River Jordan - the Baptism of Jesus
It's about 1200m almost straight downhill from Jerusalem to the bottom of the Jordan Valley. The land gets rapidly drier as you pass into the rain shadow of the Judaean Mountains, and it's effectively desert before you get to "The Inn of the Good Samaritan", which is roughly halfway down the road. So when we're told that "all of Jerusalem" went out to John the Baptist at the Jordan (Mark 1:5), that involved crossing this desert. It wasn't a casual journey. But at least they didn't have to contend with the minefields that now block off most of the river - only one road leads through them to the Baptism site.
|Looking across the Jordan to the pilgrims on the eastern side|
Another difference from Bible times is that increasing water use by Israel, Palestine, and the Kingdom of Jordan has made the lower reaches of the Jordan River little more than a large drainage ditch. The resulting murky waters don't really communicate the idea of cleansing which is part of baptismal symbolism, and I for one did not feel inclined to take a dip. But many pilgrims do decide to re-enact or renew their baptism - and some are actually baptised here - so there are always at least a few white-robed people going into the water, either on the Palestinian or on the Jordanian side, if not both. One or two Israeli soldiers keep a discreet eye on what is, after all, an international border.
Although the cleansing significance of baptism is somewhat obscured, the significance of the location remains. As I have noted before, the fact that Jesus was baptised at the lowest point on Earth is quite symbolic. The proximity of Jericho also reminds us that it was around here that the Israelites crossed over the river into the Promised Land, after journeying in the desert.
Kafr Kanna - Jesus changes water into wine
|A stone water jar|
There are two churches - one Catholic and one Orthodox - commemorating the miracle that Jesus worked at the wedding feast. I think neither church tries to claim that it's on the actual site of that party; the nearest they get to a direct link is that they both display first-century stone jars, as described in John's account of the event. Given that there were six of these jars and each jar held "twenty or thirty gallons"(John 2:6), it's possible to work out that Jesus 'produced' somewhere between 730 and 1,100 bottles of wine. So either it was a very big party or Jesus was being abundantly generous (I favour the latter interpretation).
The entrance to the Orthodox church is on the main road. The Catholic church is down a back street and is easier to miss; but you know you're getting near it when you see shops selling 'Cana wine'. Married couples on pilgrimage often renew their wedding vows in this church.
Capernaum and the Mount of the Beatitudes - the Proclamation of the Kingdom
When Jesus began His preaching ministry, He moved from Nazareth to make His base in Capernaum, on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee. It is specifically mentioned as the location for some events in the Gospels, including the healing of Simon Peter's mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-31). When you enter Capernaum now, the location of Peter's house is immediately apparent by the church poised above it like a UFO that has just landed. This slightly strange architecture is designed to leave the ancient ruins both intact and visible.
Not that there is a shortage of ancient ruins - large areas of the town have been excavated. It seems to have been only about 200m across, so it was probably not much of an exaggeration when we are told that "the whole city gathered around the door" of Peter's house (Mark 1:33).
Capernaum synagogue - the darker stones at the bottom
are the foundations of the synagogue that Jesus preached in
Standing out amongst the ruins is an impressive limestone synagogue. It was built in the fourth or fifth century; but at its base you can see the basalt foundations of the first-century synagogue - presumably the one in which Jesus preached. It was here, for example, that He identified Himself as the Bread of Life (John 6:24-59).
On one of my visits to Capernaum a storm from the east came across the Sea of Galilee, reminding us of the time Jesus calmed the wind and the waves.
The Sermon on the Mount, and the Beatitudes in particular, can be seen as manifesto or even a Constitution for the Kingdom of God, so the Mount of the Beatitudes is an alternative location for remembering the third luminous mystery. It's only a couple of kilometres along the Galilee coast from Capernaum.
A possible site of the Sermon on the Mount,
overlooking the Sea of Galilee
A church at the top of the hill, surrounded by beautiful gardens, commemorates the Beatitudes. But some think that Jesus actually gave His most famous sermon further down the hill, on a shelf of land that is high enough to fit Matthew's account of Jesus going "up on the mountain"(Matt 5:1), but also matches Luke's description whereby Jesus "came down and stood on a level place"(Luke 6:17). In any event, this location is among my favourites for its simple beauty and for the fact that a church hasn't been slapped on top of it, which makes it easier to imagine the original occasion. The space is big enough for a large crowd of people; but small enough that Jesus could be heard clearly, without a "Blessed are the cheese-makers" incident.
Mount Tabor - the Transfiguration
Standing somewhat apart from the other mountains of Galilee, Mount Tabor rises about 400m above the surrounding plain. Traditionally identified as the place of the Transfiguration, it certainly fits the description of "a high mountain [where they could be] apart by themselves"(Mark 9:2). I don't know what the vegetation was like in Gospel times; but now the mountain is mostly covered with trees, although they get a bit scrub-like towards the peak.
Buses and coaches are not normally allowed up the winding road to the top, so large groups of pilgrims have to be dropped off at a small bus station on the lower slopes, from where they can pile into the minibuses that shuttle up and down the mountain all day. Reasonably fit pilgrims with time on their hands can choose to emulate Jesus and the disciples and walk up instead - either along the road or by the footpath that goes straight up through the woods (as for most other paths in Israel, the way-markers are painted on the rocks).
Like many other churches in the Holy Land, the Basilica of the Transfiguration is of fairly recent construction (within the past century or so) but on the remains of older churches. It has a nice mosaic of the Transfiguration, and chapels dedicated to Moses and Elijah. Attached to the church are a couple of viewing platforms, from which one can see across a lot of Galilee and beyond. The wide plain immediately below the Mount is the Valley of Jezreel.
|Sunrise as seen from Mount Tabor|
On one visit I was privileged to stay the night at the Franciscan friary there. Once the gates are closed in the evening it becomes very quiet - the only habitations are the friary and the Greek Orthodox monastery just below the peak. I could understand why Jesus took the disciples there for a time of prayer, as the cool evening breeze blew past and the busy human world seemed far away.
The Upper Room - the Last Supper
Although it is currently a little way outside the Zion Gate, the site of the Last Supper was originally within the walls of the city. For some reason that no one seems sure of, the Ottoman rebuilding of the walls omitted to include the Upper Room - despite the fact that it was being used as a mosque at the time. The place itself has been thoroughly rebuilt at least twice during the last 2000 years, so nobody tries to claim that it is the actual room in which Jesus ate with the Twelve (that would have been rather smaller, for one thing). But it is almost certainly in the right place. And the surrounding buildings help to retain the feel of the original place, which was in a crowded suburb of Jerusalem.
|Entrance to the Upper Room (or the Coenaculum)|
There are usually plenty of people in the neighbourhood, because there is also a synagogue on the ground floor, centered on the 'Tomb of David' (it almost certainly isn't his tomb, but never mind), which draws Jews and sometimes Muslims to visit. This is in addition, of course, to the Christian pilgrims visiting the floor above.
Due to the vagaries of history, the place is currently under the control of the Israeli government. Sadly, this means that the Eucharist cannot be celebrated in the place where it was instituted. Formal prayer services are allowed, however, on Holy Thursday, Pentecost, and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and informal prayer is allowed at all other times - so you can pray your rosary, no problem!
We will return to the Upper Room in a later post, when considering the third glorious mystery.