Israel Pilgrimage: Final Thoughts

Many years ago, I was visiting Gethsemani abbey in Kentucky for a few days of retreat.  One of the monks commented that there are people who come and then don’t want to leave because it is so peaceful.  He made the point that visitors can’t stay – they are there for only a period of time.  Visitors are supposed to take the peace they found at the abbey and carry it out into the world.  We need to take our encounter with God back to the rest of the world.  Ite, missa est. The same is true for our pilgrimage.

Pilgrimages come in different shapes and sizes, and of course, no two people will experience the same pilgrimage even if they are walking together.  We bring different experiences into the pilgrimage, and we leave with a unique encounter with the Living God.  In some way, we’ve been transformed.  Some may have a large transformation, and others may not see transformation because the seeds have not yet sprouted.

In this particular trip, I had several profound moments of encounter – “close moments with Christ” as we would say in Cursillo.  Most of them had to do with physical contact.  I had not expected this before the trip.  I expected to see and hear new things things that would be impactful for me.  And I did – I heard a lot of really amazing things and saw some beautiful things.  However the deepest moments for me had to do with things I would not have been able to experience in a video or book.

I was pleasantly surprised at how touching the water in the Sea of Galilee felt.  I had a sense of commissioning when touching the rock where Jesus fed the Apostles at the end of John’s Gospel.  I was flooded with emotion when I kissed the spot where Jesus laid in the tomb.  I felt a sense of joy and sadness when I stared into the baby’s eyes at the orphanage in Bethlehem and received a tiny smile in return.  I enjoyed relaxing while floating in the Dead Sea.  I felt pain as I knelt down and my knee struck the edge of the rock where Jesus prayed in Gethsemane.  And I had overwhelming peace when I walked amidst the ruins of the monastery at the top of Mt. Tabor where the monks had all been slaughtered.  That’s not something you can get from a book.

I suspect that I will return to Israel again.  As we left, I didn’t feel like it was goodbye forever.  Instead, I felt that I was being sent home to carry my pilgrimage experience home for others.  I am considering getting together another group for another similar trip in the not-too-distant future.  I know that others need to see, hear, and touch the Holy Land.

When I was looking for pilgrims to come along, I had a lot of interested people, but only a handful of people who made the trip.  There were three major concerns: Cost, Timing, and Safety.

Cost: this was not the cheapest trip to Israel.  I found several cheaper itineraries.  However, I wanted to make sure this was truly a pilgrimage with great leadership.  That’s how I chose to work with The Crossroads Initiative for this trip.  Dr. D’Ambrosio and his team did an exceptional job of making a great faith-focused itinerary, with strong scholarship, and top-notch tour guide in Israel.  I don’t think you can do much better than what we received.  So if cost is your concern, perhaps start setting aside a little money each month and prepare for a trip 18-24 months out.  It will be well worth it.

Timing: we chose an itinerary that left between Christmas and New Years.  For some people, that was a difficulty because of their holiday plans.  If I bring another group of pilgrims, we probably will look at an itinerary in late spring.  From a weather perspective, our timing was very good.  The temperatures were cool and comfortable.  You probably do not want to go during the summer – it would be very hot in Israel.

Safety: The news we get in the US about Israel seems to delight in showing conflict.  What we encountered in Jerusalem and Palestine was quite friendly and peaceful.  Every Palestinian person I encountered was friendly.  At no time did I feel the least bit uncomfortable or unsafe.  Having lived in Chicago I can tell you that I felt safer in Jerusalem than I did in Chicago.  Crime statistics for both cities would back me up on that as well.  Sadly, I know of at least one person who was going to join us until their adult children sternly told them not to go because of safety.  From what we saw, I would have absolutely no qualms about sending my loved ones to Israel.

One last tidbit. I often get asked about the little stuffed-animal buddy that shows up in many of my pictures.  His name is “Mr. Hamster”.  Mr. Hamster was created by my youngest daughter many years ago.  She taught herself to crochet and this was her first project.  When I used to travel a lot for work, she would send him with me so that I would have a little bit of her along for the trip.  I would then take pictures of him in interesting places and send them back to her, sort of like Flat Stanley.  It was our way of keeping in touch.  Mr. Hamster has been all around the world with me.  I’ve lost track of his full passport, but I know he has sent home pictures from Canada, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, China, The Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Spain, Italy, The Vatican, Israel, Switzerland, France, and Portugal.  He’s also been on every one of my bicycle adventures all over the US.  Even though my daughter is in college now, I keep up the tradition of taking Mr. Hamster with me and sending her pictures.

As I wrap up my final thoughts, I am grateful for the opportunity to have visited the Holy Land, and I hope you are able to do it as well some day.  My special thanks to Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio for his passion and guidance on our trip.

I’ve put a link to the blog entries for each day below so that you can find them all in one place.  I have found quite a few typos in the blog entries – I guess that’s what happens when you blog half-awake… I’ll try to go clean them up some time.

If you’re interested in talking more to me about my trip, drop me a note.  I’d be happy to share some thoughts with you.

Deacon Matt

Pilgrimage to Israel – No bikes this time…

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

Israel Day 2 – The Old City of Jerusalem.

