Our Holy Land pilgrimage: Immersing ourselves

One of the best things about the Holy Land tour my husband and I took several years ago was the chance to totally immerse ourselves in once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

These unforgettable experiences included attending a church service conducted in three languages simultaneously, taking communion on a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, placing our own written prayers along with millions of others in the cracks of the Western Wall, feasting on delicious food, taking a dip in the Dead Sea and even meeting a camel face-to-face.

Above is the kibbutz where we stayed for the first part of our trip. Everywhere we went, we encountered the most amazing food. We visited restaurants with whole tables full of vegetable dishes, like the spread below. Good thing, too, because there were equally large tables full of irresistible pastries.

At one of our stops we got to meet a friendly camel. We were offered a chance to ride a camel, if we wished, but I settled for petting this one. Below, several members of our tour group took the opportunity to wade in the Dead Sea.

The Ancient Galilee Boat, above, also known as the Jesus Boat, is a first-century fishing boat discovered on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. Members of our tour group shared communion in the middle of the Sea of Galilee while in a replica of the Jesus Boat, below.

For the communion service on the boat, we obtained the bread and grape juice, pictured below, from a little shop in Cana.

Several times during our trip, I found myself remarking, “This is what Pentecost must have felt like.” At each holy site we visited, we could hear tour groups, like the one above, from all over the world singing hymns or sharing devotions in every language imaginable.

On Sunday our own tour group attended a service at Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, pictured below. A German tour group was also present, along with the local church members. Everyone prayed and sang the familiar hymns in their own languages, so during the service, we could hear English, German and Arabic being sung and spoken simultaneously.

During the church service, we thumbed through a hymnbook in which we found Silent Night in Arabic. Note that the music and text are read from right to left on the page.

The “Pentecost feeling” continued at the Church of the Pater Noster, part of a Carmelite monastery in Jerusalem, where the walls are used to display the Lord’s Prayer in more than a hundred different languages and dialects. Below is the Lord’s Prayer in Hebrew and Aramaic.

Our tour group visited several programs operated by the Lutheran World Federation, including Augusta Victoria Hospital, above, in East Jerusalem. The hospital provides speciality care for Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Quilts like those below, made by members of our congregation, are often sent to this hospital, and we were told the patients truly appreciate the quilts.

A special highlight of our trip was a visit to the Western Wall, below, a Jewish holy site in the Old City of Jerusalem. It has long been a practice to insert slips of paper containing written prayers to God into the cracks and crevices of the Western Wall. It is estimated that more than a million prayer notes are placed there each year. Of course, Pete and I added our own.

Our Holy Land pilgrimage: The Bible comes alive

Jerusalem … Bethlehem … Nazareth … the Sea of Galilee … the Road to Damascus.

From the time I was a child and began reading all the Bible stories, I had always visualized in my mind what these places looked like.

When my husband Pete and I checked off one of our bucket-list items several years ago and toured the Holy Land, many of these places turned out to be somewhat different from what I envisioned.

For example, the Sea of Galilee turned out to be … a very large lake.

I had always pictured Bethlehem and Nazareth as quaint little villages. While they actually were humble agricultural villages in the time of Jesus, they are now bustling densely-packed small cities of about 30,000 and 75,000 people respectively.

Modern Jerusalem did turn out to be much like I’d imagined, mostly because I’d seen so many pictures of it in the news media over the years.

Even though some of these places have changed considerably since Bible times, being there was an amazing experience. I had a sense of the Bible stories coming alive while I walked where Jesus and other people of the Bible lived and walked.

Here are some of the places we had the privilege of visiting, along with their Biblical significance.

Jerusalem

The Bible mentions Jerusalem more than any other place (about 800 times). It was the city to which Jesus was brought as a child to be presented at the Temple and to attend festivals, where he preached and healed, and where he died and was resurrected. Pictured here is a panoramic view of the Old City.

Jericho

The oldest still-inhabited city in the Middle East, Jericho is perhaps best known as the site of the Battle of Jericho described in the book of Joshua. Pictured here is the entrance to the modern city.

Bethlehem

Bethlehem is where David came from, and where he was crowned king of Israel. And, of course, it was later the birthplace of Jesus. While many of the streets of the modern city had bumper-to-bumper traffic, parts of the city actually did look like I envisioned it looking in Bible times, including the street scene here.

Nazareth

The Gospel of Luke tells us Nazareth was Mary’s home village as well as the site where she learned from the angel Gabriel that she would give birth to Jesus. Joseph and Mary resettled there with young Jesus after returning from the flight to Egypt from Bethlehem. Pictured here is a panoramic view of the modern city.

