Galilee @ the Epiphany in Bethlehem

This week has been a week full of wonderful visits and trips.

Tuesday morning we set out for Galilee via Jericho and the West Bank. In Jericho we took a cable car to the top of the Mount of Temptation where we visited one of the Greek monasteries which is built into the side of the mountain. Afterwards we had lunch in Jericho, and then we set out for Nazareth.

In Nazareth we visited Mary's Well and the Basilica of the Annunciation. Our accommodations were provided by the Sisters of Nazareth, a wonderful guest house where we met many other pilgrims from Italy and Germany. Many of these pilgrims were quite young which was good to see. Most American pilgrims are older, but for the Europeans the situation is different. Because the Holy Land is closer, it is cheaper for the people of Europe to come here, hence more young people are able to afford the trip. Could you imagine bringing our youth groups from the Diocese of Hawaii for some time in the Holy Land? This is essentially what churches get to do in Europe all of the time.

Wednesday we spent the day visiting the sites around the Sea of Galilee including Tabgha, Capernaum, and the Mount of Beatitudes. The morning began with the Renewal of Baptismal Vows in the Jordan River. We did not go to the commercial sites for this renewal, but instead, our guide took us to a quiet and secluded portion of the Jordan River, where we could literally stand in the water if we so desired. From here we went to the Mount of the Beatitudes.

The hike in silence on the Mount of the Beatitudes was especially meaningful, ending with a mass on the hillside close to the place where Jesus taught his disciples. During the mass you could see the rolling hills of Galilee as well as the sea; it was a beautiful setting for a mass. We also heard the Beatitudes proclaimed from a cave in the hillside which worked like a megaphone. We could now understand how Jesus spoke to so many people on the hillside, and how he could actually be heard. After this we visited the monastery at Tabgha, which has a beautiful worship space, and we put our feet into the Sea of Galilee at Peter's Primacy. After all of this, we had a fish lunch - St. Peter's fish.

Thursday began with a trip to the top of Mount Tabor, where we visited the beautiful church celebrating the Transfiguration of our Lord. The architecture of this church is stunning with its high altar suspended quite far up as if the mass is being celebrated in the clouds. On each side of the church, there are quiet little chapels dedicated to Moses and Elijah - an irony when you consider the Transfiguration stories in the Gospels. On another note, the gift shop at Mount Tabor has one of the best cups of cappucino you will find in the Holy Land.

Then it was back to the West Bank for a tour of Qumran and a float in the Dead Sea. Our tour guide and his family then hosted all of us at his home for dinner. More delicious food - usually you lose weight on a pilgrimage from all of the walking and bending of the knee. Not this time - not one of us is starving for food in any way.

This morning we woke up early, walking the Stations of the Cross in the Old City. When we arrived at the Church of the Resurrection, the Latins were celebrating their Epiphany mass at the Empty Tomb. Once they were finished, we went into the Empty Tomb to pray. Later in the morning, we travelled to Bethlehem for the celebrations in Manger Square. About a dozen scout groups with drums and bagpipes and other instruments led the procession of Orthodox clergy into the Church of the Nativity. It was an amazing event, full of joy and celebration.

Tomorrow is our last day, and we will spend the morning at Emmaus.

Jacob's Well & Gethsemane

Yesterday morning we went to Zababdeh for worship at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church. The mass was both in Arabic and English, and it was great to see a church packed with people. The rector, Father Na'el Abu Rahmoun, gave a wonderful sermon challenging all of us to have a spiritual resolution for 2012. The children of the church, about 40, sang several anthems during the mass. Afterwards we all gathered for lunch at a local restaurant.

This church was incredibly vibrant, and you could tell that the people were really living out their faith. After the mass, the priest gathered with the people in the church's courtyard, and two doves were released for the peace of the New Year. The priest and his family joined us for a delicious lunch of local food at a nearby restaurant after the mass.

After lunch we went to Nablus for a visit to Jacob's Well. The water is so pure, and the Greek Orthodox Church which sits upon the well, is beautiful. This has been one of the great highlights of our trip. The priest of the parish is an icon writer, and the church is adorned with his work. The whole space, representing heaven meeting earth was breath-taking. Even more intriguing is the fact that a former priest's remains are kept in the church as part of a shrine. This priest was martyred for protecting the church from settlers.