Israel Day 3: The Mountains of Jerusalem

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

Israel Day 5: Jerusalem Old City – the Via Dolorosa and the Holy Sepulchre

Israel Day 6: Into the Wilderness

Israel Day 7: A Mountain Top Experience Beyond Words

Israel Day 8: Capernaum, Rocks, Fish, and Loaves

Israel Day 9: A Windy Day with Carmelites, Elijah, and Caesarea

Israel: Room At The Inn in Bethlehem … PA

Israel: Room At The Inn in Bethlehem … PA

I wasn’t planning on blogging about our trip home, but this was not an ordinary trip home. It was an adventure all in its own, a pilgrim postscript of sorts.

Our Saturday started off normally enough with a 1:15AM wakeup call at the hotel in Natanya so that we could be ready for a 2:00AM bus ride to the Tel Aviv airport.  Due to the strict security protocols at the airport, they require that you arrive about 3 hours before departure.  Normally, I arrive about 60-90 minutes before a flight with plenty of time to spare.  Not in Tel Aviv.  I think the 3 hour recommendation is about right.

We checked in at the Swiss Air desk and the first wrinkle in the plan came out: the check-in agent decided that my carry-on and my mom’s carry-on were too big to carry on.  So we were forced to check them through to JFK airport.  I generally just roll with things when traveling – if I can’t control it, just accept it, adapt, and move on.  Not a big deal, but there are two things worth noting here: I’ve traveled around the world with this roller board at least 40 international flights before.  I have been told only three times that it needed checked – two of them on this trip by Swiss Air people.  This small decision had big implications later in our trip.

We boarded our flight and took off for Zurich, then for New York.  The flights were pretty uneventful.  I was able to catch a few hours of sleep and then I binge watched the entire season 2 of Stranger Things on my iPad.  (If you happen to be a ST fan, perhaps someone can clue me in on why MadMax and her brother have any value to the storyline…)

The real adventure began when we touched down in New York City at JFK airport.  It isn’t clear what chaos had already arrived before us.  Was it the snow storm from the day before, was it the collision of two planes earlier in the day, or did someone at JFK just forget to show up to do their job?  Whatever combination of events and/or acts of God that had taken place, one thing was abundantly clear: JFK was one seriously messed up operation yesterday when we arrived.

After landing, our captain informed us that although we had arrived on time, there was not a gate available for our plane to pull into.  We would have to wait somewhere between 60 and 90 minutes to have a gate open.  Here’s what a planeload full of tired people looks like shortly after hearing that bad news.


For the most part, my entire group of pilgrims were OK with the 60-90 minute delay.  We all had pretty long layovers in NYC before catching our flights home.  My Delta flight was at 5:10PM.  That gave me just under four hours before the boarding time.  No problem.

The next update added another 60-90 minutes of delay.  Then another delay.  And another.  Soon enough, I was becoming a little concerned about my flight, and two of my other Lexington people had missed their flights.

A little over 4 hours after our landing, we were finally allowed to deplane.  I had a very short amount of time to make my next flight to get me home.  It would be tight but we could make it if the bags were waiting on the carousel.  My normal international travel routine is to always carry my luggage onboard so it is with me, make a rapid move to immigration, get through, and get to my next flight.  However this time, my bag was under the plane.  If I’d had my bags with me, we might have had a chance.

When we got to the baggage claim, no bags came out for quite some time.  By the time our bags showed up, everyone in my group had missed their flights.  We all maintained very good humor about it.  It is what it is.  I used the Delta app to find another set of flights that would get us home later the same day.  I couldn’t get booked on the app, and the call-in line had a 2+ hour delay.  So we needed to head to the Delta desk to get rebooked.


After finally getting our bags we quickly wandered over to the Delta counter.  There was a very long line that didn’t move much at all.  Only two Delta agents at the counter.  I thought I had taken a panorama shot with my camera, but I don’t have it – so you’ll have to trust me.  The line was really really long.

It is what it is.  10 minutes passed.  30 minutes passed.  Not much movement in the line at all.  Assessing the situation, it was clear that all of the people ahead of me were in the same boat: we all had missed our flights and needed reassigned.  I wasn’t going to get home today, and probably not even tomorrow.  One other thing was certain: I didn’t want to sleep in JFK airport and neither did anyone in my group.

Side note: After hearing that JFK Terminal 4 had a pipe burst today right where we were waiting yesterday, I’m beginning to think JFK airport might be under the ban and subject to herem next. See: NY Post Article


We needed to get home on Sunday and my plan needed quick action before others had the same idea.  I proposed my plan to the group and it was unanimously accepted.  It was time to phone a friend, or spouse to give them an assignment.  Amy’s husband did a great job of locating us two minivans at JFK and reserving them.  I plotted a route home using Apple Maps and then called my wife.  She did a great job of locating 3 hotel rooms about 90 minutes west of JFK … just outside of Bethlehem PA.  It could have just been sleep deprivation, but at that time, it was chuckle-worthy that we would be sleeping in Bethlehem after just leaving Israel.


