For the first time in many days we weren’t woken at 4am by the sound of the Imam calling Muslims to prayer, with Tiberius being a Jewish area we had to make our own wake up call arrangements! The air conditioning system in the rooms is truly impressive – some of us actually woke up feeling chilly. There was an impressive array of choices at breakfast, from cereals, cheese, olives, bread,fruit, cooked delicacies, cake and croissants. The hotel is Kosher though, so breakfast is a meat free zone to allow us to have dairy products and the evening meal has meat options so dairy isn’t permitted.
At 8am the coach picked us up from the hotel for the short drive down to the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The heat hit us as soon as we were out in the open and makes even brief walks during the day a sticky affair, fortunately the coach stayed close by us all the time. The Sea/Lake of Galilee is considerably larger than many of us were expecting and is absolutely stunning, the Golan Heights form the backdrop, which marks Israel’s border with Syria. Jesus centred his ministry around this area, indeed in chapters 1 to 9 of Mark’s Gospel Jesus is constantly around the Lake. It was here that he performed many miracles, taught his disciples and shared breakfast with them after the Resurrection. The Sea is shaped like a harp and it is said that the lapping of the waves sounds like a harp too.
For most of us the highlight of the day was our early morning trip out onto the Lake in a wooden fishing boat, built along similar lines to those used by fishermen in Jesus’ time. Indeed several years ago a boat reputed to be possibly 2000 years old was found at the bottom of the Lake. Fr Mervyn led us in a time of quiet reflection with readings from Mark and Matthew’s Gospels that recall significant moments in Jesus’ ministry that occurred on the Lake – the calming of the storm where his disciples were astounded that even the elements obeyed him; and Jesus walking on the water. Peter, of course, faltered when Jesus told him that he too could step out of the boat and onto the Lake, he failed to keep his eyes on Jesus, lost his nerve and started to sink. It is a telling lesson for us too to remain focused on the Lord whatever problems and difficulties we encounter. We prayed for the gift of courage. Unfortunately many of us felt we were not given sufficient time to quietly contemplate Fr Mervyn’s words and absorb the holy atmosphere of where we were, as our tour guide, Samir, broke into our thoughts with a monologue about geographical features, Syrian tanks and a plethora of historical facts. This was disappointing, though being here in this deeply spiritual place for Christians remained a wonderous experience.
We crossed to the other side of the Lake and landed at a Kibbutz run tourist centre with a super selection of gifts at reasonable prices – it was hard to prise some of us away. Though Tiberius is now the largest city in this area, in Jesus day that honour went to Capernaum, and this was our next destination.
The drive took us past green and luscious vegetation, with many banana groves and mango trees. Much of the land around here belongs to the Catholic Church. Capernaum, which means “the town of rest,” was once a bustling and rich city. Roman officers lived here, and controlled the transit to Syria with a passport system. Due to this the Lord’s word was able to quickly spread through the Roman Empire and beyond, nationals of every region met here in this strategically important town. Sadly all that is left of this once mighty city are ruins – just as our Lord predicted. But what ruins they are!
The modern Church is built over what remains of the house of Peter’s mother-in-law, who Jesus miraculously cured. There is a glass floor in the centre of the Church that allows you to feel truly connected to the lives of Jesus’ first followers. Jesus preached in the synagogue here and parts of this remain, though it was rebuilt in the 4th Century, and that building too is now part of the ruins. Interestingly, Fr Mervyn pointed out that at the same time the Jews were building a new synagogue, the Byzantines were putting up a Church next door, which may possibly suggest that relations between the two communities were not as antagonistic in this period as one might have expected.Excavations have revealed that Christian families did indeed mark their doors with the sign of the fish.
