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.