We arrived around 10PM at the Springhill Suites and I was asleep within 5 minutes of entering the room.  I slept wonderfully.  We got up to finish our trip home.  Sadly I somehow left a very important thing behind in the hotel room.  I had a small vial of water from the Jordan river that I took out of my backpack.  It didn’t make it back to Lexington with me.  I must have left it at the hotel.

After a quick breakfast at the hotel, we were underway.  It was really a pretty fun road trip.  All of us had smiles on our faces and a joyful time.  We talked and a few naps were had.  I didn’t hear any complaining.  Amy found a Coke Zero and I treated everyone to their favorite road trip snack.  Overall, aside from taking an extra day to get home, it was really a nice way to end the pilgrimage.



We arrived home around 6PM and I was greeted by my family and happily received by our two schnauzers.


Stephanie had a great dinner ready for us.  After dinner and a warm shower, it is time to head to bed.  Tomorrow’s another day – I’ll see if Delta’s customer service is ready to handle my complaint yet and help me get credit for my unused flights.

There’s plenty to be thankful about: a great pilgrimage, safe arrival home, and good friends.  But unlike Jesus, there was a place for us to sleep in Bethlehem.  Life is good.


– Deacon Matt

Israel Day 9: A Windy Day with Carmelites, Elijah, and Caesarea

We packed up last night so we could make a quick departure from our hotel this morning. Our first stop was a set of ruins just above the valley known as Armageddon. The tel at Megiddo contains 25 different strata, indicating how many different civilizations have been at this site. This location is located on a very important ancient trade route across the Mediterranean, known as the Via Maris. As different world powers came and went, this area was prime territory for conflict.

We watched a short film about the site and then were going to climb to the top of the tel to see it. Unfortunately, the rains and winds picked up strongly and we had to turn back. So the closest we came to seeing the ruins was to look at the film and the model of the ancient city in the visitors center.

One particularly interesting part of this city. The Canaanites built walls around the city to protect it from seiges. However, their water supply was outside of the walls, which would make it impossible to get water during a siege. So their solution was to make a fairly sophisticated tunnel from inside the city down to the nearby spring. This would allow the city to get water without having to exit the safety of the walls. We were supposed to tour this tunnel, but because of the rain we had to turn back.

From near the top of the tel, you could see the valley below. Armageddon is the place where the final battle between good and bad will take place.

This is a model of what the city would have looked like:

Our next stop was the top of Mount Carmel. Along the way we drove through Haifa. This is a beautiful city at the base of the mountain. It is Israel’s third largest city.

Mount Carmel is famous for being where the Carmelite order started from in the 13th century. But it is also famous for being the place where Elijah challenges the Canaanite prophets of Baal. In 1 Kings 18, Elijah proposes a challenge: both he and the prophets of Baal would set up a sacrifice and see who can set it aflame. For good measure, Elijah pours water over the altar sacrifice to the God of the Israelites to emphasize that it is not likely to burn. After the prophets of Baal fail to induce their god (Baal), Elijah calls on God who consumes the sacrifice with fire. Then Elijah kills all of the prophets of Baal.

We had mass in a small side-chapel of the monastery.

There is a cave on Mount Carmel where Elijah resides for a while. Today, there is a church built over that cave located within the Carmelite monastery. This monastery was built and destroyed several times. The current church is quite beautiful and the altar is located directly over the cave of Elijah. I went into the cave and touched the walls and floor. I love seeing these places I’ve read about and imagining what it was like back in the time of Elijah.

The dome of the church is really beautiful, too.

Here’s Elijah’s cave:

From outside of the monastery, the view out to the sea is wonderful. Today is pretty overcast and very windy, but it was still a nice view.

Our last stop of this trip was the ancient town of Caesarea. This is where the Apostle Paul was held in house arrest before being sent to Rome for his execution.

This city was a man-made port city and was the Roman capital of Judea during Jesus’ time. It was an important trade port. Herod the Great began construction of this town around 25 B.C. and named it Caesarea in honor of Caesar Augustus. It was destroyed by the Romans and rebuilt by the Crusaders, before being totally destroyed by the Ottomans.

A few years ago, a wealthy man funded the excavation of the ancient city to remove the many feet of sand that had buried it. In addition to the palace of Herod, there is also a hippodrome and a large 4000 person amphitheater.

This amphitheater is the place where Paul professes that Jesus is the messiah and pleads his case since he is under arrest. The amphitheater has been brought back to life and is used for concerts today.

The seas were very rough and windy, and it rained very hard today. In fact the winds were so strong that you had to lean into them to move. Our tour guide said that this is very unusual weather. It did make for some beautiful waves!

Just outside Caesarea is an aqueduct that was built to carry fresh water from several miles away into Caesarea.  It is actually two separate aqueducts – one from Roman times and one added later right along side.

We arrived at our hotel in the late afternoon and checked in for a very short night. We have to be at the airport around 2:30AM to check in for our flight home. We are staying in Netanya at The Seasons hotel. We’re up on the 12th floor and the winds are really powerful up here. I stood out on the balcony and took in the views before sunset. This is the last daylight view of Israel that I will have.

I hope to return some time – hopefully soon. I was pretty excited about this trip, but it has far exceeded my expectations. I came as a pilgrimage. I was also hoping to learn some new things to help my scripture understanding and see some neat things. But God had more great things in store for me as I encountered Him in several places. My heart was touched and I come away with a deeper faith.

