Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Holy Land: One pilgrim, one suitcase

Modern fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee, carrying pilgrims to Capernaum. (Glenn Juday photo)

By Professor Glenn Juday
We are up early on Friday morning and we load up the coaches with our luggage for the transfer to the Jerusalem guesthouse tonight. We have been strictly limited to one suitcase. The one-bag limit is because of the limited storage space under the seating area of coaches in Israel. But the austerity it enforces resonates with the spirit of pilgrimage. A pilgrim leaves behind his or her ordinary life for the time of pilgrimage. Life has become simpler, more focused on the lasting (or everlasting) things. Fine clothing, snacking, shopping, emails, cell phone plans, even caffeine have been severely limited or even left behind for most of the pilgrimage group.

It’s not a severely enforced regime, but just a gradual stripping away as the pilgrims go deeper into the experience, and get attuned to the rhythm of (fitful, jet-lagged) sleep, good natural food, Mass, walking, prayer, and a few lectures. The only real complaint is the limited time to absorb it all, like trying to drink from a fire hose. A few pilgrims are on their second round just to be able to process more of the experience.

From the hotel, the coaches drive a short distance to the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee. The water level of the Sea of Galilee varies with the wet and dry cycles of the regional climate, producing a dynamic, shifting wetland environment. The shore is lined with the emergent macrophytes Phragmites australis, Arundo donax, Juncus actus. As we unload and assemble, a few Little Egrets (Egretta garzetta) fly by. The nearshore shallows are populated with the submerged plants Myriophyllum spicatum and Najas marina. We walk to the shore at the Yigal Alon Museum to visit the Ancient Galilee Boat exhibit.

In January 1986, following a prolonged drought that resulted in a particularly severe reduction in the lake level, two fishermen brothers discovered an ancient wooden boat in the exposed mud. The remnants were essentially only a shell of wood, about the consistency and strength of wet cardboard.

The find was reported, and an emergency recovery team formed with expertise in marine archeology, biblical archaeology, and the history of Galilee. The team recovered and stabilized the boat. They established the boat’s authenticity and age using all the available techniques and information, including three independent Carbon-14 dating samples. It’s an artifact among the most relevant ever to biblical archaeology, because it dates right to the time of Jesus’ ministry in the area. If you wish to know what kind of boat he worked on and traveled around in, here it is, and nothing of the kind was available until now.

Our pilgrimage group loads into two boats still used for fishing on the lake (and not all that different in design from the ancient) at the dock at the Alon Museum. We set sail for Capernaum. Then something unexpected happens. The boats set sail with a large Israeli flag fluttering from the mast. The boats pause out on the lake, and raise the Stars and Stripes alongside the Star of David flag while a recording of "The Star Spangled Banner" plays. In the abstract, and even to simply state the event, it could be seen as a corny, or even a manipulative incident. But it had completely the opposite effect. Far from home, confronting unfamiliar sights and sounds each day, focusing intently on another time and place both familiar and yet only now becoming more clear, the pilgrimage group heartily sings the U.S. national anthem.

It was a reminder that in our earthly life we all have, or should have, a homeland even as this group is focusing on our pilgrimage to our everlasting home. It doesn’t have to be invidious or come at the expense of others. But a place where we belong - Palestinian, Israeli, American - is something all people long for and wish to see secured for ourselves and for our descendants.

In 2009 Pope Benedict raised the planting of the olive tree in Jerusalem to the rank of a symbolic act, saying to the President of Israel:
“Mr. President, you and I planted an olive tree at your residence on the day that I arrived in Israel. The olive tree, as you know, is an image used by Saint Paul to describe the very close relations between Christians and Jews. Paul describes in his Letter to the Romans how the Church of the Gentiles is like a wild olive shoot, grafted onto the cultivated olive tree which is the People of the Covenant (cf. 11:17-24). We are nourished from the same spiritual roots. We meet as brothers, brothers who at times in our history have had a tense relationship, but now are firmly committed to building bridges of lasting friendship.”

