I met an Israeli in the pub in Inchigeelagh “Why visit Israel? I live in Tel Aviv, I have never seen Jerusalem.” “Oh” I said, “I won’t see in the Holy Land what I won’t bring with me. I met him again in Inchigeelagh on our return, “It was everything expected and more.”
The reasons for my trip were varied, a gift – an item on my bucket list – childhood memories – a longing to see the Byzantine.
From childhood, Christmas was the most beloved part of the year. Growing up in a business it was the one day the shop door was shut and we, as a family, celebrated uninterrupted. My parents became like children on this special day. Our friends, Mae and Nonie Twohig, were at at their happiest on this day. Their house was Bethlehem, a cave made from rock paper with gleaming Irish Nativity figures glowed with a votive lamp brighter than any other – gifts were offered and the joy of Baby Jesus’ Nativity was made known and the bedrock of our young faith life was laid down. Father and Mother would drive out to see lights in every window, as our Parish lit up that night – today my three sons claim it is their most special time of celebration in the year.
As I thought about this pilgrimage there were scores of places that we busily fitted in, but my focus was on the days we were to spend in Bethlehem. Our first Mass was celebrated in the open air, overlooking the Sea of Gallilee. Bird song and scented jasmine and vine covered slopes gathered us in prayer – and set the tone for the days ahead. The original Roman remains and St. Peter’s family home were true reminders of Jesus’ early life. For those who were Scripture scholars, this area is the line between Old and New Scriptures. We heard of Philip and Luke and saw where Jesus and his apostles first met and breakfasted by the shore of this sea. In the afternoon we drifted quietly in prayer in the Wooden Boat, looking at the Great Defile of the Pigeons, a tax free ancient route to Cana.
At Cana, stone jars 5 feet tall, similar to the 6 jars Jesus turned into wine, 6 being regarded as an imperfect number, 7 being God like. We sipped wedding wine and many couples renewed their marriage vows – one couple celebrated 50 years.
On our way to Galilee, the Mount of Temptation now has cable cars to bring you to the summit. A coptic monastery is built way up in the hillside where a remaining monk keeps guard of the adjoining church. Zacchaeus’ sycamore tree had native men smoking under its shade. I followed my father’s footsteps into the dead sea, where my fellow pilgrims got me back on my feet again.
This evening we were to arrive in Bethlehem, our hotel could not have been closer, and after the usual dinner feast in the company of the other 50 pilgrims, I set off to have my first view of Manger Square. The Holy Land seems covered in cream marble. Rutted flags cover the square. The Church of the Nativity has three parts: the Franciscans’ St. Catherine’s Church, the Coptic Christians and Greek Orthodox.
The sparrows chattered in hordes, the gardens were aglow with bougainvillea. The balmy blue skies lit up with a lighted star, it was here I said my prayer of thanksgiving to have come so far to finally visit the place of our Saviour’s birth. Fr Kerry led the singing of silent night as we waited our turn to visit the Grotto of the Nativity. It stopped the chatter and filled us with the wonder of this holy place. A hurried moment and it was the next person’s turn to kiss the 14 pointed star of David’s royal line, marking the sacred spot. In the church overhead, mammoth silver and gold chandeliers, a gift from the Russian Tsar, over embellished – but the light shone and prayer is heard from all denominations, races and creeds. Our Mass in the adjoining cave was a true highlight – again Fr. Kerry sang the Christmas carols, the Coptic’s song could be heard clearly from the next cave and to create the wonder of Christmas moment a high Mass celebrated by the Bishop of Liverpool, the thunderous music of the grand organ was sent down to us from above! No Christmas morning could have been so special.
Over the next days I had Mass again in this cave and was given time on my own to give thanks for the joy of my visit and remembrances of Christmasses past.
At Gethsemane one hour was spent near the olive grove and I thought “we thank Jesus for giving his life for mankind”; in that moment I realised that he died for me too.
Jerusalem is a much harder place. Our Mass near Calvery in the Basilica came before joining the heaving populace visiting Calvery and the Tomb of Christ.
My fears of not being able to walk this way (50 miles) did not prove a difficulty. 10 years ago I would not have been able.