Thursday, June 30, 2011

Holy Land Tour: River Jordan

The next day we traveled from Tiberius to Jerusalem, with several stops along the way. The first stop was at Yardenit, which is one of the sites on the Jordan River traditionally associated with the baptism of Jesus. Dave Peterson and our guide agreed that the actual spot is probably a bit north of Yardenit, and I have read that there is a site in Jordan that also claims to be Jesus' baptismal site. It wouldn't be the last time we learned about sites with competing sites!

Here is the entrance to Yardenit:

Once inside, I was struck by how much the river Jordan reminded me of the San Antonio River, particularly the area that flows through Brackenridge Park. When I was growing up in San Antonio my father drove through the park and over a small dam on the river on Sundays on our way to and from church.

There is a nice outdoor seating area by the river where we had a chance to sit down and let Dave lead us through reminders of our own baptisms.

Then we waded in the water together, holding hands while I led the group in singing "Down To the River To Pray", at their request. (I'd been busted the night before at a restaurant when someone handed me a microphone during a karaoke rendition of "God Bless America" and then became the group's song leader.) Oh, my, that was an amazing experience!

 I give my thanks --and apologies-- to Alison Krause for her interpretation of that song. Here's what it should have sounded like:

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Holy Trip Tour: The Golan Heights

Our day finished with a trek through the Golan Heights area. We visited an area filled with trenches and bunkers used by the Syrian army in the years before the 1967 war. It was at the top of a very steep mountain with a strategic overlook of the Israeli valley below.

There was a memorial to Israeli soldiers who died fighting in this area. A group of young Israeli Defense Force members were also visiting this spot while we were there.

Completing our tour of the Golan Heights, we stopped at the extinct volcano Mt. Bental. From its summit you can see Mt Hermon which is the highest mountian in Israel. We drove through a city that has an award winning winery (look for Yardin and Gamla labeled wines if you want to try it out--and it's good!); and stopped to buy fine chocolates at a family-run business in a kibbutz.

We were now getting used to life from the back of the bus:

And of course Mike found he could use his Blackberry *insert frowny face here*:

After a long day, it was good to get back to the hotel and enjoy the beautiful view of the Sea of Galilee while trying to absorb the different experiences we had.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Holy Land Tour: Mount of Transfiguration

The Mount of Transfiguration is in the Golan Heights, and the area belonged to Syria prior to 1967. The ancient site of Caesaria Phillippi is located there. Herod Phillip built a temple to Pan to curry favor with Augustus Caesar here. In fact the ruins of other pagan temples are on this mountain.

There is a stream that runs through the mountain and you pass by a beautiful grotto before you get to the site of the old pagan temple. It didn't take long for us to grasp the importance of water in this arid region, so it is not surprising that these temples were built near a spring.

Here's the area where the temple dedicated to Pan once stood.

I'll never think about the Transfiguration in the same way after seeing this area. The pagan altars would have been all around Jesus when he asked the disciples "who do you say I am"? (Matthew 16:15).

The anthem from Mendelsohn's oratorio Elijah kept playing in my head for the rest of the day: "Baal, We Cry to Thee", the chorus of those who placed their trust in false idols.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Holy Trip Tour: Capharnaum

Moving on from Tabcha, it was a short ride to Caphernam, the town that was Jesus' home base during his public ministry. And by the way they call it " K-pher-nam" not "Ca-pur-ni-um".

Archaeologists have carefully uncovered homesites that date from the time of Christ. It's easy to get a feel for the layout of the town.

This is a carving believed to date from the time of Jesus and shows the earliest representation of the Star of David and Ark of the Covenant found so far.

As you frequently find in ancient sites, buildings are built over the remains of earlier buildings. These are the ruins of a synagogue built on the remains of the synagogue where Jesus taught.
A modern church is built over the site of the home of Peter's mother-in-law (you remember, Jesus healed the paralyzed man here Mark 2:1-11?). It literally hovers over the excavation and has a glass floor so visitors can see it. This is a photo of the site taken inside the church:

Dave reminded us that while Jesus grew up in safety in Nazareth, he was driven out of that town  when he taught in their synagogue, and sought refuge in Capharnaum. Here he attracted a faithful group of followers and from this place he brought the gospel out to the world.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Holy Land Tour: Tabcha on the Sea of Galilee

Our third day began with a stop in Tabcha,  located on the Sea of Galilee. By the way, the Sea of Galilee is also called the Lake of Tiberius, even in the New Testament,  but I'm going to keep calling it the Sea of Galilee! 

We visited the Church of St. Peter Primus. This is a fascinating site believed to be located where Jesus fed the 5,000 with the loaves and fishes (as recorded in all 4 Gospels); where Jesus walked on the water of the Sea of Galilee to the disciples boat in the storm (Matther 14: 22-23); and where Jesus fed the disciples fish after his resurrection (John 21: 1-15).

This is the Church of St. Peter Primus:

This is the view of the Sea of Galilee on the beach where the church is located. It gave me goosebumps to think of Jesus sitting on the sand here after the resurrection, cooking fish for the disciples.