Mass was held at the Church in Capernaum and was particularly special today as the service was conducted mainly in Chinese. Fr Ka Fail led and spoke of Peter being an ordinary man but nevertheless Jesus chose him, just as he chooses us, with all our foibles and failings. Corina read for us, and Fr Michael proclaimed the Gospel, which was about Jesus driving out unclean spirits in a man at the synagogue as well as the story of the healing of Peter’s mother in law. Fr Mervyn spoke in his homily about how Peter was transformed by Jesus but was still human. Every morning Fr Mervyn spiritually places himself at the shores of Lake Galilee and hears Jesus’ call to him, just as he did to Peter, – “come follow me.” He invited us to do the same, and personalise that call “come on Geoff/Mary/Susan, follow me.” One of the wooden carvings on the wall of the Church is of Jesus calling Matthew, the tax collector, evidence that no one is excluded from God’s call, we just need to listen out for it. Fr Ka Fai happily blamed Fr Mervyn for forgetting the Bidding Prayers and said it was proof he makes mistakes too! As a substitute we took a moment to especially remembers all those people back home who have asked us to pray for them.
After a short walk around Capernaum, bumping into several stray cats which seem to be a fixture in the Holy Land, generally long and slim they are happy to accept a stroke from a pilgrim, we headed back to the coach. We passed the place where in 2000 Pope John Paul II held an open air Mass for 75 000 people who had walked all the way from Tiberius.
Our next stop was the Mount of the Beatitudes, the place where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount. This is an almost unbelievably beautiful location, full of the greenest grass, flowers and palm trees and overlooking the glittering blue waters of the Sea of Galilee. The octagonal shaped church, recalling the number of beatitudes/blessings that Jesus taught us, was closed but it is the atmosphere of the location that Christians come to soak up. Fr Mervyn took us to a shaded outdoor chapel area for reflection on the Scripture reading. He talked of the most important beatitude being “blessed are the poor in spirit,” because we must all recognise that it is God who is in charge. We prayed for the ability to hunger and thirst for what is right, and spent time in private meditation.
After a quick look round/use of the usual tourist facilities – gift shop, drinks/snacks counter and toilets we were back in the coach for a trip to the Church of the Multiplication, which celebrates the place where after his teaching on the Mount Jesus perfomed the miracle of the feeding of the 5000. This is also known as the Church of Heptapegon or the Seven Springs. The first Christians venerated a large rock upon which Jesus had laid the bread and fish before feeding the crowd. In 350AD this rock was used as the altar at the first church built on the site. In 480AD the Byzantines placed it underneath the altar of their brand new church. This church was famous for its lovely mosaics of animals and birds, unfortunately in that fateful year we heard so much about in Jerusalem, 614AD, it was destroyed by the Persians. Following the Muslim conquest of 636AD Christian activity around the Lake stopped for many centuries. It wasn’t until 1932, during British rule, that the ancient Church ruins were excavated and the mosaics found to be largely intact. In 1980-82 the original Byzantine Church was reconstructed on the same foundations and the mosaics meticulously restored, though deliberately to make it clear which were the original parts and which were new. The Church has a lovely open feeling to it, with a circular courtyard including a fish pond. We read the account of the feeding of the 5000 and prayed that The Lord will teach us to hunger for the Eucharist and help us to share. There is of course a Gospel account of Jesus feeding 4000 people, but it is not the same event. The 5000 were Jewish followers of Jesus here in Galilee, the 4000 were gentiles in Decapolis, a Greek area.
Our final stop of the day was to the Church of the Primacy of Peter, where Jesus shared breakfast on the beach with his disciples after his resurrection. It is built of the black basalt stone, common in this region. We read the account from John’s Gospel of Peter and the disciples going out all night on the lake but catching nothing, on their return a man on the shore told them to cast their nets out again, doubtful though they did as he said, and miraculously their nets were filled to bursting. Realising this was the risen Lord, they had breakfast together, showing how the Lord is with us in the ordinariness of life. Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him before giving him primacy over the Church. We concluded our time in the Church by singing “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.” The Church sits alongside the Lake and many of us took the opportunity to paddle, one of our group went as far as filling his hat with water and enjoying it pouring down himself – not a bad idea in this heat! A delightful aspect of the churches in Galilee are the tiny little black birds that happily fly in and out tweeting away.
Lunch was at the Tamar Restaurant on the shores of the Lake, the idea being that we could swim after lunch. Though there were changing and showering facilities, after a huge meal (‘St Peter’s Fish’), most decided to have a quick paddle or watch from the sidelines. We arrived back at our hotel at 3.30pm and were at leisure until dinner at 7pm. The pool was a popular option, along with a sleep and a walk.
Tomorrow we head to Nazareth and Cana…