Israel Day 4 – Bethlehem: About The God Child and Children of God

Today was another really wonderful day, and very eye opening on several fronts.

The first thing on our itinerary was to depart for Bethlehem. Bethlehem is only about three miles away, but took about 40 minutes to get there. The reason is the large wall that keeps the Palestinian areas separated from the rest of Jerusalem. I’ve heard about the wall. I’ve seen pictures of the wall. I’ve read articles and commentary about the wall. I’ve tried to understand what it really is all about. Today … I saw the wall up close. What I saw made me sad that we can’t find a way to live in peace with our brothers and sisters. You can see a sample of the wall below.

We had to drive far out of our way to a checkpoint to cross into Palestine. Once inside, we quickly arrived at a shop that sells everything from high-end antiquities down to Olive Wood trinkets, and everything in between. The shop owner has an amazing story to tell about the Dead Sea scrolls.

The owner of the shop is the grandson of the man who originally discovered the Dead Sea scrolls. He gave us the full story about the scrolls, their discovery, and filled in some details I’d never heard before. In the past, I’ve read quite a bit about the scrolls. The story I’ve heard is that the scrolls were found by some boys who were throwing rocks into some caves while looking for their goats or sheep. These “boys” threw a rock into the cave and heard a crash, leading to the discovery of the pots that held the scrolls.

Here’s a short version what really happened. This man’s grandfather was a bit of an amateur antiquities dealer. He wanted some men to go explore some caves nearby to see what could be found. These caves were hard to reach because of where they were located on a mountain side. These men worked in the nearby fields and their trade name is something akin to “cowboy”, except for sheep and goats (This is where the story about “boys” looking for goats comes from). It took about two years to convince these two men to explore the caves because they were superstitious and thought that the caves might have spirits living in them. So before they finally mustered up the courage, they got to the cave opening and threw rocks in to see if it was safe or if evil spirits would be there. That’s when they heard the famous “crunch” of pottery breaking, which led to the discovery of the scrolls.

There is a lot more to the story about how the scrolls ended up in the hands of the government, but I’ll skip that because I don’t know if I can accurately remember the details.

Although most of the scrolls were removed from him, his grandfather was allowed to hold onto one pot containing one of the scrolls. It is in the case right behind him. Wow. Really interesting and well worth the trip to the shop!

In the picture below, he is holding a “tear jar”. The women of Roman times would collect their tears into these jars and send them off with their husbands when they went for war. These were considered more precious than perfumes. They were a sign of the love from the woman to her husband. If the husband were to die in battle, the tears would be buried with him.

In the Luke 7:36-50, we hear about a sinful woman who comes to Jesus and bathes His feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, anoints them, and kisses them. It is likely that she was not just crying over His feet. She was giving her most precious possession, her collected tears, by pouring them out of a tear-jar onto His feet. She is expressing her deep love for Jesus.

I was very attracted to some of the antiquities, but decided that I couldn’t afford them. One thing I really considered: they had many Roman era coins there. I was really impressed by the “Widow’s Mite” coins. We read about the small copper coins in Luke 21:1-4, but seeing them made me think even more about how minuscule they were. Imagine a small shirt button on a typical man’s shirt, about 1/2 as thin. Minuscule and small. Not worth much of anything. Imagine that being all you had to live on. You’d have to trust God a lot with your life if that’s all you had. There were some other coins that were also made into jewelry that I tried to get a picture of below.

I took a picture of a really neat olive-wood setting of the Last Supper. Our guide explained that this is a pretty accurate understanding of how a first-century Passover meal would have been laid out:

The meal is a celebration meal, eaten reclining on their left elbows (The Passover is a celebration meal). The table is U shaped so that the Host can see everyone and talk with everyone and food can be served from in front of each guest instead of walking over their reclined bodies. The host (Jesus in this case) sits at the head (left side, center) so that he can see when someone has an empty plate. An empty plate means that you need more food. Leaving a little food means you are done. The youngest sits to his right and would be dispatched to serve the food at the host’s request (John sits to Jesus right on the bottom left). Prime guests sit across from the host (Peter sits across) so that the host can talk most easily with them. Peter can communicate easily with John since he’s right across from him – so he can ask to find out who the traitor is. Judas sits next to Jesus, so he shares the morsel with Jesus.

This scene was a great teaching tool. I would have loved to bring it home, but it is about 4 feet by 2.5 feet in size and pretty costly.