Inside the church sanctuary is the Mensa Christi--the Table of Christ--from which tradition says Christ performed the miracle of feeding the 5,000.

The church was more simple--and therefore more touching to me--than many of the churches we would subsequently visit. It is set in a scenic and peaceful area that really evokes the spirit of the New Testament stories attributed to it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Holy Land Tour: Nazareth

Nazareth is another one of those places where contemporary political and religious strife is evident. More on that in a minute.

I was surprised to see how mountainous Nazareth is. The hills are very steep and their vegetation and shapes remind me of parts of the Texas Hill Country.

Before going to the site of the old city of Nazareth, we stopped on the top of a mountain nearby.  This is the Mount of the Precipice, where Jesus escaped from those angered at his teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth. (Luke 4:16)
We stopped for a moment of worship and some thoughts from our intrepid and inspiring leader, Dave Peterson. We did this often on the trip and I always found it very helpful to take the time to slow down, think and pray about the meaning of what we were seeing.

Afterwards our driver drove the bus down the very steep road and into the town of Nazareth. Our purpose was to visit the Basilica of the Annunciation, which is built on the area where the Nazareth of Jesus' day once stood. Nazareth has a large Arab Muslim population. As we began climbing up from the street to the church, we saw this sign which hid the church from view:

In context, we found this sign to be somewhat intimidating--as it was surely meant to be. Our guide told us that the Christians in Nazareth were feeling a lot of pressure from the Muslims and many were choosing to leave the area.

I was disappointed that the Church of the Annunciation, although quite lovely, is a modern building which was completed in 1966. It is built over the remains of an earlier Byzantine chapel built by the Emperor Constantine for his mother, Helena. 

This is a view of the dome of the basilica:

There are a few remains of Constantine's church inside, but I didn't get a good photo of them. Around the building there is a broad and wide stone plaza that overlooks the city.

The Mount of the Beatitudes, the Jesus Boat, the Sea of Galilee, St. Peter's Fish, Meggido and Nazareth all in one day! That was a lot to absorb as we drove back to the hotel for the evening.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Holy Land Tour: Meggido

We drove down the Mountain of the Beatitudes to the Sea of Galilee and our adventures there are recounted in my First Report from Israel.

After lunch that day we ventured out to Meggido--mentioned in Revelation 16 as the site of the battle of Armageddon. 

Meggido was an important city that was abandoned about 4 BC. Archaelogists have found 25 levels of civilization in this area and believe that Kind David conquered Meggido around the 16th level. Commanding a broad view of the valley below, the city had strategic military importance for the Jews and later for the Romans.

Meggido is mentioned in the Old Testament in 2 Kings 9:15 documenting King Solomon's building activity at Meggido and King Josiah was killed by the Egyptian Pharoah Neco at Meggido ( 2 Kings 23:29-30).

We climbed carefully up a steep and rocky path to the summit of the ruins of the old City. Here's some of what we saw there:

And here's the strategic view from the summit, overlooking the valley:

The rocky remains of this ancient city require you to exercise your imagination to appreciate the importance that Meggido had for many centuries before the birth of Christ.

One of the interesting things I saw at the top of the summit was this plant with what appears to be thorny-shaped flowers:

This was the first time I saw this plant, but not the last time. It seems to grow in the rocky soil of archaeological ruins. I wonder if this is the plant used to make the Crown of Thorns?

Last stop of the day: Nazareth. More on that tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Holy Land Tour: Mount of the Beatitudes

The second day of the trip began with a visit to the Mount of Beatitudes. There is a church built on the site where it is believed Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. The building has eight sides--one for each beatitude. The interior of the steeple inside the building is has the beatitudes inscribed in Latin.

Here is the outside of the church:

Which sits in a lovely, serene garden:

The interior of the church is filled with light and space:

The sanctuary is surrounded by a covered portico and from the back of the portico, on the top of the hill, you can see the Sea of Galilee:

We would visit many more churches built to commemorate important events in Jesus' life and ministry as we continued our travels across Israel, but for me, the Mount of the Beatitudes seemed most evocative of the person of Jesus Christ. 

As I told our group at the end of the trip, as a long-time choir member I often heard in my mind anthems that reflected what we were seeing. "Blest Are They" by David Haas, an anthem I have sung more times than I can count,  played continuously in my head for several days after being at the Mount of the Beatitudes. Here is a You Tube version, for my Fellow Travelers:

Monday, June 20, 2011

Holy Land Trip: From the Mediterranean to the Galilee

Our first day on the bus ended as we ventured to the northern border of Israel with Lebanon. That stop combined a typical tourist attraction with a reminder of the geo-political realities of modern Israel.

First, the tourist attraction:

This beautiful blue grotto is formed by the rocky mountain and the Mediterranean sea. You find it by riding a cable car and then descending down a slick ramp to view the grotto. More poetically put by one of the signs there, it is "the love affair between mountain and the sea." It reminded me of the blue grotto at the Isle of Capri which my mother and I visited many, many years ago. We had to get into a boat to see that grotto and I was grateful that wasn't required here!

