An Epiphany of Meaning in the Holy Lands

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I have traveled a bit over recent years, thanks to the international technical conferences that I had to attend as part of my PhD work and supported by generous ANU funding. I was impressed by history-laden Europe, where every alley and stone has a tale to tell of centuries old, the wonder of modernity in the US and Canada, the beautiful blend of the new and the ancient in the streets of China, and the natural beauty of “God’s own country” – Kerala (my home state!), where we can breathe God in the air. But nothing has left the lasting impression that my recent visit to the Holy Lands has! The Bible came to life as I walked the walk Jesus and his disciples did in those lands.

After celebrating the first anniversary Mass for my brother at home in September, I started a Holy Land pilgrimage. I was in a group of 50 and took my mum with me. We flew from Kochi to Amman, the capital of Jordan. From Jordan, we entered Israel, then later from Israel to Egypt – all by road. No flights to and from Israel can fly over Muslim countries which surround by it. That is one of the reasons we enter through Jordan and exit via Egypt – but they all are part of Holy Lands of the Bible.

The Moses Moment

In Jordan we saw Mount Nebo, where Moses watched the Promised Land, which he would never enter. It is a stunning landscape, claimed to be the deepest valley in the world, where we could literally look to the horizon to see the Promised Land (present day Israel). That was the “Moses moment” for me where I felt how Moses felt thousands of years back.

Bit of Biblical Geography

To understand the Israel of Jesus’ times we need to be aware that there were three major regions then – Galilee in the north, Samaria in the middle and Judea to the south. Galilee is the place surrounding Lake Galilee (Lake Tiberius and the sea of Galilee are all the same), where Jesus spent most of his time. Nearby are Nazareth, Cana, Magdala, Mount Tabor and Capernaum, etc. Jerusalem is in Judea, which is 164 km from Nazareth. Bethlehem and Jericho are within 20-25 km of Jerusalem. It is amazing to learn that Jesus did this walk of 160 plus kilometers between Galilee and Jerusalem three times during his three-year public ministry with his group of friends, called apostles. Jesus deliberately developed his ministry around these three great walks. Samaria was the place of gentiles. Most Jews avoided travelling through this part because they did not want to mingle with gentiles, but Jesus did, which was revolutionary. That’s why we have the Bible story of the Samaritan women.

A Great Travelling (Holy) Family

It was not only Jesus, but the Holy Family were also great travellers. The parental houses of Joseph and Mary are near Jerusalem. But they settled in Nazareth in Galilee – perhaps for work. After Annunciation, we see Mary visiting Elizabeth in a mountain village, Ein Karen, a picturesque village near Jerusalem. Then Mary goes back to Nazareth. Then she returns to Bethlehem for the census, which is few kilometres away from Jerusalem. It’s lot of travelling for Mary. The only means of transport she could afford was a donkey! It doesn’t end there as the Holy Family walks to Egypt, after Mary gave birth to Jesus, through the Sinai desert, which would be somewhere between 200 to 300 kilometres, and returning to Nazareth after the death of Herod.

A typical Holy Land Surprise – Capernaum

One of the great surprises was the city of Capernaum, a city near the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, in Jesus’ time. We would not have gone to that place unless our guide, ‘Moses’, insisted. This is the city Jesus lived in for almost 18 months during his public ministry – that is around half of his public life. When we arrived we understood why Jesus chose to live in that city. Readers may recall that Jesus was expelled from his hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4) when he started his public life by saying that the Scripture was fulfilled in Him. He moved to Capernaum. It was a major city from where the road to Jerusalem began from Galilee. That meant that almost all the people from Galilee had to go through this town for their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem and all merchants and other travellers from Jerusalem to the rest of Galilee also passed through this city. There was not a better-connected place than Capernaum in Galilee to spread the new message of the gospel for Jesus. Moreover, Jesus selected his first disciples: Peter, Andrew, James and John from this little town and found a home to hang around in Peter’s mother-in-law’s house. The house allegedly is still there in Capernaum. The city had the most prominent synagogue in the region and also a Roman military outpost. The remains of the synagogue, which was built over the foundations of the old one in the 4th century AD, is still there.

Jesus tried his level best to pursue its inhabitants to convince them of his divinity. He raised from the dead the daughter of Jairus, who was a leader at the Synagogue, and cured a servant of a centurion who was stationed at the Roman post there. Also, he healed Peter’s mother in law at her house and cured the paralysed man who was brought in through the roof of the same house. It all came to life for me when we were there. We could feel how naturally these things would have happened during Jesus’ time, but of course with great disbelief and admiration from Capernaum’s residents. But interestingly Jesus curses Capernaum towards the end of his life by saying that if he had done the same to them as in Sodom and Gomorrah, they would have repented more (Luke 10). Sodom and Gomorrah are on the other side of Jerusalem, on the way to Mount Sinai along the Dead Sea. It was amazing how Jesus related these stories, which would have been part of the folklore of Jews, even in Galilee, at that time.

A lot more

A lot more things would bring the Bible to life in the Holy Lands during the remainder of the trip, for example, the feeling the little cloud of prophet Elijah coming from the sea (1 King 18) as we look from Mount Carmel to the sea in Haifa, Bethlehem and Calvary, the passion tracks from Gethsemane to the very city of Jerusalem and the exodus trail from Egypt through mount Sinai. All these experiences bring new meaning to what we read and contemplate in the Bible.

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