We started today with grand intentions. After breakfast and a shower, we hopped into the car to drive north to the Sea of Galilee and Nazareth. Our plan was to then head back south to Bethlehem.
We opted to do Bethlehem last because about the only thing there is the birthplace of Christ. I don’t want to sound flippant about that very fact. But, Christ’s birthplace, like many other sites that are so important in Christendom are covered with a church built by the Catholics. It is a way to venerate Christ.
Call me a purist, but I would prefer to see something that is relatively untouched, unscathed, resembling Christ’s time. I’ve traveled all throughout Europe and I’ve seen so many churches that I’m churched-out. I still visit them in each nation I tour because I find it fascinating to see how each culture, denomination and people seek to revere Christ via art, iconography and architecture. I’m just tired of having these precious places covered with churches and their respective shops selling books, place mats and Mentos.
But that’s just me. Back to the story…
We never made it to Bethlehem because it was Friday and everything on Friday starts closing down for the Sabbath which begins at sundown. Around 2:30 p.m. many businesses begin closing their doors. Tourist-related places tend to remain open a bit longer–perhaps until 4:30 p.m. This did not give us a great deal of time, something which we regretted later. Especially when considering that we started our day around 11:00 a.m.
The drive north to Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee was about two and a half hours. One of the primary reasons for this is because we had to drive around the West Bank which is where so much of the religious tension occurs. The expressway north is magnificently maintained and wide–in some places five lanes in each direction. Traffic was not terribly thick, especially compared to American cities. This made the trip much easier.
Driving along the freeway, I felt as though I was living in Southern California again. High tech business parks dotted the landscape. Subdivisions and apartment towers were scattered all around. In the hills one could see older settlements. Palm trees were everywhere and boulevards were wide.
When we reached Nazareth, we were pretty much at a loss for what to do. We knew it was where Christ first emerged as a speaker and religious leader. The primary focal points in the city seemed to be, once again, covered with churches. The Church of the Annunciation was especially meaningful because it is believed to be the location of the home of Mary, the mother of Christ. The lower level contains the Grotto of the Annunciation, which is considered the remains of the home of the Mary. Carvings and writings found hundreds of years ago lend support to this.
I was unable to enter because I was, again, wearing a tank top. With temperatures reaching 100+ degrees, I don’t do sleeves well. Tanks are considered disrespectful and I had left the shoulder-covering shawl I had purchased for the Garden of Gethsemane back at our hotel. I won’t make that mistake when we’re in Istanbul and the Balkans.
Barry went on inside while I snooped around the shopkeepers stalls, stopping to buy some fresh-squeezed mango juice. While waiting outside the church for Barry to emerge, I struck up a conversation with a gentleman from Philadelphia. I had been wanting to visit Nazareth Village, a live re-creation of Nazareth from the time of Christ, replete with grinding poverty, Roman occupation and hard-living circumstances.
In speaking with this gentleman, he rhapsodized about Capernaum and the Mount of the Beatitudes nearby named for the famous Sermon on the Mount Christ gave, according to the Gospels in the New Testament. At the base of the Mount was the spot where Christ fed 5,000 men with a few loaves and fishes–both sites covered with churches. Both sites overlooked the Sea of Galilee which, he said, was stunning. I immediately determined that I wanted to visit Capernaum.
I told the gentleman about Nazareth Village and how it received rave reviews from visitors, especially scholars and anthropologists because of its realistic depiction of Nazareth in Biblical times. He immediately determined to go there with his wife.
When Barry emerged from the church, I told him about my conversation. We left right then and there for Capernaum.
The man from Philadelphia was correct in his description. Approaching the Sea from the south, one looks out over a vast blue expanse of water. The Sea is especially striking against the brown wasteland of the surrounding hills. Since we were high above the Sea, we had to drive down the hill to reach the road that would take us to Capernaum. The route took us through a well-heeled community with many high-rise hotels and apartment buildings. It was obvious that this was a popular tourist spot.
Driving along the sea we saw resorts lining the shore. Hundreds of windsurfers braved the choppy waters. The wind was quite strong and it whipped the surfers in every direction. In the distance we saw what looked like a church on a hill. Was that the Mount of the Beatitudes?
We drove up the hill along hairpin curves before reaching the site. Parking was $10. The side of the hill sported a church and beautiful gardens. Marble markers, one featuring each of the Beatitudes were placed along a walking path. Behind me lay the Sea of Galilee, shimmering in its beauty. Although the exact site of the Sermon on the Mount is not known specifically, this place has been commemorated for more than 1600 years.
Once again, I could not enter the church, but I didn’t care. Instead, I walked away from the 20th Century trappings to an area that looked pristine. From my perch I pictured Jesus standing on the hillside, heart full of love for His followers who were thirsting for truth. I pictured thousands listening raptly to words they had never heard before. Words of eternal truth and beauty that emanated from a man who emanated truth and beauty. I looked at the hills on the other side of the Sea and marveled that I was looking at something Christ would have actually viewed.