In a few days, I’ll write a final installment about this pilgrimage.

Until then,

May the Peace of our God draw you to know Him, love Him, and serve Him.

– Deacon Matt

Israel Day 8: Capernaum, Rocks, Fish, and Loaves

Today was focused on the area around the Sea of Galilee. I am once again surprised by how close everything is. When looking at the map, we know that the majority of Jesus’ ministry was performed in the west and north-west area around the Sea of Galilee. On a map, that seems like a big area. In person, it is very close. I usually ride further than this on my bike on a nice Saturday ride. Suddenly, the world feels much smaller. I have a renewed sense of awe at our God and His providence. How can such a small, seemingly insignificant part of the world, with 12 fishermen, change the entire world? This is not a new thought for me, but I have a new perspective on that thought and a renewed delight in God’s love for humankind. Wow.

Between the time we left this morning and the time we returned, we had circumnavigated the entire Sea of Galilee by bus. I’ve laid my eyes on the same sea where the first Apostles were called. I walked the shores where Jesus called out to them after the resurrection. I touched the rock where He gave them breakfast. I stood and listened to the Word in the place where He fed the multitudes. It was a great day.

We stayed at the Gai Beach resort over night here on the shores of the sea. Last night we were treated to a beautiful moon rise. This morning, we were treated to a glorious sunrise.

Our first stop this morning was to the town of Magdala. This was an amazing part of the itinerary. Just a few years ago, a priest had an idea to build a retreat-like place for the various pilgrims that come through. Shortly after breaking ground, they discovered the remains of the ancient town of Magdala only 2-3 feet beneath the surface. Since that time, they have performed quite a bit of archaeological excavation and unearthed some great things.

One of the major finds is the synagogue in Magdala. Magdala is very close to Capernaum, Jesus’ center of ministry. The scriptures tell us that He went about the towns along the shores of the Sea of Galilee and into their synagogues. We were standing right at this synagogue today. These are the ruins of it in the next two pictures.

One particular find in the synagogue is called the Magdala Stone. It is a stone that was carved to look like the Temple, with significant attention to details. The stone in this picture is a reproduction – the original is with the Israel Antiquities agency until the Magdala Center’s museum is completed.

Also pictured here is the tour guide for the Magdala Center. She was nothing short of amazing. She did a fabulous job of teaching about the site and drawing us into a spiritual encounter with Christ. Wonderful.

Here is a picture of the ruins of the Synagogue.

There are quite a few more ruins that have been unearthed around the synagogue as well. This area is a marketplace. They found fish holding tanks where people could buy fresh live fish.

At the shoreline edge of this property is a church. The building says “Duc In Altum” which means “Into the Deep”. This is a reference to the apostles who were fishermen but called to be “Fishers of Men” by Jesus.

This church is quite beautiful inside. The narthex has four small chapels off of it, each with a gorgeous mosaic. The main sanctuary overlooks the Sea of Galilee. The main altar area is designed to look like a fisherman’s boat. If someone had described building an altar area that looked like a boat, I’d have told them they were crazy… but it worked. I think it also worked because the rest of the sanctuary was so reverently designed that you couldn’t really misconstrue it as a showy piece.

Along the walls of the sanctuary are 11 icons and one painting for the 12 apostles. If you are not familiar with icons, they are not painted, they are “written”. The writer (the artist) fasts and prays while creating the icon. It is a work of prayer and is a visual prayer meant to convey something sacred. So the 12th apostle is Judas. Although he has a painting, and maybe to the untrained eye it looks like an icon, it is not an icon. It doesn’t have any halo, the lettering is not done in gold, and so on. There’s also an interesting story with Judas’ painting. When they unloaded it from the truck to bring it into the church, a dog came up and attacked it. It did some damage to the foot of Judas. They decided it was meant to be that way.

I had my picture taken next to Matthew.

Here’s the picture of Judas. It is hard to see, but you can notice some of the differences in how the person is portrayed if you compare the icon of Matthew with the painting of Judas.

Our next stop was the Church of the Heptapegon in Tabgha, where the first multiplication of the fishes and loaves takes place. This is a fairly new church, built on the ruins of an ancient church. Like we’ve seen in other churches like this, the new church uses some of the walls and foundation of the prior church.

Outside of the church is an olive press from the time of Christ. Olives would be put into the basin, then the big stone on top would be put onto an axle and rolled around the track that is full of olives, crushing them. The mashed olives would be put into baskets where the first part, the extra virgin oil, would seep out and be collected. Then weights would be put on top of the baskets to compress and squeeze out the remaining oil in stages and grades of oil.

Next stop was only a very short distance up the hill to the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus taught the famous “Sermon on the Mount”. We had mass up on top of this hill outside under a covered area. During mass, it poured rain. We were gifted with a rainbow as well.

This is a very dry and desert area, so the rain was unusual and quite a blessing for the area. The Sea of Galilee is quite low, so the water is welcomed. Sadly, this also meant that our boat ride out into the Sea of Galilee had to be canceled due to winds and waves.

