By Professor Glenn Juday
Tuesday, May 24
As we gather at the Tel Aviv airport baggage claim area to meet our guides, our pilgrimage group assembles for the first time. We learn that the missing 15 pilgrims whose flights were delayed by weather include Fr. Joseph, the pilgrimage priest. There are 3 other priests traveling as pilgrims, but Fr. Joseph has the key role. We briefly assemble and head outside into pleasant temperatures at evening sunset for our three buses. The trip has been well organized, and each pilgrim has been pre-assigned a bus. The guide assigned to our bus is Ramziz, a Palestinian Arab Catholic.
As the motor coaches roll out, Ramziz introduces himself and in opening his comments to us begins the habitual use of the introductory greeting “brothers and sisters.” It’s a simple and familiar enough phrase, but at the end of a long trip and arriving in a new place with a deep historical reputation for hostilities, the words have a disarming effect – or even more.
As we glide along the fine roads we get a description of the basic geomorphic layout – we are on the Mediterranean coastal plain, we shortly enter the Judean Hills or Mountains, and then we will drop down into the Jordan Rift Valley (part of the Afro-Syrian rift) to below sea level. As we cross the Jezreel Valley, the narrative includes mention of Biblical events in that setting, such as the home of Gideon (Book of Judges), defeat of the Israelites under King Saul by the Philistines.
We stay at the Ron Beach Hotel in the city of Tiberias on the shore of the freshwater lake with several names – Sea of Galilee, Lake Tiberias, Lake Kinneret (from the Hebrew word for harp, whose outline the shore resembles). We stumble out after 9 p.m. and into a fine buffet featuring lots of local produce, and call it a day.
Wednesday, May 25
The Sea of Galilee is 214 meters (702 ft) below sea level. How can a freshwater lake be below sea level? Because the Sea of Galilee has an outlet that supplies the lower Jordan River which in turn flows to the hypersaline Dead Sea at 377 m (1237 ft) below sea level (the lowest spot on the surface of the Earth). The water in the Sea of Galilee is a warm - almost never below 14 degrees C, even at the deepest spot (43 m or 141 ft) in the late winter. The lake has a surface area of about 170 km2, and a mean depth of 24 m (78 ft). There is extensive agriculture in the upstream watershed, mainly cotton, alfalfa, agricultural ponds. Crops are also produced on fertile soils around the lakeshore including bananas, dates, and cotton. As in ancient times, there is still a commercial fishery in the Sea of Galilee including particularly a species of the warm water tilapia (Sarotherodon galilaeus) known locally as St.Peter’s fish. Annual harvest can be more than 2,000 tons per year. Recently an invasive cyanobacterium (blue-green algae) has threatened water quality because of a toxin it produces.
Without a doubt, the water issues that lead to the Sea of Galilee are one of the most difficult resource management issues Israel faces. The Sea of Galilee serves as the major reservoir for Israel's National Water Carrier System and itself supplies over one third of the country's annual water requirements, with the upper watershed accounting for even more. Increasing demand for water and dry winters have stressed the lake and decreased the surface water level. Low lake levels are particularly dangerous because the Sea of Galilee would become irreversibly salinized by the salt water springs under the lake once the weight of freshwater on top of them is reduced. Under a 1990s peace treaty, Israel supplies 50 million cubic meters of water annually from the lake to Jordan.
The Sea of Galilee is an important tourist area, and is famous for antiquities and historical sites in general, but particularly those associated with the Biblical accounts of Jesus and his disciples.
The rhythm of a pilgrimage is nearly always built around daily mass. Our first mass is at the Church at Mount of Beatitudes, held to be the site of the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew (Chapters 5 – 7). The site rises steeply from the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and offers a natural amphitheater and acoustics for addressing a large crowd. The archeological evidence is supportive of the local tradition that this was the site. The modern church was completed in 1938 near the site of fourth century ruins of a Byzantine (eastern Roman Empire) church. The eight-sided building is meant to represent the eight beatitudes.
Since our lead priest is still in transit because of the flight delay, a local priest is provided, and he is from, improbable as it seems, Nazareth. We celebrate mass in an outdoor (thankfully shaded) amphitheater that certainly puts us in mind of, well, the Sermon on the Mount. In his homily Fr. Joseph reflects one of the beatitudes – “Blessed are the peacemakers …” He has been up most of the night in prayer as he prepares for a new assignment. He recounts his parents’ origins in Lebanon and the lack of peace that uprooted his family. But then he points out that all of us, from wherever we come, face the challenge of making peace wherever we go.