Israel is a special place that is unique in all the world with an ancient history and a complex modern story. The story of Israel and one’s personal travels and experience with it are going to be unique and individual. For me, the story of Israel is about exploring, discovering history, walking in the footsteps of my redeemer, and wrestling with personal questions.
On this journey I started out with two questions: what is Israel and what does it mean to be chosen? I cannot say that I have answered these questions. Israel is a small desert country on the southeastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, the nation state of the Jewish people, with roots in ancient history. It is the promise given to Abraham, and one who, like Jacob, wrestles with God. The story of Israel is still being written and what this looks like remains to be seen. Regarding being chosen by God, this I understand. As children of God, we are called after to go where he guides, point others to him and trust in his will. My five favorite sites have to do with what it means to be chosen.
Standing on top of Tel Megiddo, one of the most important archeological sites in the world, is mind blowing. A “Tel” is an archeological term for a mound of earth upon which civilization after civilization has added layer upon layer. Tel Megiddo has 30 layers of history! History going back to 5000 BCE. Because of its location, Tel Megiddo was a critical area for controlling trade as it linked Egypt, the Fertile Crescent region, and Asia Minor together with what we know today as the Via Maris. Pharoah Thutmose III said, “Conquering Megiddo is as good as conquering a 1,000 cities.” Megiddo is the location for more battles than anywhere else in the world. From the top of Tel Megiddo I envisioned mighty armies waging war in the vast expanse spread out before me, both battles of the past and battles of the future. The war between good and evil is still taking place in the world today and without a doubt Megiddo has not seen its last battle. It may be a mostly clean up operation at this point thanks to Christ’s conquest on the cross but the side one chooses still matters. How will we know what side is good and what side is evil? Will we even make a choice? Or will we be like those described by Dante as, “The nearly soulless whose lives concluded neither blame nor praise. No hope of death and in their blind and unattaining state have sunk so low that they must be the envy of every other fate. No word of them survives their living season. Mercy and Justice deny them even a name. Like the shadow of the soul who in his cowardice made the Great Denial.” Tel Megiddo is one of my favorite places because it reminds me of the importance of choosing a side.
Ein Gedi encapsulates the unique desert beauty of Israel. One minute you are deep in the scorching desert and the next you are in an oasis. The nation of Israel has been causing the desert to flower with their ingenuity and water technology, but Ein Gedi is naturally like this. Climbing up to the Caves of David is a physically challenging experience, not for the faint of heart. It challenged my fear of heights as the raven’s soared beneath me and a stumble could be serious trouble. One of our group members collapsed from heat exhaustion and it took great care to help him down the mountain with some of the younger, stronger group members carrying him near the end. We had a path, steps, and bolted handholds to guide us. To think David and Saul did not have these amenities makes David’s feat of hiding here and Saul’s feat of climbing up into the area searching for David impressive. These men must have been powerful men to brave these climbs. But there is another lesson here, a personal one, about what it means to follow God. God rarely shows us much of the path, just as in Ein Gedi the path twists and turns. Modern people must trust the path makers to get them where they are going. Likewise, David had to trust God to work things out. He could have killed King Saul and taken the throne rather simply, but he waited on God’s timing even when his men encouraged action. He resisted peer pressure and waited for God. We all have choices to make, paths to follow, and these decisions matter. Ein Gedi in all its contrast and beauty, tells us to wait on God to work things out. Be willing to follow God on the harder path, even taking up our own cross.