After leaving there, our next stop was an orphanage in Palestine, run by the St. Vincent DePaul sisters. This was a powerful and moving experience. I loved it and it made me sad, too.

The orphanage is located next to a state-of-the-art birth OB/GYN hospital, the Holy Family Hospital, run by the Order of Malta, which serves the poor women in Palestine. This orphanage helps young Palestinian women, nearly all Muslim, who have pregnancies before marriage. Some are by sex before marriage, and many are by non-consensual intercourse – sometimes with family members. To be found pregnant outside of marriage is a source of shame and can be dangerous, especially if it involves family members who want to cover up their sinful behavior. So the orphanage takes in the pregnant mothers and cares for them until their babies are born. After birth, the mother leaves and the orphanage takes care of the children until they are 7, then they are turned over to the government in an arrangement that sounds much like the foster care system in the U.S.

The sisters care for these youngsters and raise them. They can not teach them about the Catholic Faith because the government says that these children must be raised Muslim. But what the kids receive is an outpouring of Christ’s love – in the orphanage that is only about 800 yards away from the place where Jesus was born. We watched the sisters taking care of the kids and they were loving those children the same way a mother would take care of her own child. It was quite touching.

One other neat thing: they celebrate Christmas every day that they bring a new baby home. In this town where Jesus was born, how fitting it is that welcoming an orphan into their home is greeted with great love and celebration.

We played with the kids, took some toys for them, and soaked up the wonderful environment. I got some 1:1 time with an infant who just stared into my eyes with her beautiful dark eyes and gave me a little smile. At that moment, I would have signed anything needed to bring her home if I could. Unfortunately, the Palestine government does not allow for adoptions, so these children will be on their own after their period of foster care ends in their late teens.

Leaving the orphanage, we made the short trip to the Church of the Nativity, the place where Jesus was born. This is a Greek Orthodox Church that undergoing a very heavy restoration that looks like it will take many years. Along the way as we walked, I saw this interesting coffee shop. I think they have a catchy name – perhaps they should consider franchising.

The door to the church is very small. It was originally much taller but was shortened to keep men from riding horses and camels into the church. Then it was lowered again to make sure you bow down as you enter.

You have to wait in a long line to get to the place where Jesus was born. It took us about an hour. I snapped the following picture while waiting in line. You can see a small sampling of the multitude of icons and oil lamps – it’s Greek Orthodox, for sure! Some of the icons were quite beautiful.

So eventually you go down a staircase into a cave below the church. At the bottom, you find two important places: the place of Jesus’ birth, and the place where the manger was located. In the picture below, you can see the star with a large hole in it. Below the slab of marble and through the hole, you can touch the rock where Jesus was born. If you place religious articles against it, they become third-class relics. So I have some items coming home that are now third-class relics.

After you emerge from the cave, you come up on the other side of the main sanctuary space. Here’s a better shot of the main sanctuary. This is set up for the eastern-rite mass – notice the two sets of doors they’d use during liturgy.

There’s another very important thing in the Church’s history that happened here. Just outside the walls of the church, you find a statue of St. Jerome. I’ll give an incredibly over-abbreviated version of why. Jerome had been tasked with translating the Bible into Latin, which was the popular language of the time. He had done the New Testament and the Psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures – enough to facilitate having the Sacred Liturgy done in the vernacular. He wanted to complete the entire Hebrew Scriptures, so he came to Bethlehem to complete his work as a hermit. The completed work is what’s known as The Vulgate.

Leaving Bethlehem, you can see the settlements along the Shepherds’ Fields.

Lunch was awesome again. This time we started with about 10 appetizers, followed by chicken and lamb kabobs. Some people at our table also finished off lunch with some hookah. I took a pass.

This region is known as the Shepherds Fields. We saw some shanty areas where the shepherds live down in the valley too. This is the area where the Shepherds from Luke’s Gospel were watching over their flocks. About 2 miles away from the Church of the Nativity is the Shepherds Field church. We had mass in the cave where the Shepherds received the message from the angels to go to Bethlehem to find the infant and to deliver their message to Mary & Joseph. Next to the cave is a church that is built to look like a shepherd’s tent.

Here’s a panorama shot of the entire valley. Jerusalem is far off to the left in the distance. If you look carefully, you can also see the wall and its barbed wire top down in the valley.

