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שָׂ֭מַחְתִּי בְּאֹמְרִ֣ים לִ֑י בֵּ֖ית יְהוָ֣ה נֵלֵֽךְ׃
I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!” (Psa 122:1) Jerusalem does attract many pilgrims and I was no different. I yearned to walk the land in which Jesus walked, to touch the waters on which He walked, to be there where He was born, lived, died, resurrected and ascended. I consider myself blessed as the Lord has considered me worthy enough to be a student of Bible and blessed me with a chance to visit the Holy Land, the Land of the Lord.
I was full of emotions as I prepared myself to visit the Holy Land. I had many prayer requests from all corners of my world. Many did pray for me too. So as we started to Mumbai Airport to board the flight, my eyes were filled with tears of joy. Though it was night, I didn’t sleep a bit as I was excited about many thoughts – the first flight of my life, the first time in a foreign land, and that too to the Land of the Lord.
8th November, 2012.
After completing all the formalities at the Mumbai Airport, I could hardly wait to get into the flight. Mumbai to Kuwait and then Kuwait to Amman, it was a dream came true. I enjoyed every bit of it. And we spent the night in Amman.
9th November, 2012.
After checking out from the Hotel, we moved straight to our first stop – Mosaic City of Madaba. The famous sixth century Madaba Map which features the Holy Land is located in St. George’s Church. The map must have been made for the pilgrims who were about to travel in the Holy Land. It was apt that we started our pilgrimage with a view of this map. After the visit in Madaba, we travelled to a mosaic workshop where we saw some of the most interesting pieces of mosaic works.
Mount Nebo was our next station. It was really interesting to see the Promised Land from Mount Nebo as Moses had done (Deut. 34:1). Moses is believed to have died here and buried in an unmarked grave here. I was reminded of the faithfulness and total trusting in the Lord one need to have to enter the Promised Land. We continued our journey towards Israel through the Syrian African rift and after due security check-ups, we entered Israel.
The first place we visited in the land of Israel was Cana where Jesus had performed the first sign according to the Gospel of John. We had the Eucharistic celebration there, an apt place to celebrate the abundance of the life Jesus offers to His followers. After the Holy Eucharist, we did a hasty shopping as many of us bought vine from there.
Then we travelled towards the town of Mary, Nazareth. The church of Annunciation, the workshop of Joseph and Mary’s well reminded me of the simplicity of the parents of Jesus. Jesus, the Lord of the world, was born to very ordinary parents!
After a long journey we spent our night in Tiberius.
10th November, 2012.
In the morning we travelled to the Mount of Beatitudes. Mount of Beatitude has witnessed some of the important moments of Jesus’ public life. A beautiful mountain which heard the blessings of Jesus evoked in me an inner urge to experience those blessings. This mountain also witnessed the commissioning of the disciples by the Risen Lord. I felt a call to witness the beatitudes in my society, especially when I remembered Gandhiji who had a deeper love for the Sermon on the Mount.
We then moved to different places in Galilee. Galilee is a real beauty in the midst of the surrounding wilderness and deserts. No wonder the land has been always a place of dispute.
Since the church of multiplication of loaves at Tabgha was closed, we moved to the church of the primacy of Peter. The small chapel is located on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It commemorates Jesus feeding his disciples after the resurrection (John 21:1–24). The chapel contains an outcropping of a rock called Mensa Christi (Table of Christ). It reminded me of the motherly love Jesus.
Through the banks of the Sea of Galilee, we travelled to the town of Jesus, Capernaum. It literally meant the village of Nahum. The place contained the synagogue where Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah. It also contains the house of the Peter’s mother in law. The town served as the head-quarters of Jesus. As I was walking in Capernaum a thought struck my mind- How could a simple man who worked among the fisher folk of Capernaum and the Galilee became the saviour, leader and model for many?
Before having a delicious lunch with Peter’s fish, we spent some time in boating in the Sea of Galilee. It is also called as the “Sea of Kinnereth,” the “Sea of Tiberias,” “Lake Gennesaret,” and “the lake.” Light rain brought us back to the boat of disciples on the corner of which Jesus was sleeping. The lake should have been really blessed with the person of Jesus. He walked over these waters!
We halted for lunch with Peter’s fish near the ancient village of Magdala. Mary Magdalene might have lived here. After lunch we travelled to the baptismal place of Jesus. The Jordan River of my imagination was one like Ganges. But what I saw was really disappointing. It was hardly ten meter in width. But a later though struck my mind. In a place where water is scarce, even a small canal must be a blessing. If I could become at least a small spring in the dry areas of someone’s life!
Before reaching Mount Tabor we had to wait for more than an hour at the bottom. I saw a group of pilgrims from Africa singing loudly to the Lord. There were many other nationals too. It was a heart touching experience as I sat there talking to a few of them and realizing that everyone in this earth is a co-pilgrim. From Mount Tabor we could see the way of the Sea (via Maris). The mount also contained chapels of Moses and Elijah, reminding us of the transfiguration of the Lord. Here Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem.