Jordan River

The Jordan River features prominently in the Hebrew Scriptures as the border of the Promised Land. The Gospels tell us John’s baptism of Jesus took place there, as did many more baptisms conducted by Jesus and his disciples.

Capernaum

According to the Gospels, Jesus made Capernaum his home during the years of his ministry. Peter, Andrew, James and John were fishermen living in the village. Matthew the tax collector also dwelt there. Pictured here are ruins of the Ancient Synagogue in Capernaum, one of the oldest synagogue buildings in the world.

Caesarea

Caesarea, once the Roman capital of Palestine, was the place where Pontius Pilate governed during the time of Jesus and where Paul was imprisoned before being sent to Rome for trial. It was also the residence of Philip the evangelist and Cornelius the centurion. Pictured here are ruins of the city’s amphitheater.

Sea of Galilee

The Sea of Galilee was the scene of many, many stories told in the Gospels about the life of Jesus. Among other events, it is where he preached his Sermon on the Mount, walked on water, calmed a storm and showed the disciples miraculous catches of fish.

Mount of Olives

The Mount of Olives is first mentioned in Genesis when the dove returned to Noah’s ark carrying an olive branch in its beak. It also appears in the Gospels as the place where Jesus stood when he wept over Jerusalem and where he ascended to heaven. The photo of the olive tree below was taken on the Mount of Olives.

Road to Damascus

According to the Book of Acts, the Road to Damascus is where the Apostle Paul had his conversion experience that led him to stop persecuting the early Christians and become a follower of Jesus. Here’s the modern road, as seen from the back of our tour bus.

Golan Heights

Land now known as the Golan Heights was referred to in the Bible as Bashan. The word “Golan” appears to be derived from the Biblical city of “Golan in Bashan.” The land of Bashan is mentioned in several places throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. The photo below was taken on a bluff from which we could see into Syria.

Our Holy Land pilgrimage: Where Jesus walked

Several years ago, my husband Pete and I took the trip of a lifetime – a tour of the Holy Land. The tour, hosted by St. John’s Lutheran Church in Rock Island, Illinois, invited us to see the stories of the Bible unfold while we walked “as a pilgrim along the paths of Christ and the early Church.”

Titled “Peace Not Walls,” the trip went beyond simply touring the famous archeological and historical sites. We got to see the international church in action by visiting programs sponsored by the Lutheran World Federation, met personally for conversations with people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and attended a church service conducted in three languages simultaneously.

Needless to say, visiting the holy sites themselves was an amazing experience. In many places, churches or shrines have been built in the exact locations where – based on best estimates by historians, archeologists and others – events mentioned in the Bible are believed to have taken place. Some of the churches themselves are hundreds of years old and still conduct services.

Shepherd’s Field (above) is believed to be the place where an angel appeared to shepherds and announced the birth of Jesus. The site is considered one of the best places from which to view Bethlehem as it would have been seen by the shepherds. Below are the ruins of a fourth-century Byzantine church at Shepherd’s Field.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (above), built in 565 A.D. over the site where Jesus is believed to have been born, is the oldest continuously functioning Christian church in the world. Today, custody of the church is shared by the Roman Catholic, Armenian Apostolic and Greek Orthodox churches. Below, a 14-point star in the middle of the grotto located under the Church of the Nativity’s main altar is said to mark the exact spot where Jesus was born.

Tourists flock to the place along the shore of the Jordan River (above) where Jesus is believed to have been baptized. We saw a number of people getting baptized at the time of our visit. In the photo below, one can see in the distance a monastery built where Jesus is believed to have been tempted in the wilderness. (The monastery is nestled about halfway up the hill toward the right in the photo.)

In the photo below are the ruins of what is believed to be the house Peter shared with his mother-in-law and his brother Andrew. It was in this house that Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, the paralyzed man and others.

The Church of the Multiplication (above) was built on what is believed to be the site where the miracle of the loaves and the fishes took place. The Church of the Beatitudes (below) is located on a small hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee, the traditional “mount” where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount.

The Garden of Gethsemane (below) is where Jesus experienced the agony in the garden and was arrested the night before his crucifixion.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre (above) is built on what are believed to be the locations where Jesus was crucified, buried and rose from the dead. It is considered by many to be the most important holy site in Christianity, and is visited by more than a million pilgrims each year. Inside the church (below) one can see the Stone of Anointing, where the body of Jesus was laid down in preparation for his burial after he was taken down from the cross.

The photo below was taken in the garden outside the tomb where Jesus is believed to have been buried, and where the women were told, “He has risen!”