For the past three days we have been docked in Haifa, Israel. I had the wonderful opportunity to make two day-long trips to cities tied to Jesus: the first day to Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and today to Nazareth, Capharnaum, and Galilee. It has been an eye-opening experience in more ways than one.
On Monday’s crew tour, our first stop was Bethlehem. We were greeted by Palestinian security upon driving into the town. I knew there were a number of pockets of Palestinian governed land in Israel, but was unaware that Bethlehem was one of them. Our tour guide, Leah, was not allowed to work in this territory, so a second guide boarded our bus to show us the way through town. Within Bethlehem, there were people of many faiths living seemingly peacefully and respectfully with one another. The locals were incredibly kind and willing to share any knowledge they had with you. While in Bethlehem, any time I sneezed I was met with a clear and meaningful “May God bless you”, as opposed to the mumbled “bless you” you might get if you’re lucky in the western world.
After navigating the old streets, we came to the Church of the Nativity, a 1700 year old church built over the grotto where Jesus Christ was born. There are 3 sections within the Church: the Aramaic Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic places of worship. In the ruins directly below the Greek Orthodox altar is the place Mary gave birth. Typically is it a 2+ hour wait to get in to those caves, but the tour guide and guards discreetly allowed me in through the exit door with two others from the crew. It was a very emotional experience to visit this location. Below is a picture of the star marking the birthplace, and us girls sitting in front of where the manger stood:
Leaving Bethlehem, security was even tighter. Palestinian guards armed with machine guns boarded our bus for a scan before we could be cleared to exit. It is disheartening that people who otherwise exist so peacefully mere steps away, despite their differences, are so aggressive and hostile over land that truly doesn’t belong to us as a species at all.
Next up was Jerusalem, where we walked through the Jaffa Gate down the Trail of Agony on our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulture. Inside are chapels belonging to all denominations of the Christian faith. After following the actual steps of the stations of the cross, I came to the outside of the tomb where Jesus was buried and rose again. The line was long and there was no sneaking in this time, but I got close:
Leaving the church we passed through the Jewish Quarter to the Western Wall, before heading back to the ship:
Today’s journey began with circular drive around the Sea of Galilee and a stop at the Jordan River Baptismal Site. Our visit was quite moving. First of all, the river and the scenery are breathtakingly beautiful. You are able to walk right into the river if you wish. There were also many groups from around the world who were there to be baptized for the first time in the same waters Jesus was baptized in. Despite the language barriers, the feelings of joy and serenity at this symbolic place were palpable and brought everyone together:
Next we drove to the top of the Mount of Beatitudes. A church now stands there where Jesus once blessed the masses with a stunning view overlooking the Sea of Galilee:
Next we headed to Tabgha, the place where Jesus turned 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish into food for thousands. You can see the rock on which this miracle was performed peeking out from below the altar in this church:
Afterwards, it was on to Capharnaum, where Jesus spent his earlier years. Saint Peter’s house can be seen underneath the raised modern church. The house is just outside the old synagogue, where is it said Jesus gave shared of his first teachings:
Finally, after lunch we came to Nazareth. The Basilica of the Annunciation is a beautiful two-story church. Below, an altar is placed in the grotto where Mary was visited by the angel and told she was to give birth to Jesus. Above, a grand worship space with wonderful mosaic depictions of Mary from every country:
Just a few steps away is the modern St. Joseph’s Church, built above where Joseph’s carpentry shop once stood:
Overall, it has been a very spiritual few days. This time for prayer and reflection is just what I needed as this contract comes to a close. I am thankful for the opportunities to perform, for all my unique experiences abroad, and for the loving arms that will welcome me home in just 5 days!