Lunch was down along the shore at “St. Peter’s Restaurant”. Several of us got a whole fish, bones and head and all. It was pretty good. I’m not sure my mom really appreciated the authentic dining experience – I think she would have probably preferred a fillet. But she was a very good sport about it.

Before and after:

Then came the deepest experience of my day in a somewhat unexpected place. We went down the shore a bit to the “Church of the Primacy”. This is the place where Jesus appears to the apostles after the resurrection. In John 21, Jesus cooks fish over a charcoal fire. The apostles are out on the water and don’t realize it is Jesus on the shore for a while. When they finally figure out who it is, Peter comes into shore and Jesus undoes the three-fold denial of Peter by asking him three times if he loves Him. If you are not familiar with that scripture, I highly recommend reading it. It is one of my favorite pieces of scripture.

This church is built over the rock where Jesus fed the apostles. We went inside and read John 21. Then we had a few minutes. I reached over to touch the rock and was unexpectedly moved to tears. I bent down and kissed the rock before departing. That was quite a gift.

Here is the shoreline right outside of the church. It was a beautiful day and the overcast skies seemed to be the perfect conditions for such a solemn encounter with the Living God.

We then moved on to Capernaum, Jesus central area of ministry. This city was destroyed by earthquakes at least twice. The picture below is the synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus taught.  In Mark’s Gospel, this is where Jesus begins His ministry by casting out a demon (Mark 1).

The black basalt rock is native to the area and is the original walls of the sanctuary. The upper stones are not native and would have been from a later Byzantine church built upon the ruins of the ancient synagogue. There have been significant excavations that have revealed the town from the time of Christ.

There is a rather strange looking church here now. It is suspended above the ruins as though it is floating. What we found out is that it is located directly above a very early church that you can see through the floor of the new church. In the second picture, you can see an octagonal wall with a circular building in the middle. These two are ancient churches with the focus being the center section.

Jesus cursed three towns late in His ministry: Bethsaida, Chorazin and Capernaum. See Luke 10:13-20. He cursed them because they did not believe in Him even after they had seen so many signs and heard Him preach in their synagogue. Capernaum was one of these towns. When they built this new church, they did not want it to be upon cursed ground, so it is above the ground.

The tall tree in the middle of this picture is right next to the room where Jesus and His apostles would have stayed when they were in Capernaum.

Our last stop for the day was by the Jordan river. We stood on the side of the river and renewed our baptismal promises, like we would at the Easter Vigil. I got a small vial of water to bring home with me to bless my children with before they return to college in s a few days.

Tomorrow is our last day in Israel. It has been an amazing trip and it is hard to believe it is almost over. Tomorrow night we head to the airport for a flight in the early hours of the following morning.

May God bless you and keep you.

Deacon Matt

Israel Day 7: A Mountain Top Experience Beyond Words

Today we said goodbye to Jerusalem … I hope to return some day with my wife, children, and other pilgrims. I have found this to be a very powerful experience to help build upon my faith. I have learned a lot that fills my head, and I have had many moments that stirred my heart.

We left Jerusalem early this morning. We had a very early wakeup call so we could board the bus for our ride north. Nothing in Israel is very far away, so even our “long” day on the bus wasn’t too bad. Just a couple of hours that passed very fast. Our tour guide and Marcellino did a great job of filling the time with information and commentary about the places we were passing.

Along our way, we entered the Palestinian territory. Our tour guide is named Bader. He is a Palestinian Christian who now lives in Jerusalem with his wife. He is absolutely wonderful. He is incredibly knowledgeable about the faith, scripture, history, the entire area we’ve traveled in, and the sites we have visited. Having him along has been a blessing.

Bader shared with us a lot of background and history on the conflict between Israel and Palestine, how it has impacted the people, and so on. It is very eye opening. As with any issue, it is much more complex than you’ll ever hear on the news.

As we entered Palestine, we had to stop and the Israeli border security team boarded our bus and had a quick look around. A few of us were asked to produce our passports. I was one of the chosen few.

Just a little ways into Palestine, we stopped at a little roadside market for a bathroom break. There was this tank was sitting there. It is a remnant from one of the wars, but I’m not sure which one.

Our first pilgrimage stop for today was up on Mount Tabor. In Luke 9:28-36, we hear about the Transfiguration of Jesus. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain. There, they are joined bye Elijah and Moses. If you don’t know the story, you should read it. It is a great story! That happened on Mt. Tabor. We were there!

Mt. Tabor is about 1900 feet high, and stands all alone jutting up above the Jezreel Valley. It is quite beautiful. The top of the mount is not huge, so wherever the encounter with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah happened, I was pretty close to it.

Our tour bus took us part of the way up, then we had to transfer to smaller passenger vans to go up the switchbacks to the top. Dramamine was a good idea today.

Once you get to the top, there is an Orthodox church and a Catholic church: the Church of the Transfiguration. Right in front of the church are the ruins of an old Byzantine monastery from the 4-6th century. This monetary was destroyed and all of its monks were killed. As I approached the church and walked through these ruins, I was struck by both the beauty and the solemnity of this place. Although there were clearly horrific days, I felt a sense of peace walking through.