We returned to our hotel and had a light bite to eat. Tonight is New Year’s Eve. It is also a special feast day tomorrow, celebrating Mary as the Mother of God. We went to a spectacular mass at 10:30PM to celebrate the vigil of the feast. The prime celebrant was the Papal Nuncio with many other priests concelebrating. It was really beautiful.

Afterwards there was a champagne celebration in the lobby. I ran into this young group of kids from Austria who are here from a group called Kisi Gods Singing Kids. One of the young men gave me about a 15 minute passionate discussion about the musical they have produced on the Book of Ruth. If our next generation is as excited as he is, our Church is in great hands.

Well, it’s 2:00AM here. Enough blogging, time for sleep.

May God grant you a restful night and a peaceful death. Amen.

Happy New Year!

– Deacon Matt

Israel Day 3: The Mountains of Jerusalem

Ok – I’ve not written much about the food so far. My travel blog posts somehow usually feature some discussion about food. I guess this is because I believe that when I travel, eating is a part of the overall experience. We are sensual creatures – we use all of our senses, including our experience of food. So I’ll just put a little bit about food today.

Here at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, we have breakfast included each morning. One of the neat things I’ve never seen anywhere else is being able to eat raw honey from the comb. They have a rack where they pull out a comb from a hive and just set it in with bowls below it to catch the dripping honey. It is true that this is the land of Milk and Honey. I can’t drink the milk, but the honey is the best I’ve ever had. It is a pretty awesome topping to put on oatmeal.

Today’s part of the tour focused on the mountains around Jerusalem. The first was the Mount of Olives. This was a place frequented by Jesus on His way to and from Jerusalem. It is not a very big area, so when we know that Jesus did something on this mountain, we can be pretty sure it was in the local vicinity – we can’t be too far off on our assumptions of exactly where it happened. As a faithful Jew, Jesus would travel from His home to Jerusalem at least 3 times each year for the various festivals and would enter by coming over the Mount of Olives. From the top of the Mount of Olives, you can see Jerusalem right across the valley and it is a pretty short walk to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.

Our first stop on the Mount of Olives was the Church of the Ascension. This ancient Byzantine church was taken over by the Muslims and is now a small mosque. In the center of the building is a stone in the floor. This stone is said to be the place where Jesus ascended to heaven. Tradition says that He left a footprint behind in the rock. Both Muslims and Christians believe that Jesus will come down in the way He ascended, so this is a very Holy site with future expectations for the second coming of Christ.

Just down the road, still at the top of the Mount of Olives, is the Pater Noster church – the “Our Father” church. Jesus and His disciples spent a lot of time in this area and it is believed that Jesus taught His disciples how to pray the Our Father here before carrying that teaching to the rest of the world. When you walk in, you find the Our Father in hundreds of different languages on the walls. I also found it in Braille.

Our next adventure was to leave the Mount of Olives and walk down into the valley below to the Garden of Gethsemane. We were there last night for a Holy Hour in the night. We took a traditional route that is used on Palm Sunday, although it is more likely that a route just a little farther south to avoid walking through the Jewish burial cemetery along the way.

From the top of the mount, you can see all of Jerusalem laid out. You can see the eastern wall and the double Golden Gate in the middle of the eastern wall. It is a double set of arches without doors. It is believed that when the Messiah comes, there will be an earthquake that will open these gates for Him to enter.

You can also see the Dome of the Rock and black dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque – the two most prominent mosques in the Old City, built on top of the Jewish Temple ruins. The Al-Aqsa mosque means “The Farthest Mosque” referring to a verse in the Quran. It is the third holiest site in Islam.

As we made our journey down the mountain, we passed through a Jewish cemetery. All of these graves are set to face the Temple in Jerusalem, with the feet facing the eastern wall.

Half way down, we stopped at the Dominus Flevit church. The name means “The Lord Wept”. This is where Jesus wept over Jerusalem in Luke 19. Jesus knew that Jerusalem was to be destroyed. This happens in 70AD – 34 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The overlook from here is really great, too. It is about half way down the mountain.

As I was looking around the grounds of the church, I heard “Hey, Deacon Matt!” I looked up and saw one of our parish’s college students waving at me. He attends Xavier University and has a study abroad this semester here in Jerusalem. He and several classmates from Xavier were studying the Mount of Olives today as well. Being a Xavier MBA alum, I like seeing the kids all decked out in their “X-Gear”. Talk about a small world – I’ve seen two Lexington people in 24 hours here, half way around the world.