Eighty percent of Jesus’ ministry takes place around the Sea of Galilee. Wonderful teaching, awesome miracles, and the day-to-day life of Jewish fishermen are evidenced throughout the Galilee region, but things get heated when Jesus enters Jerusalem. The Mount of Olives, Garden of Gethsemane Church, the entire Via Dolorosa (Sorrowful Way): including the Church of the Flagellation, Church of the Imposition, Ecce Homo, Church of the Lady of Sorrows, Chapel of Simon of Cyrene, and eventually the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are all powerfully moving places in Jerusalem. And undoubtedly anyone of these could be a person’s favorite, but for me it was the House of Caiaphas, the Saint Peter in Gallicantu Church. A beautiful church with masterful art, the site sits on a grand crypt with a deep pit beneath it. Beside the pit is a guardhouse, a place where one could be tied with arms raised for a flogging before being tossed into the pit to await their fate. Going down into the pit and being read Psalms 88, I could not help feeling a closeness with the suffering of Christ of being beset by enemies, alone, and in darkness. The impression of oneness with Christ’s suffering will never be forgotten. This was my most favorite place–here I was with Christ, the cause of Christ’s suffering, and the one redeemed.
My next favorite site was the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth the hometown of Jesus’ parents and probably a good bit of his childhood. I did not get to spend much time in Nazareth but my understanding is the archeological evidence from Jesus’ times points to a strongly religious community much in line with the Protoevangelium of James. Having veneration for Mary, the God-bearer, I was looking forward to this site. My Protestant brothers and sisters in the faith often miss out on the great witnesses, church fathers and mothers, those who proceeded them in faith, wrote and handed down scripture, and make up the bulwark of the Church. Mary is foremost among all faithful witnesses. If as Christians our job is to be standing stones pointing others to a higher reality in God? And it is! There is no other human greater than Mary. A young girl who loved God, served Him, and was obedient in a way that I cannot imagine. To bear God into this world through faith and a willingness to serve is no small feat, and then as a mother to raise a lamb for slaughter; as a parent I cannot comprehend. Quietly behind-the-scenes Mary served, loved, and raised Jesus up with the knowledge that “a sword will pierce through her own soul also.” (Luke 2:48) Yet her life was not about her, it was about Jesus. Her life always pointing towards God, the best disciple of Christ, and given to us by Jesus on the cross as our mother (“behold your mother”). Christ is the new Adam; therefore, as St. Irenaeus points out Mary is the new Eve. It is her faith that counteracted Eve’s unfaithful disobedience. A life always pointing to the Lord as his “handmaid” (Luke 1:38) and in direct action, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5). This is the Church of the Annunciation, the most beautiful building I have ever seen from the front façade pointing to Christ to an inside as bright and uplifting as one can imagine. Inside, the grotto of Mary’s home is inscribed with Latin, “Here the Word was made flesh”. The details of the grand basilica cause one’s eyes to be lifted up into a grand lily like cupola and is peaked with a lantern representing the very light of life.
Jesus preached and taught along the Sea of Galilee, the lowest freshwater lake on earth. There are many special sites around this lake–Capernaum, Jesus’ adult home and home to five of the disciples, Mount of Beatitudes, Bethsaida, The Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, Cana, Mt. Tabor, Mary’s Well, Yardenit, and the start of the Jesus Trail. My favorite was the Primacy of Peter site in Tabgha. A place of seven underwater springs it has been attracting fish to this area for thousands of years and Peter (a fisherman) would have known it well. At the start of Jesus’ ministry in the waters around or near this church Jesus would have told Peter to cast his net one more time for a miraculous catch of fish. Peter astounded stumbling followed Jesus and eventually out of fear and to great shame denied Christ outside Caiaphas’ house in the dawn (in Gallicantu). But another miraculous catch happened again near or at this same spot after Jesus was raised from death. He appeared to the disciples, including Peter, having laid out a breakfast of bread and fish venerated as Mensa Christi (Table of Christ). Peter had been forgiven by Jesus, but it took a while for Peter to forgive himself. Here Christ asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?”
Anywhere and anytime is a great place to start over with God, but it is in Tabgha at the Primacy of Peter site I felt God asking, “Do you love me?” Sometimes God must (like with Peter) take us back to where we started with him and remind us of our purpose. Despite our stumbling and falling down, we are chosen to follow after him, point others to him, and love him with all our hearts.