was it an overnight adventure for them?

We had Mass in the church.  We actually had to go down steps to the main area of the main altar.  Amazing artwork surrounds the main altar which is under a curved arch with paintings in the ceiling.  The area was small though and many of our group around the altar for Mass and only a few of us in the pew benches.  There are two side chapels in the rear of the church; one for Moses and one for Elijah.

After Mass, we went up on an amazing overlook outside on the right side of the church.  It was very windy and cold.  We could see the valley of Armageddon and many other areas including Mount Carmel where we were yesterday and looking here.  We could also see the village of Nain where Jesus raised a young man from the dead during his funeral procession (Luke 7:11-17).  There were some amazing visual effects of the sun coming through the clouds.  Several people had some amazing pictures.  Sharon and I toured the two side chapels, Elijah before going to the overlook and Moses after.  It was on our way to the Moses chapel or maybe in the chapel when her second miracle picture was given.  We did not discover it until much later though.

February 14, 2020 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Holy Land Pilgrimage – Day 3

Day 3 – Wednesday February 13

Netanya – Our first morning in Israel, we woke up to a beautiful sunny day with a super fantastic view from the 25th floor of the calm and vast Mediterranean Sea.  Still, I was excited to get moving, eat breakfast and get started on seeing some of the sites we came here to see.  We had a busy day in front of us and another hotel waiting for us by evening in Tiberius on the Sea of Galilee.  Wow, the Sea of Galilee!  But first, we had other exciting places to see.

Caesarea Maritima – Herod’s Palace on the Mediterranean.  He had at least 3 palaces and this was his summer place, right on the “Great Sea” with nice cool summer breezes.  Here, we saw a stone tablet (kind of like a sign) with the name of Pontius Pilate carved in it.  This is the only physical record of Pilate’s presence in the Holy Land outside of Scripture and written historical documents.  Right next door to Herod’s palace, to the south, is a Roman amphitheater which is still partially intact.  We were able to sit on the stone seats and look out over the sea as we read from Scripture and sang a song together.

Stella Maris – This church in Haifa in northwest Israel has the altar that is built over the site where Elijah hid after confronting the priests of Baal.  Elijah really showed these guys up (well God did) after stacking the deck against himself to show them which God was for real.  Read 1 Kings 18:1-39.  This is a really beautiful church and we were only there for a few minutes.  Just enough for a quick look around and to see the cave under the altar where Elijah hid.

Mount Carmel – We had our first Mass together in the Holy Land in a small chapel here before taking in the view from the overlook.  Standing on the overlook, we sang and read the story of Elijah calling down fire from heaven on a perfectly clear day (1 Kings 18:16-39).  We could see a great deal of northern Israel from this deck on the top of the monastery at the top of this mountain.  It is part of a ridge running along the sea.  Driving up, you could see this mountain ridge on the right side of the bus and the Mediterranean Sea on the left side of the bus.  From the top of the mountain (1724 ft), we could see Mount Tabor and Nazareth on the side of another mountain across the Jezreel Valley.  The ridge is 24 miles long and 4-5 miles wide and has a steep slope on the eastern side toward the center of the country.  The landscape is lush and green.  Carmel is Hebrew which means, “The Vineyard of the Lord”.

Lunch – After this we had our first lunch with the three standard choices for lunch during our journey of “Falafel”, “Schnitzel” or “Schwarma”.

Akko (Acre) – On our journey through the restored Crusader fortress, we saw all the hard work the Crusader soldiers did to make their presence in the Holy Land a permanent one.  This Crusader fortress protected the Holy Land with a strong front along the Mediterranean.  It was built beginning in 1099 and is mostly still standing today!

Tiberius – At the end of the day, we arrived at the Ron Beach Hotel in Tiberius on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee.  We stayed here throughout our stay in Galilee.  Our rooms all faced the sea to the east and we had a full glass wall overlooking the water from our 2nd story room.  Although we only saw one real sunrise, on the very last day we were there, this was by far my favorite hotel of the three we stayed in during the pilgrimage.  It was warm and comfortable with an exquisite view of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus walked on the water!

February 13, 2020 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Our Holy Land Pilgrimage – Day 2

Day 2 – Tuesday February 12 – Arrival

After over 10 hours on a plane with little or no sleep, we were all really excited to finally be on the ground in Israel.  It was late afternoon and very quickly became dusk.  We met our tour guide, Bruce and then loaded ourselves and our luggage onto our bus for another hour or so of driving from Tel Aviv to our hotel in Netanya which was literally right on the Mediterranean Sea.  Sharon and I had a room on the 25th floor!  What a view even though it was dark when we got there.  We ate dinner together as a group at our hotel before finally landing in our beds after over 24 hours since departing our homes.

I did not like this hotel.  Way too modern for me, all tile floors, leather couches and not a stitch of carpet anywhere!  It was cold in both style and temperature.  I am so glad we only stayed there one night.  Even though it was dark and windy, Sharon and I did go out on the deck to view the Mediterranean Sea as close as possible.  It was late and chilly so we did not stay long, but we were there!

Tomorrow, we really get going.  We have only just begun!

February 12, 2020 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 1 Comment

Our Holy Land Pilgrimage

One year ago today, my wonderful wife and I departed our beloved country for the first time on an amazing pilgrimage to the Holy Land along with 49 other pilgrims mostly from our parish.  We were to spend 12 glorious days in Israel walking in the footsteps of Jesus.  Among the other 49 pilgrims were some very close friends and some people we have known through church for decades.  We also met new friends along the way.  The whole journey was planned and organized by a couple from our parish who are also long time friends.  Over the next 2 weeks, I plan to reflect upon our journey of one year ago in this blog space so that we can share this amazing adventure with as many people as possible.  My spiritual life has not been the same since this trip.  I hear the readings at Mass in a whole new light!  My relationship with Jesus and with His mother Mary, our spiritual mother, are richer than ever.  I invite you to join me on this virtual tour of the places where Jesus was born, died and rose from the dead plus where He walked and taught and performed miracles.  It was and still is and will be an amazing journey!

Day 1 – Monday February 11 – Departure

Most of the 51 pilgrims met at our parish campus at 10:00 in the morning and we started our journey with a special Mass given by our Pastor.  We all received a Crusader Jerusalem Cross blessed during Mass.  After Mass, we loaded our luggage onto the waiting bus, boarded the bus, and prayed a prayer.  Then, we were off to the airport to catch our first flight to Newark, NJ.  At the airport, we were joined by a few more pilgrims from other areas.  We landed safely in Newark in time for some dinner in the airport before boarding our flight to Tel Aviv in Israel around 11:00 PM.

You might think that spending hours waiting in an airport for your plane would be tedious and boring.  Not with this group!  We were so excited about where we were going.  We had been meeting monthly for almost a year in preparation for this journey.  We had time to visit with friends and get to know new friends a little more.  It reminded me of the fellowship we typically enjoy after Mass each Sunday as we are so blessed to find Christ in those we worship Him with.  Our pilgrimage was finally underway!

B - Departure from HNJ

My beautiful bride and I ready to go!

 

February 11, 2020 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 2 Comments