Just outside the exit to the grotto is the border between Israel and Lebanon. We went up to the border wall and could see the station where Israeli troops are on guard. Our guide told us that the soldiers are rotated every 6 weeks in order to guard against both boredom and the temptation to bond too much with the local residents.

Although this area has been relatively quiet, our guide recounted the recent return of two Israeli soldiers by the Lebanese--in body bags, their bodies having been cut up by their captors--to their families. This was a sobering reminder that the seemingly peaceful country we had just traveled through is struggling with conflicts with neighboring states as well as with the Palestinians within its borders. There would be more reminders to come.

The last stop of the day was Tiberius and our hotel, which would be our base of operations (so to speak!) for the next several days. 

This first day was so chock-full of experiences that it was hard to sort them out, and that was a feeling that became commonplace as the trip continued. This first day did set the tone for our tour which was more of a pilgrimage than a trip.

Pairing visits to Jaffa and Caesaria emphasized for me the importance of the conversion of Cornelius and the bringing of the gospel message to the Gentiles in the midst of the powerful Roman empire. What a powerful transformation! The visit to the Lebanon border reminded me that the Christian faith must be lived out in the real world where natural beauty exists alongside intractable human conflicts.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Holy Land Tour: Caesaria

A recurring theme of our tour was the blending of visits to Christian sites with visits to Roman sites with visits to sites of the history of the modern state of Israel. The second stop on our first day's tour was Caesaria, the home of Cornelius the centurion mentioned in Acts 10, and of Herod the Great's palace. Herod named the Roman town after Augustus Caesar and it was the capital city of the Israel of Roman times.

By the way, there are LOTS of Herods. Herod the Great is the one who met with the magi and ordered the slaughter of the infants after the birth of Jesus. He died about 4 BC (remember that most scholars believe Jesus was born in 6 BC).

Although we didn't see remains of Cornelius' home, the ruins of Herod's palace are extensive and very interesting. The entrance is marked by replicas of Roman statues.

The ancient amphitheater is in use today. When we visited it was being set up for big event later in the week. Imagine being at a concert in a 2,000 year old venue!

Herod's Palace (and by the way the Israelis' say "hey-ROD" not "HE-rud") included this massive FRESHWATER pool right on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. As our guide Lee pointed out, "these people may have been ancient, but they weren't primitive"! Definitely not. The engineers in the group were fascinated with the details of the palace's plumbing.

Others in the group--like me--marveled at these original mosaic tiles which once adorned the palace floors.

Herod the Great also had a large hippodrome for chariot racing. He lured the best competitors in the Roman Empire to Caesaria by offering a cash prize for second place as well as first place. This photo shows the ruins of the hippodrome and the "royal box" where Herod sat to view the races.

Herod the Great's grandson, Herod Agrippa, imprisoned Peter and ordered the execution of James. He died during a great public festival, probably while seated in this very place:
On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on the throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted "this is the voice of a god, not of a man". Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down and he was eaten by worms and died. Acts 12:21-23.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Holy Land Tour: Jaffa

First stop on the trip was Jaffa, also known as Joppa, which is now incorporated into the city of Tel Aviv-Yafo.  Believed to be more than 10,000 years old, Jaffa is one of the oldest port cities in the world. Here's a photo taken from Jaffa showing how close it is to Tel-Aviv.

The prophet Jonah left Jaffa on his voyage to Tarshish.  Jonah 1:3. I doubt that the great fish he encountered was as cute as the statue commemorating his journey that we saw there.

Jaffa also is mentioned in the New Testament as the city where Peter raised Tabitha (or Dorcas) from the dead (Acts 9: 36-42) and where Peter had the vision about unclean foods that led him to convert Cornelius, the first Gentile convert to Christianity. (Acts. 10:10-16). Of course there is a St. Peter's Church near the traditional site of the home of Simon the tanner where Peter was staying when he had the dream.

From this area Peter (and we) can look across the Mediterranean to the home of Cornelius, Caesaria, and reflect on the spread of the gospel message to the world.

Next stop: Caesaria.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

QG's First Report from Israel

We are back from our trip to Israel and I'm recovering from jet lag!  The trip was amazing. We're still processing the many special experiences that we had. 

Since today is Flag Day, I thought I would start by posting this photo of the Texas and Israeli flags that were hoisted above the boat shown below. Our group went out on this boat at the town of Ginnosar on the Sea of Galilee. The captain of the boat, a Christian convert, had visited Texas and put up the state's flag for the occasion.

It was also Memorial Day back home and our wonderful Israeli guide, Lee Glassman, offered a prayer for Israeli and American troops that was very touching. 

As the boat traveled across the waters our pastor, Dave Peterson, recalled the many healings Jesus performed in this area and held a healing service for the group. I'll always remember his description of the desperate life: "in the dark, in the boat, without Jesus."

This photo was taken in a museum we visited in this area and shows the Jesus boat that was recently uncovered in the mud of the Sea of Galilee. It dates from between 1 and 200 AD and gives you an idea of the type of boat used by Jesus and the disciples in their own time.

Afterwards, we stopped for lunch at a nearby restaurant. The specialty was St. Peter's fish, a local favorite. The fish is a rough looking character but quite tasty.