Being in the West Bank for the past days has been good not just for spiritual reasons, but also for understanding the politics of this region. Witnessing the situation firsthand has given the pilgrims insights they would not have by simply reading and watching the Western media. The plight of the Palestinians is extremely obvious, and some of our pilgrims are beginning to see the connections concerning land ownership with past experiences in the Hawaiian islands.

Today we gathered at Bethphage after which we walked the route of Palm Sunday, going down the Mount of Olives. We ended up at the Church at Gethsemane; in the garden there are several olive trees which date back to the time of Christ.

The day finished with a visit to St. Peter's Galicantu - the church that commemorates Peter's denial of Christ as well as the imprisonment of our Lord before Good Friday. We travelled down into the cistern where Christ would have been imprisoned and prayed for those in our world today who face injustice.

Tomorrow we leave for a few days in Galilee.

Day in the West Bank

Today we had the pleasure of a day in the West Bank.

We spent the morning at the Arab Episcopal School in Ramallah. Ramallah is a community close to Jerusalem, and it is the current headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. We met with the school's headmaster, and he told us about the school and its many successful programs. The students receive a very good education, and the annual tuition only runs between $1,500 and $2,000 a year.

We also visited Taybeh. Taybeh is a Christian village in the West Bank, and it is also home to the Taybeh Brewing Company. The company has done much to help this community, and they are the makers of the only beer from the Middle East. Taybeh means delicious, and their beer lives up to their name! While in Taybeh, we also visited the ruins of a lovely Byzantine church.

Tomorrow we return to the West Bank, as we will worship at the Episcopal Church in Zababdeh.

Happy New Year!

O little town of Bethlehem

December 30

Yesterday we went to Bethlehem for a visit to the Church of the Nativity. The church has been in the news a lot lately due to some fighting between priests. In any case, when we visited everything was calm, and they were preparing for their celebration of Christmas which falls on January 6, the Epiphany.

When I lived here five years ago, there were times when I could go to the Church of the Nativity in the middle of the day and it would be practically empty. This was due to the Second Intifada; many people had chosen not to come to the Holy Land. Yesterday it was quite different. There was a long line to get into the crypt where Christ was born, and many of the pilgrims waiting in line were from Nigeria. I was happy to see the church filled with people coming to the birthplace of Christ.

In some ways the Church of the Nativity is very similar to the Church of the Resurrection. The different denominations have their altars, and there is a status quo that is observed so that all of these different Christian groups can function simultaneously within the same space. Underneath the Roman Catholic portion of the church we visited the caves that commemorate St. Jerome, translator of the Bible into the Vulgate. And of course, no visit to the Church of the Nativity is complete without singing "Silent Night." In the afternoon we visited Shepherd's Field, and there we sang "Angels we have heard on high" in one of the chapels adorning the hillside.

As a side note, I am told that because the government of Nigeria subsidizes the trip for Muslims to go on pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, they also subsidize the trip for the Christians of Nigeria to go to Jerusalem. Hence why we kept seeing so many Nigerians on pilgrimage.

A couple of other items of interest . . .
1. We saw the separation wall when entering into Jerusalem. I had seen it before, but this time there were a series of stories that were placed upon the wall, about how the wall is affecting life in Palestine. Some of the stories were very moving. 
2. When we returned to Jerusalem, some of us went for another walk through the Old City, and eventually stopped at the Austrian Hospice. The hospice is in the middle of the Old City, and they have a beautiful chapel and gardens, as well as a cafe. If you want Western coffee, this is a good place to go.
3. Yesterday we heard that one of the pilgrims is a grandmother now! We gathered before dinner for a champagne toast.
4. Yesterday was also our guide's birthday, so we sang Happy Birthday to him in Hawaiian, English and Arabic; we also gave him a bag of Hawaiian treats and a kukui nut lei. The kukui nut represents enlightenment, which is appropriate for our guide, Iyad, because he is enlightening us about this land.

It was a long, but beautiful, day.