11th November, 2012.
Early in the morning we also set our face towards Jerusalem. On the way to Mount of Olives, we halted for a brief time in Jericho and saw the Mount of Temptation from a distance. We moved on. After a long journey we entered a tunnel. And at the end of the tunnel, there was Jerusalem at the blink of an eye! “I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!” Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem (Ps. 122:1-2).” Now I was really glad and happiness filled my heart when I saw Jerusalem in front of me.
On our way to the Mount of Olives, we visited the place of Ascension. There was what is believed to be the footprints of Jesus. I experienced the deep roots that run through the religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Jerusalem is really a central figure of all these religions. Before entering Jerusalem, we went to the Mount of Olives, from where Messiah will come according to the belief of all the three religions. And I thought it was apt that we went to the Mountain of Olives before we entered Jerusalem. We saw the graves of many people who are buried in hope of entering Jerusalem with Messiah at the resurrection. But a thought flashed my mind, if only rich people who could afford to buy a land in the mountain could enter Jerusalem with Messiah, then what about the poor? The answer was there in front of me in the form of Kidron Valley, the burial place of the poor. If Messiah would come from Mount of Olivet and all the dead people would rise with him to enter Jerusalem through the Golden Gate, then it would be those who are buried in the valley who would enter first, because valley is closer to the city than the mountain.
In the Olive Mountain, we also visited the church of Dominus Flevit. The altar of the church is set towards the city of Jerusalem to remind us that Jesus wept looking at Jerusalem. The shape of the chapel reminds us of the eye drop of Jesus. I felt a great joy when I saw Jerusalem. Why might Jesus have cried looking at Jerusalem? Possibly, the city never lived up to its call. It was never a dwelling place of God of peace. The garden of Gethsemane and the olive trees there reminded me of the agony of Jesus. The olive trees there might be very old as they never die. They might have witnessed the passion of Jesus. This garden and the rock inside the church reminded me about the belief that Messiah will enter Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives and indeed he did.
From the Mount we went to visit the place where Jesus had his Last Supper, the Upper Room. It was at this most obscure place that Jesus inaugurated the most powerful form of adoration, the Eucharist. If I could witness Jesus in the insignificant places! After seeing the tomb of David, we moved onto see the Dormition Church where Mary is believed to have slept before being taken into heaven in body and soul. The church also contains the chapel of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Just the remembrance of the moving presence of the Holy Spirit there was inspiring.
Our next halt was at Bethlehem. We visited the Shepherds Field and saw the manger. There was also a beautiful rainbow in front of us. It reminded me of the covenant of God with Noah. To see such a beautiful sight at the Shepherds’ Field brought to mind my duties towards nature. From Shepherd’s Field, we went to Milk Grotto. For the first time, I saw a picture which celebrates the motherhood of Mary. The breastfeeding Mary is the symbol of all the mothers who are called to bring up their children as the children of God.
The last stop of our day was the Church of Nativity. We stood in a long queue to see the place where Jesus is believed to have born. There we saw the famous Black Madonna and several other icons. The church was splendid. We spent the night in Bethlehem.
Today was going to be very special. We were going to visit the places inside the Jerusalem City. In the morning we visited the Lion’s Gate (also known as St. Stephen’s Gate). We then visited the Pool of Bethsaida and the Church of St. Anne. The Pool of Bethsaida was not a common pool as in India. It had many cisterns which contained water. There were at times hot water springs which were understood to be the angel’s stirring up of water. This spring had healing capacities. St. Anne’s Church stood beside the pool. It was built by the Crusaders around A.D. 1140. In 1192 Salah-edh-Dhin turned the church into a Madrassa – as per the Arabic inscription above the entrance to the building. According to tradition the church is built over the house of the parents of Mary. I remembered my mother and all the mothers here.
We had the celebration of the Holy Eucharist in the chapel of Condemnation. I was fortunate to assist here for the Eucharist as a deacon. We then went Via Dolorosa, the way Jesus took to Calvary carrying the heavy cross. We prayed along on the way. The way contains some old sites like Antonia Fortress, a Roman Arch in the Ecce Homo Church, and traditionally ascribed places of the Way of the Cross. The way ended in the Church of Holy Sepulcher which encompasses the Calvary and the tomb of Jesus. This is the most sacred space in the Christendom. The church here has undergone many changes over the years, including being turned to a pagan temple by Emperor Hardin in the second century. The present church is largely rebuilt by the crusaders.
Just being there in the Holy Sepulcher Church was an experience of life time. It reminded me of the sacrifice of Jesus and his victory over death. Although the Calvary was outside the city, by the power of Jesus’ crucifixion, it has now become the most sacred and central space of Christendom. If only Jesus could become the center of my life!