We had mass in the lower chapel of this magnificent church. This was the highlight of my day today. Although this is a fairly new church, it is classic in design and really beautiful. It may be the most beautiful church I’ve seen so far in Israel.

I also had the great privilege of assisting at mass at this very Holy place.

Here is a panoramic view from the top of Mount Tabor. Just gorgeous!

I tried to get a picture from the other side as well, but couldn’t find a good vantage point. This shot is from about half-way down the mountain from inside the van.

The van ride down was actually kind of fun, as long as you really trust the driver not to run off the road. I saw a couple of cyclists making their way up to the top, too. I was thinking this would be a really great mountain to climb by bike! Oh well, no bicycling on this trip.

After safely returning to the bottom, we made our way to Nazareth. Again, I was expecting some quiet town before I came to Israel. It is not a little country town any more. We ate lunch and then walked our way up to the Basilica of the Annunciation.

Along the walk, I ran across this very cute little girl playing among the pigeons. We need to be like Children to truly understand the love that God has for us. This little one was toddling around having a great time, just being with the birds. I sure wish we were all so easily entertained. It also made me miss my children. My two daughters are college aged now, but I could imagine both of them when I watched this little one.

We had another simple pita sandwich for lunch. Filling and tasty.

The annunciation is the term used to describe when Mary was told by the Angel Gabriel that she would conceive Jesus. You can read that story in Luke 1:26-56. This Basilica was built over the place where the Annunciation occurred at Mary’s house in Nazareth.

The Basilica of the Annunciation is huge. Back in Jesus’ day, Nazareth was a very small little town. This Basilica is large enough to enclose the ruins of the entire town from that time. The architecture is modern. I liked some aspects of it, and I was not quite as sure about others.

The part I liked the most was that the lower chapel altar sanctuary is built inside Mary’s house. I found that to be quite moving.

One other interesting feature: the dome of this church is a Lilly, upside down, facing down into the sanctuary space. The architect wanted you to realize that the roots would be up in heaven. All things originate with God.

Several countries contributed murals of Mary to the side walls of the church. Here is the one from Mexico and the one from Japan. The Japanese one is a mosaic and the shawl is made of pearls. It was the most expensive one in the church. I was very disappointed with the image created by the United States. Frankly, it was ugly and looked like something from The Transformers. In fact, it was so ugly, I forgot to take a picture of the United States one.

You can see more runis of Nazareth under the protection of a roof here:

Our last stop for today was at Cana. This church is built on top of ruins that are believed to be the location of the Wedding Feast in John 2 where Jesus turns water into wine. Although it can not be absolutely proven that this is that location, it is likely the right place and it has been Tradition since about 400 AD.

We had a very nice blessing of married couples from our group. It was beautiful. Tony and Debbie from our parish were one of those couples. They were really cute together and I really enjoyed being part of their blessing.

Below this church, you can see the ruins of ancient Cana and one of the jars that was used for ceremonial washings. This is the kind of jar that was used by Jesus in His miracle, and could possibly be one of them. Most people probably think of a big pottery jar. This is more like a basin or tank.

Today was a great day. I’m looking forward to our day tomorrow. Time for bed.

– Deacon Matt

Israel Day 6: Into the Wilderness

Tonight’s blog will be pretty short. If I get more time later I may come and fill in more details, but I have to be up early tomorrow morning to leave our hotel in Jerusalem and travel to Galilee. I’ve enjoyed Jerusalem and will be a little sad to be leaving so soon.

We started out by traveling out to Bethany in Palestine, to the tomb of Lazarus. This is where Jesus resurrects Lazarus. We had mass in a chapel a few feet from the burial cave. We had a small group of pilgrims from Zimbabwe join us for mass and they were so beautiful and friendly. It was one of the highlights of our day. In fact, they met up with us at lunch as well so it was a joy to see them again. We’ve exchanged email addresses to swap some pictures with each other.

After mass, we took turns climbing down deep into a cave to get to Lazarus’ burial site. Pretty interesting and a little tough for some of the pilgrims to climb up and down the steep and slick stairs. Some of us joked that the reason Jesus called out to Lazarus is because He didn’t want to climb down in person.

Next stop was the ancient town of Jericho. Among all of the desert nearby, you can see why Jericho was overrun by 25 different factions over the years. It is an oasis of green lush vegetation surrounded by desert wilderness.

Below is a sycamore tree like the one that Zacchaeus climbed to see Jesus.

We arrived in Jericho and stopped by the Elisha fountain which he gave to them. We went up on the “tel” – which is the name given to an archaeological dig. Several things impressed me about this site.

It was really interesting to see how small the biblical Jericho was. I’ve seen bigger yards back home in Lexington Kentucky than the footprint of the archeology space. I’d guess we were talking about 4-5 acres at most. I had in my mind that it was a decent sized city. It does have walls around it that have been revealed in the excavations.

It is, however, the oldest known city at this time. It is the first place where an organized set of roads and a protective wall have been found. There is also a tower that has been unearthed in the rubble that was built 10,000 years ago. The tower was used for their protection – they’d climb into the top and close the top. You can see the tower here in the middle right of the picture. The top has a grate put over it.