In any religion, faith propels a believer. It is faith that comes into play when there are no physical pieces of evidence. Faith also comes into play in science when someone has the former to pursue more knowledge of the latter. For a believer, though, the faith comes from a wellspring inside that satisfies the soul and answers eternal, age-old questions.
Yet, despite faith, as a frail human, I find myself mesmerized by something physical. After reading the Bible, books and stories, ad infinitum my whole life, the opportunity to stand someplace and know that I was in an area where Christ taught doesn’t strengthen my faith. It validates it. It colors my faith with hues of unmatched beauty and resonance. Perhaps it sounds crazy, but the air in my lungs seemed sweeter and more fulfilling and the blood in my veins felt like it flowed more resiliently. My heart floated in my chest.
Even with 100+ degree heat and a hot, whipping wind, the effect was otherworldly. Knowing how long it took us to arrive from Jerusalem in an air-conditioned automobile with The Eagles playing on my iPhone served as a fascinating contrast to the image of an itinerant, dirt poor preacher who walked in sandals. I was struck by the patience, the resolve Christ had to walk for miles up hills, over rocky soil. Crippling heat never stopped Him. He was relentless.
After the Mount, we drove down the hill to the site where Christ is believed to have fed 5000 men with a few loaves and some tiny fish. We arrived right at 4:30 as the gates closed. No matter. We parked along the lane and followed a path through a guava grove to reach the shores of the Sea of Galilee. No administrative organization would deprive me of experiencing this.
Barry and I wandered off to our own separate little spots for contemplation. Two young girls in bikinis were sunbathing. Ignoring them, I sat on a rock near the rough water. There was no sandy beach, just large boulders along the shore and I pictured the Bible stories I heard as a kid that depicted Christ stepping into a boat with His disciples.
I realized that, just because a church said Christ fed 5000 at one place doesn’t mean He didn’t sail by my spot. According to Scripture, he set out in a boat to get away from the crowds for some rest. Seeing them following along the shore caused His heart to have pity so He disembarked to speak to them.
Sitting on the shore, I looked out upon the Sea. I was fairly certain Christ didn’t observe flourescent-colored windsurfers on polystyrene boards as I did. I was equally certain he didn’t gaze upon high-rise resort hotels, either. But I was able to erase them from my mind and listen and see.
Something as strangely unimportant as small waves crashing on the boulders, splashing me with cool water allowed my mind to wander to a time when an unremarkable carpenter emerged to bring a message of love to people who were persecuted by governments and even religion itself. It was a Someone who always pointed to God without any self-aggrandizement and who gave people hope beyond their lives and their plight. An alternative to the attitudes of the day, the institutionalized expectations for reaching God and the politically correct behaviors was offered to the people and it opened eyes, providing spiritual respite from those factions who wanted to control hearts and minds.
This is why I was fine without a building. I was fine without man-made kiosks and signs. Did Christ look at this spot where I was sitting? Possibly. Possibly not. But He had been in the area and I knew it. And that physicality once again resonated and validated.
I guess I equate it to finding my biological family, especially during some of my expat time spent in Ukraine when I found distant relatives. Maybe I’m a truth-seeker. Maybe I’m never satisfied. That can be a good thing. That can be a bad thing. Or it can just be. But, coupled with searching for my genealogical roots, the journey for my spiritual roots complements and helps to complete who and what I am. I walked away sated.
When we left the Sea of Galilee, we opted to take a different route home. Rather than speed down the freeway, we told GPS to give us the shortest route. The shortest route took us on a two lane road through the West Bank. It didn’t seem like a shorter route, but it was fascinating.
We even drove across the Jordan River. At least the sign said “river”. To me, it was a ditch. I’m from the Pacific Northwest and we have real rivers. As a child I swam in creeks bigger than this wimpy thing we passed. However, it was out in the middle of nowhere, obviously not the main waterway itself. Barry and I joked about baptizing each other.
Along the route we occasionally came across Israeli armored vehicles. They passed us without any recognition. Knowing we were in the West Bank was interesting and had us on edge just a tad. The most gripping aspect was at one intersection where there was posted a border crossing. If we went to our right, through the crossing, we would have been in the Palestinian sector. Ominous signs actually stated that Jews were not allowed or they would be killed.
Barry and I aren’t Jewish. Neither are we stupid. We continued to the left towards Jerusalem.
The route might have been shorter from a standpoint of distance, but it was longer from a standpoint of time. We got back to our hotel exhausted, yet invigorated and prepared to leave for Istanbul the next day.
I, however, will be coming back to Israel at some point.