Poor Mr. Hamster couldn’t resist checking out the cactus in the courtyard.

Leaving the Dominus Flevit, we continued through the Jewish Cemetery. Graves as far as the eye can see. When Joshua led the people across the Jordan into the Promised Land, 12 men picked up stones to carry to remember the crossing. Today, you see stones on the graves to serve as remembrance of the loved ones.

At the bottom, we arrived back in the garden of Gethsemane. In the daylight, you get a better feel for how small the garden of olive trees is. Since we had been inside the church already yesterday, we moved along. We walked about 2 minutes farther south to the place where the rest of the disciples were while Peter, James, and John waited in the garden as Jesus prayed before His passion.

Next stop: lunch. We started with hummus and some other traditional foods with pita. Then onto the main course. There is a traditional dish whose translated name means “Upside Down”. Basically you sauté up cauliflower and eggplant, then put a bunch of seasoned rice on top. After it cooks for a little while to make the vegetables soft, you serve it by tipping the entire pot upside down and then scooping it onto plates. We each had a serving of “Upside Down” along with a generous serving of roasted chicken. It was delicious. Some fried dough with honey was desert.

After lunch, our next stop was the hill country of Judea, specifically the house of Zechariah: the place where Elizabeth lived when Mary went to visit her. Luke Chapter 1 tells the story. Mary visits Elizabeth when both are pregnant. Mary with Jesus, Elizabeth with John the Baptist. To get there, we had to climb a very long staircase – I’d guess 1/4-1/2 mile long to get to the top.

At the top is a church built on the site of one of Zechariah’s homes. We had a beautiful mass inside the church. Next to the church is another chapel with artwork depicting the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth.

This encounter is where the Church receives the prayer called “Canticle of Mary” or “Magnificat”, detailed in Luke 1:46-55. The Magnificat is prayed as part of the Evening hour of prayer in the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my sprit rejoices in God my savior. For hea has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold from now on will all ages call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him. He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their throws but lifted up the lowly. THe hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy, according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

Our next stop was to go back down the mountain and enter the town at the bottom to where John the Baptist was born.

This area of Judea doesn’t seem very religious. For the most part, everyone we saw were young people enjoying the nightlife of the local cafes.

The church of St. John the Baptist has a small grotto in it where it is believed that John the Baptist was born.

In Luke’s Gospel, we hear about how Zechariah was struck mute for 9 months because he did not believe God could bring him a child. After John’s birth, the Lord opens Zechariah’s mouth again and Zechariah gives us “The Canticle of Zechariah” (see Luke 1:67-9). This Canticle is used by the Church for the morning hour of prayer every day in the Liturgy of the Hours. It is one of my favorite pieces of scripture.

Upon returning to the Notre Dame Center, we were treated to a great presentation on the Shroud of Turin by a local scholar. There is a permanent exhibit here on the shroud. I’ve been very interested in the shroud for many years but I learned some new things tonight. It is amazing what modern investigative techniques have brought to our understanding over the last 20 years. If you’re not familiar with the Shroud, it is believed to be the burial cloth covering the body of Jesus after His death.

Modern photography techniques and 3D analysis and rendering have provided amazing understanding of the man who was buried in this cloth. All of the evidence continues to strongly point to Christ, including pollen, flowers, the wounds consistent with the type of death He endured, and so on. I was particularly impressed with the analysis of the wounds from the scourging and crucifixion.

Here’s an example of the kinds of whip they believe were used on Jesus. They had little bar-bells on the end.

After the presentation, we returned to the dining room for a light supper and some fellowship.

The Notre Dame center has a gorgeous chapel on the 1st floor. I stopped in and prayed my evening Liturgy of the Hours before retiring to get my blog done.

Time for bed. Next stop: Bethlehem tomorrow.


– Deacon Matt

Israel Day 2 – The Old City of Jerusalem.

After a very busy day today, we returned to our hotel late this evening. It’s about 10:15 PM here, and the dilemma is this: how do I condense an amazing day into a short blog post, not to mention keep it brief enough that I get some sleep instead of staying up all night writing. Let’s see how this goes…

A few minutes ago, my mom asked me what my favorite part of the day was today. I can’t really answer because the whole day was pretty amazing. I had a very powerful experience at one point, but I can’t say that “favorite” is the way to describe it. Different parts of today hit different parts of me: my intellect, my enjoyment of beauty, and of course, my soul.