From the church of Holy Sepulcher we went to visit the Western Wall- formerly called the Wailing Wall, the only remaining of the Jewish Temple. The wall was built by Herod. It is believed that the Jerusalem Temple once stood above it where the Moslem shrine “Dome of the Rock” is located today.
We visited the birthplace of John the Baptist- Ain Karem in the evening. The church is believed to be built on top of the house of Zechariah.
13th November, 2012.
We visited Bethany in the morning. Bethany is a small town which contains the house of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. They were friends of Jesus. We saw the Olive press in their house and visited the tomb of Lazarus. The tomb reminded me that Jesus is the master of life and death.
On our way to Dead Sea, we had our lunch in Jericho. We saw a Sycamore tree in Jericho. Such a tree could help Zacchaeus to meet Jesus. Anything could be a means for God to touch us. We moved on and reached Dead Sea. We all enjoyed the floating in the Dead Sea. But I felt very uneasy as the salty water entered my eyes. Afterwards we travelled to Taba border to cross over to Egypt. On our way we saw Qumran caves from the bus. I was very disappointed for not being able to visit those caves. But we had to hurry. We crossed over to Egypt and spent the night in Sinai Peninsula. At night some of us went on a scroll in the Hotel Campus and found discotheque dance going on. We joined them for a few minutes.
14th November, 2012
Today we were to see the Sinai Mountain from where Moses received 10 commandments. After a long journey into the Sinai Peninsula, we reached down the Sinai Mountain. We saw the mountain top from down. To see the Monastery of St. Catherine was a delight for me as a biblical student. But happier was I when I saw the Burning Bush. I felt the real presence of YHWH. “When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Ex 3:4-5).” We saw the library of St. Catherine’s Monastery, but could not enter it. Below the mountain we saw the mould of the Golden Calf.
We continued on our way to Cairo. We had almost taken the route of Exodus and I felt like Israelites when they complained against Moses. It was a totally deserted place except for a few houses and a few green trees here and there. We travelled along the shores of Red Sea and saw the gulfs of Aqaba and Suez before crossing over to the African continent through a tunnel under the Suez Canal. By evening we had reached Cairo and spent our night there.
15th November 2012
Today was going to be the last day of our study pilgrimage in effect. We visited the Egyptian Museum and wondered at the old civilization of Egyptians. As a biblical student I was surprised to see a stone tablet with inscriptions about the expulsion of the Hebrew people from Egypt. The expulsion was ascribed to the son of Ramses II who was believed to be the Pharaoh of the Exodus. We also saw many mummies and the guide was very generous in explaining the process of mummification. They had believed in after life and that’s why they preserved their bodies. The mummy of Ramses II had an open arm suggesting that he died in water. We, then, visited the Holy Family Church and saw the crypt where the Holy Family is believed to have stayed while they flee to Egypt.
Later we went to see the Great Pyramid and marveled at the knowledge and ability of the ancient Egyptians. We also visited a perfume factory and a papyrus factory. It was interesting to see the papyrus sheets and the way they are made. Later in the evening we went for a cruise in Nile River. I remembered the baby Moses who was floating in the Nile.
16th November, 2012
We got up late. Today we were to travel back to India. The day was very quiet as we travelled back. But on the way there was an young girl who joined us. She had an in-depth knowledge of Quran and I had a fruitful sharing of religious experiences. I thought of my journeys in Rajasthan. Journeys there used to be long and I would often get a companion who would ask about my religious beliefs and commitment. And these journeys used to be an occasion for me to proclaim my faith in Jesus.
17th November 2012
We reached Mumbai Airport at around 5’O clock in the morning. We travelled back to Pune and reached here at around 10.00 am. We thanked the Lord for being with us all these days.
It was really an enriching experience both as a biblical student and a Christian pilgrim. The morning reflections by Fr. Selva Rathinam SJ, the various visits to the holy places, and the companionship of friends and others, the dedicated team of AIACHE will always remain at the back of my mind and heart as I reflect on my Holy Land visit. Most of all, the Bible will come alive in my life. I now understand that the God is truly present in the history of humankind. I cherish those moments in which I felt the presence of God in and around me. Thanks be to God we can experience the presence of God anywhere and everywhere. I look forward to visiting this land again.
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy! (Ps 137:5-6)
אִֽם־אֶשְׁכָּחֵ֥ךְ יְֽרוּשָׁלִָ֗ם תִּשְׁכַּ֥ח יְמִינִֽי׃
תִּדְבַּ֥ק־לְשׁוֹנִ֙י׀ לְחִכִּי֘ אִם־לֹ֪א אֶ֫זְכְּרֵ֥כִי אִם־לֹ֣א אַ֭עֲלֶה אֶת־יְרוּשָׁלִַ֑ם עַ֜֗ל רֹ֣אשׁ שִׂמְחָתִֽי׃