It may not look like much of a tower, but it was built 10,000 years ago without any tools but stone. Also, you have to look at it from ground level below. The current ground level I’m standing on is from 25 different rebuilding efforts of Jericho from when it has been conquered in the past.

Another interesting thing you can see in Jericho: the Mountain of Temptation. This is where Jesus is taken and tempted by Satan with power over all the earth. It is amazing how desolate this mountain area is.

We ate lunch at a little place in Jericho. Outside, most of us took a turn riding a camel around the parking lot. Yup, that’s me on a camel.

Our next stop was the Qumran community. I’d love to write a very long blog about this … but I need to get some sleep. Perhaps more later. This is the area where the Essenes lived. These were a sect of Jews who lived a very monastic-like life. Part of their life was to copy the ancient scriptures onto new scrolls. Near the end of their time in Qumran, with the Romans pressing in, they took many of their scrolls and put them into jars in the nearby caves in which many of them lived. They likely expected to return and have the scrolls available to them. They never returned, and the scrolls were found in 1947. Below is a picture of “cave 4” where the first important discovery of scrolls was found.

In the next picture, you can see the hillside with its many caves all over it. It was a very beautiful wilderness place.

Next, we took a short drive down to the Dead Sea. Again, I’d love to write more about it, but time is short tonight. The salt content in the water right now is about 30%. You can literally sit on the water and float. It was pretty fun. Lots of garbage along the shores, though.

The Dead Sea is decreasing at an alarming rate. It has dropped many hundreds of feet since the time of Christ. It looks like at least 100 feet of its drop has happened in the last 40 years. The sea is fed by the Jordan River. But the Jordan is now tapped for water by all of the communities in the area for irrigation and drinking water. So the Jordan is now only a small trickle by the time it gets to the Dead Sea.

This is a picture of my mom and I outside the tomb of Lazarus. I like this one because in this picture, she looks just like her brother, Bill, whom she loves dearly. Bill died a few years ago. May God grant him eternal rest. Very fitting place to recall his life as we all anticipate “the Resurrection of the Dead and the Life of the World to Come! Amen.”

More tomorrow!


Deacon Matt

Israel Day 5: Jerusalem Old City – the Via Dolorosa and the Holy Sepulchre

Today was a little later start, which was nice. We also had a change in the weather. So far, the weather has been dry and 50-60 degree weather. Today was in the 40s with rain all day. It was perfect. Perfect? Yes, perfect.

We started by entering the Old City via the Damascus Gate. I was really surprised by what I saw. I had a mental image of some sort of historical city with an ancient feel. Perhaps a tiny bit like Williamsburg in the USA is for Colonial History. What we saw was nothing like that at all. There are 1500 shops in this relatively small space. Storefront after storefront of mostly tourist junk, and most of it exactly the same as the store three doors away. A little while later, we left this particular shopping area and were in the Islamic quarter of the Old City. You can see graffiti on the walls left by Muslim pilgrims who made their way to Jerusalem.

Our objective was not shopping this morning. We were on our way to the first stop of the Via Dolorosa – the Way of the Cross. The Via Dolorosa is a path between the Antonia fortress and Golgotha that recalls the path Jesus Christ took carrying the cross on the way to His crucifixion and death. This custom of retracing Jesus’ steps to Golgotha began in the early centuries of Christianity and is still practiced today as a way to meditate on the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. There are 14 “stations” or stops along the way. At each station, a specific part of the Gospel narrative of His passion is read and reflected on before resuming and going to the next station. Stations 10 though 14 are located within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is a church built over top of the area encompassing Golgatha and the tomb of Jesus. The Via Dolorosa is an act of prayer. The cold rainy day set the stage perfectly and somberly for remembering the passion of Jesus, who died after walking through the streets of Jerusalem.

The first station is at the Church of the Flagellation, which recalls the scouring of Jesus. We stopped here and read the first station and picked up the cross. We took turns throughout the whole Via Dolorosa carrying the cross. Every pilgrim in our group had at least one turn carrying the cross.

After walking a little, we took a stop along the way to visit the Convent of the Sisters of Notre-Dame de Sion near the east end of the Via Dolorosa. This convent building has access to some very important archeological areas under the streets of modern-day Jerusalem.

Jerusalem has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. Each time, the new city is built upon the rubble of the prior city. In some cases, buildings will share a part of the previous foundation (I’ll have an example below). In other cases, the rubble is filled in and buildings start from the top of the rubble. As it stands today, the streets of this part of Jerusalem are about 20 feet above the level the streets were at during the time of Christ. From inside the convent, you can access stairs that take you down to the previous street level as well as some ancient cisterns that were part of the water system for ancient Jerusalem.

I learned something new about how the Romans treated prisoners at this site that was fascinating to me. Down in this ruins, you can see the inscriptions in the floor for a dice-game that was played by Roman prison guards. (There is a description in the picture below, and a picture of a lit box around the area on the floor where they found an example of the inscription). What would happen is that the guards would play a dice game that would make a condemned death-row prisoner “King for a Day”. At the end of that day, he would be killed. Recall that they threw dice for Jesus’ garments and He was mocked as King.