After breakfast, we began our day by walking part of the way around the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem and entering by the Lion’s Gate. The walls we see today are not the original walls that people in Christ’s time would have seen. Over the years and different conquering forces, they have been destroyed and rebuilt. Some parts are on the original foundations of the previous walls, and other parts are only a few hundred years old. There are 8 gates through the walls around Jerusalem.

For those of you don’t know, I am an ordained Deacon in the Catholic Church. Acts 6 narrates the story of where deacons originate from, including one of my favorite saints: Saint Stephen. Also in chapter 6, we see the beginning of Saint Stephen’s ministry in which members of the Sanhedrin and others were agitated by Stephen’s preaching of the Good News. In Acts 7 Stephen is stoned to death for the Gospel, while Saul (who becomes Paul) stood by. Stephen is the protomartyr of the Church – the first to lose his life after Christ’s resurrection. We celebrate Stephen’s feast day on December 26.

Today, we stood outside the Lion’s Gate and stood on the ground where Stephen was stoned to death. It is a very nondescript place. There were dumpsters nearby, a broken down car, and people coming and going freely. As I stood there, thinking of Stephen, I was deeply moved. Marcellino asked the group to pray over the 4 deacons who are on this trip in that spot. I felt my eyes well up a bit thinking about what Stephen did with such great joy.

Our next stop was the Church of St. Ann – built on the home of Ann and Joachim, the parents of Mary and grandparents of Jesus. (In case you’re curious how we know their names, you can read the Proto-Evangelium of James.) This particular church had been taken over by Muslims and turned into a place of teaching of the Koran. It was restored to a Catholic Church during the crusades. The acoustics in this place were nothing short of spectacular. We sang a short hymn and it was amazing. The echo after we finished reverberated for several seconds before winding down to sacred silence.

A few minutes later we walked about 50 yards to a very interesting place, very close by. It is called Bethesda. In John 5 we hear the story of the ill, blind, lame, and crippled man who had been ill for 38 years. Jesus “knew that he had been ill for a long time”. In the story, the man can’t seem to get into the pool when the water stirs up to be healed. The passage refers to the five porticoes. A 20th century excavation revealed the five porticoes here by the earlier walls of Jerusalem. And it also found the pool area fed by a spring. What struck me is this: how close it was to Jesus’ grandparents’ house. You can see St. Ann’s church in one of the pictures below, just at the top of the stairs out of the portico area. Jesus would have likely known this area pretty well. Although it is speculative, I’m guessing Jesus had seen this man many times over many years as He played near His grandparents’ home. The passage even says that Jesus knew that he was ill for a long time. It took some time before God interceded on this man’s behalf – 38 years of illness. Jesus asks him a simple question: “Do you want to be well?” What happens next is a healing. On God’s time. Be persistent in prayer. God’s time isn’t our time. God’s ways aren’t our ways.

After leaving Bethesda, we went to the Western Wall of the temple. For Jews, this is the holiest place in the world. This is the place you have probably heard of where people come to pray and put prayer requests into the cracks of the wall. I have been carrying prayer requests for others, as well as my own. I put on a kippah (sometimes called a yarmulke) and went the wall to pray. I recited Psalm 63, one of my favorites “O God, you are my God, for you I long, for you my soul is thirsting. My pines for you like a dry weary land without water…”. I prayed for some special intentions and soaked up the experience. I also watched as many young boys made their bar mitzvah by praying the psalms publicly at the wall.

You can see all of the prayers stuffed into the cracks of the wall next to me (I’m in the brown coat).

After lunch, our next stop was the National Museum where there is a scale model of Jerusalem before it was destroyed in 70AD. It was fascinating to see how the city was laid out. Jerusalem was much smaller than I had imagined. Our tour guide and Marcellino described the various buildings, the temple, Harod’s palace, the procurator’s palace, the three valleys and so on. My pictures and notes can’t do it justice. Just too much to soak up – really a great learning resource and I hope to be able to return some day to spend more time here. We got scurried out of the museum quickly because the sabbath time was coming close. I would have liked to do more reading and notes … but I guess that’s just part of the experience that will have to wait for the future some day.

After this, we went to Mount Zion, the place where the Upper Room is. This is where Jesus holds the last supper, institutes the Eucharist, institutes the ministerial priesthood, and gives the Church authority of binding and loosening sins. We made our way up to this place and went inside for a quick visit. There is a sign outside that strictly forbids praying in this area. The upper room is built in an area that is considered to be the tomb of King David (although many modern scholars don’t find this likely any longer), and at one time Muslims turned this room into a prayer room oriented to Mecca before the Crusaders retook the area and turned it back into a church. So with all three major religions having some claim to the area, apparently the answer is to make it a museum instead of a place of prayer. In fact, we had a short prayer over our priests and a guy came in and scolded us for praying there.

The next stop was the Dormition Abbey, just around the corner. According to one major Tradition, Mary slept (died) here before her soul and then body was assumed into heaven. It was very dark inside so the pictures don’t come out well.

At 4PM we had an appointment to say mass at the church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, which is built on the site of the house of Caiaphas, who judged over Jesus during His passion. This is also where Peter denied Jesus three times. The liturgy celebrated today recalls “Peter in tears” from Luke’s gospel when he weeps after denying Jesus. I was blessed to be able to assist at this mass and read this Gospel in such an amazing place.

In the floor of the church is a big hole, about 2-3 feet round. It is the entrance for a large cistern that was then transformed into a maximum security holding cell during the Roman times. This is where Jesus was likely held for at least 1 night before His crucifixion. To get prisoners into this cell, they would put a rope around them and under their armpits. The prisoner would then be lowered into the hole. No other light. No windows. No ventilation. No way out. Absolute darkness. Psalm 88 comes to mind. Excavations have now made this cistern/cell accessible by stairs so we went down below. You can see the hole in the pictures below looking up from the cell.

We also saw the place where Jesus was scourged. This was a very powerful experience.

After dinner, we then went to the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed before His passion and death. I was surprised by how small the area was. The current garden is about 1/3-1/2 acre. Gethsemane roughly means “olive press”. Some of the olive trees in this area are as old as 2000-3000 years old. My eyes looked upon the same trees Jesus saw. Wow.

We then went into the adjacent church where Jesus prayed while the apostles waited nearby. Inside this church is the place where Jesus prayed so fervently that drops like blood fell to the ground. You can see this exposed area in front of the altar below. We had an hour of silent prayer and Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament in this very special place. As jet lag kicked in for several pilgrims, I kept thinking “Couldn’t you stay awake for one hour to pray with me?” In addition to my own intentions, I also prayed fervently that I might not undergo the test – the test of Stephen or of Christ … but more importantly, whatever tests of my own faith that will certainly come my way.

As you leave, you can see the Golden Gate of the walls of Jerusalem. It brings some good perspective on just how close Jesus was when He could see them coming to take Him for the passion.

One nice surprise also – seminarians from the North American College in Rome were also visiting and they provided the sung prayer for our adoration time. I recognized one of them from our home diocese and was able to say hello.

Well, it is far past my bed time. Tomorrow is another busy day in the mountains of Jerusalem.


Deacon Matt

Israel day 1: “How can the ark of the LORD come to me?”

Today’s post is sort of a continuation of yesterday’s post since I was traveling the whole time. After taking the Swiss Air flight across the Atlantic, our first stop was Zurich, Switzerland. Nice airport, but at 6AM, the international terminal didn’t provide much in the way of entertainment for pilgrims.

Once upon a time, I used to really enjoy unique wrist watches. I still like to look at them, but since I’ve switched to an Apple Watch, I don’t really think I’ll go back to an old-fashioned analog watch any time soon. Nonetheless, it was fun to look over the various Swiss watches in one of the gift shops.

After a bit of a layover, it was time to board our last flight to get us into Tel Aviv. The Swiss Air people decided that my carry-on rollerboard was too heavy for the overhead somewhat arbitrarily. I took a deep breath and decided not to challenge them on it and dutifully stowed my bag, and my mom’s bag, under the plane. All was well in Tel Aviv when they turned up with the rest of the bags on the carousel.

For a country that has so many foreign visitors, I have to give the Tel Aviv airport a C- for handling immigration and customs. Too many people, not enough efficiency in passing them through the passport checks. Compared to Singapore, for example, this airport seemed to be stuck in the 80’s. After getting through, we regrouped all the pilgrims and found our way to the tour bus.