Our destination was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is built over the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and tomb. This church is co-operated by 6 different Christian sects/denominations: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Coptic orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, and Ethiopian Tewahedo. They often don’t agree on things, which seems to have left the church in a less-than-ideal condition. One might expect that the holiest places on earth, the very site of our redemption, would be a grand basilica, beautiful, and stately. Nope, it is certainly a very large church, but not as stately as most of the churches in Rome.

In the early years of Christianity, Jesus’ cave tomb was a popular place for Christians to pilgrim to. In order to stop this, Roman Emperor Hadrian built a pagan temple upon the ruins to bury the tomb of Jesus. During the reign of Constantine, the Emperor ordered that the temple be removed and that the cave’s rock-face be removed to expose the tomb without destroying it.

The original church was built by St. Helen (mother of Constantine) in 335. It was burned down in 614 during a Persian invasion of Jerusalem. It was rebuilt around 630, but was destroyed in 1009 by a Muslim caliph. The church was rebuilt in 1048.

If you look in the picture below, you will notice a cypress ladder up on the second floor by the windows. It is known as the “Immovable Ladder”. Its story is both funny and sad. It is first mentioned in the mid 1800s and it has remained in that location since. It’s origins come from the inability of the six Christian orders in the site to work together. It is “immovable” because there is an agreement among these orders that nothing in the church may be moved, rearranged, or altered without the consent of the other five orders. This ladder is symbolic: it’s just a ladder. But it shows that we have a long way to go on bridging the divide among our brothers and sisters in faith. Under an order of Pope Paul VI in 1964, this ladder is to remain in place until the Catholic and Orthodox Church reach a state of ecumenism.

Walking in the door, the first thing you see is a slab of marble. This is said to be the place where Christ’s body was taken off of the cross and laid during burial preparation.

Next, we stood in line to enter the tomb place of Jesus. Recall earlier that this was originally a cave but Constantine had it excavated to expose the area. After the excavation, a small rotunda built of marble was built around it, called the Anastasis, which means “Resurrection” in Greek. The rock where Jesus lay was also covered by marble to protect it from anyone wishing to do it harm, especially the invading Ottomans.

After about a 25 minute wait, we took our turn to enter the tomb. During our wait, we prayed with each other and prepared to be in the holiest place on earth. It was somewhat surreal as we entered into the tomb – “are we really here?” I was expecting a little emotion, but as I knelt down and kissed the marble slab covering this place, I instantly began choking up and crying. It was very powerful.

In the gospels, we hear that the tomb was “close at hand”. It was pretty amazing to see just how close it really is. Just a few steps away from the tomb, you climb a staircase that takes you to the top of Golgatha. The rock of the hill was covered by a marble floor so when you walk up, you aren’t really aware that you’re on top of a hill. There are a few places where you can see the rock itself.

We stood in line for about another 30 minutes to get to the place where Jesus’ cross was put into the ground. Once you get there, you go under the altar and put your hand into a hole in the floor and touch the rock where the cross was. That was pretty amazing. Beneath this altar, you can also go into a room below that is at “the foot of the cross”. There is a glass window in the wall where can see a crack in the rock that is said to be caused by the earthquake that happened after Jesus’ death. Many people, including me, brought prayer petitions and left them there. I’ve been carrying prayers for many people in my pocket since I left Lexington. I left my petitions and those entrusted to me at the foot of the cross. Felt good to do that: the burdens of my life were lifted and I helped carry some others’ burdens for them.

Next stop was to go down some stairs to the bottom of the rock quarry known as Golgotha. As we descended the steps, you can see crosses carved in the wall. These are “12th C graffiti” from pilgrims who made the journey to these sacred places.

After a quick lunch, we ventured onward to an Orthodox convent that has a remnant of the original wall of Jerusalem. Note that Jesus was crucified outside of the walls of Jerusalem. At His time, Golgatha would have been outside this wall, even though it is within the current walls today. This particular section of the wall is known as the Judgment Gate. This is the gate that Jesus would have walked through on his way out of the city to Golgatha.

One special feature on this wall to note: you can see what is called the “Eye of the Needle”. This was an opening in the wall that was too big for a pack animal to pass, but a person could fit through. When Jesus says that a camel can not fit through the eye of a needle, here’s likely what he was referring to.

The eye of the needle is a few feet left of the bottom of the archway in this picture above. I stood next to it for scale in the picture below.

A short while later, we were back at our hotel. A quick dinner was followed by some very enjoyable conversation with the pilgrims from my parish over a bottle of wine. We talked about the pilgrimage in general and more specifically about today’s part of the pilgrimage.

I’ve been writing this blog for a few reasons. First is for my family. Second is for myself so that I don’t forget. Third is for others who could not afford to come on the pilgrimage themselves so that they might experience at least some of the pilgrimage.

In closing tonight, I want to reflect on one important thing: the resurrection. We can look at the tomb of Christ as the end. We can say that this is where He died. There’s nothing incorrect about that except that it is NOT the end. It is the beginning. We must never forget that Jesus’ tomb could not contain death. That is the place of our resurrection! Death holds no sting for us. Death holds nothing at all over us. It is through the resurrection of Christ that we have eternal hope for our own resurrection.


– Deacon Matt