I’m pretty impressed with our tour operator and bus driver so far. More on them in future posts, I’m sure.

A short ride later, we went up to the Norte Dame d’Alliance church. This church is built on the site where Abinadab kept the Ark of the Covenant – where it “rested” after it was returned from the Philistines. The church has some mosaic floors that date back to 500 AD from an original church. The current church is from the mid 20th century. We were treated to a nice view of Jerusalem off in the distance by night from the grounds of this amazing place.

In about 1050 BC, the Israelites tried to engage the Philistines without consulting the LORD first. They carried the Ark of the Covenant before them as though it was a thing to be used, instead of the presence of God’s name. The Philistines routed the Israelites and carried off the Ark (see 1 Samuel 4). There’s a great story that goes along – read a few chapters of 1 Samuel to get the overview. The Philistines eventually decide to send it back after being affected by plagues.

The Ark comes to rest in Abinadab’s home for some number of years – estimated to be 20-80 years.

Then, in the first year of King David’s reign (approximately 1000 BC), King David makes Jerusalem the capital of Israel. He wants to move the Ark to Jerusalem, but after a mishap, David’s profound respect for the Ark causes him to change his plans. He says “How can the ark of the LORD come to me?” and so decides to take it to an interim place. Three months later, amid dancing and celebration, David moves the Ark to Jerusalem (See 2 Samuel 6).

Compare this to how Mary is the new Ark of the Covenant. She visits Elizabeth for three months. John the Baptist leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb. The old Ark contains the Law, the Rod of Aaron, and the Manna. The new Ark, Mary, carries the fulfillment of the Law, the new High Priest, and the Bread of Life all wrapped up into one: Jesus Himself. And of course we hear Elizabeth say the same words as David: “how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.” (See Luke 1:39-45)

We celebrated mass at this amazing sight as we began our pilgrimage. Like the Ark, both old and new, we will be wandering around the Holy Land. Marcellino did a nice job of teaching us about this site, as expected.

After mass, we traveled up into Jerusalem to the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center. This is a hotel and conference facility built in the 1800s and owned by the Vatican. It is right outside the old part of Jerusalem. In fact, my back window overlooks the old city.

My hope is to get some decent sleep tonight. We’re 7 hours ahead of Lexington time, so I’m hopeful that jet lag doesn’t affect me too much this trip.

Off to bed.


Deacon Matt

Pilgrimage to Israel – No bikes this time…

My blog so far has been almost entirely focused on bicycling and bike touring. Not this time. Instead, today, I am joining up with a group of pilgrims heading to Jerusalem and the surrounding area. I’ve wanted to go to Israel for a long time. I have so many mental pictures of the places I’ve studied, but have never been there. I want to learn about the context and places – the stage of Salvation History. I’m hoping to come away with new insights into the Scriptures and culture.

I wanted to find a trip where the emphasis would be on the faith and Sacred Scripture, lnot too much on tourism. So… I did some research and decided to book a trip with Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio. He is a theologian and author. I’ve read some of his work and determined that this would be a good fit.

My mom is joining me and I opened the invitation to our parish. We have a 5 pilgrims from our parish and we are joining 53 others from parishes around the USA.

Our trip this morning started with a very early departure to bounce from Louisville airport to Atlanta to JFK in New York. I’m waiting to board our Swiss Air flight across the Atlantic to Zurich, then finally to Tel Aviv.

So far the trip is pretty uneventful, but my iPhone battery seems to be dying much too quickly now. I’m guessing that the 3 1/2 year old battery is finally giving up the ghost. I was able to purchase an (over-priced) power bank from the local Airport technology store here that I can keep with me to give it a boost. My iPhone is my camera for the trip, so I can’t afford it to be dead!

Mr. Hamster made the trip, too. He came home from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology with my Daughter so that he can make the trip and check off another 2 countries on his list. More about Mr. Hamster later.

So. Time to board the flight. Yawn. Hoping to sleep a bit on the way to pass the time. If not, I have downloaded all of season 1 and 2 of “Stranger Things“. I’ve only seen a couple of episodes and trying to get caught up so I can share the discussion with my college aged kids.

Pray for us on our pilgrimage. If you have special requests you want me to carry, drop me an email and I’ll make sure to pray daily for your intentions and offer up any challenges we have on your behalf.


– Deacon Matt