And during the reception that was held for him in Bethlehem in Palestine on May 13, the pope said:
“The Holy See supports the right of your people to a sovereign Palestinian homeland in the land of your forefathers, secure and at peace with its neighbors, within internationally recognized borders.”

Capernaum National Park - Church at the House of Peter and Ancient Synagogue

We arrive at the dock at Capernaum National Park. Capernaum was the town where Jesus was based during the time of his public ministry in Galilee. “And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea...” (Matthew 4:13). Jesus stayed at Peter’s house, and the story of the calling of the Galilean fishermen is recounted in the gospels.

Although relative few Christians in the West seem to know it, recent archeological and historic research has identified, with high confidence, Peter’s house, much of the village of Capernaum of the Second Temple period, and an ancient synagogue. At the site, the antiquities are managed by the Franciscan Custody. The national park around the antiquities site is managed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Why the confidence in the authenticity of the site?

With essentially the entire village site at least exposed in outline, it was clear that Capernaum was a small town. A main first century fishing residence (net fragments, stone net weights, etc.) occurs on the site. At that site, as the Israel Nature and Parks Authority website describes it:

The floor of one of the rooms was covered with white plaster and its walls were adorned with plaster painted with geometric patterns and colorful flowers. Apparently as early as the first century, the building served as a gathering place for the first Christians (Judeo-Christians). Discovered at the site were 173 plaster fragments bearing inscriptions, mostly in Greek. Some, like “our Lord; “the Nazarene,” “the greatest of all” and “Simon,” attest to the existence of a Christian community.

The archeological discovery of Peter’s house posed a dilemma that led to a unique architectural solution. On the one hand, the Church wished to venerate the site where it is known with such confidence that Jesus conducted his ministry. But major construction would remove or bury much of a very valuable site. The solution was to build a modern church, suspended over the archeological site but centered on and over it. The effect of this highly cantilevered church arrangement is to suggest something like a spaceship of flying saucer type.

The church has a glass floor in the center that looks directly down on the ruins. There have been a series of Churches built around the ruins over the centuries and those foundations are also visible. The glass is at the level of the original roof and that is where the paralytic was let down through the roof (Mark 2:4-12).

Across the street was a synagogue. In the fourth century a white (limestone) synagogue was built on the foundation of a black (basalt) synagogue that dates from Jesus’ time. That foundation is still visible, as are ruins of the white one. It is nearly certain that Jesus would have preached in the synagogue that existed at the site in his time – “He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum." (John 6:59). Only a handful of synagogues from this time have ever been discovered.

The Church of St Peter's House in Capernaum is the site for our daily Mass. The panoramic windows cause solar temperature gain, and the air is starting out at the seasonably hot temperatures of this below sea level location. The only remedy offered is to open the doors and windows. Given the shape and location of the church, and the surrounding landscape plants near permanent fresh water, busy flights of swallows and other songbirds cluster close by. A few birds share the church with us, darting about and chirping. The effect is somehow naturalistic rather than introducing the profane into the sacred. All creation getting involved, as it were.

The scripture reading at pilgrimage churches is always allowed to be the Biblical account of the incident at the site, rather than the normally assigned reading of the day. The Gospel reading for Mass at Peter’s House in Capernaum is a no-brainer – it’s the account of Jesus at Peter’s house in Capernaum. I serve as the lay reader for the first reading. It’s Exodus 29, the covenant God makes with the people of Israel through Moses. Given the excavated Judeo-Christian synagogue across the street, it’s certainly a logical assignment of reading.

We then head to a restaurant at the edge of Tiberus for a lunch of fried St. Peter’s fish from the Sea of Galilee. However familiar the custom is, this was a unique Friday fish fry.

Up to Jerusalem – the Solemn Entry into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
No matter from what direction you approach the city, the phrase for travelers is that you are ‘going up to Jerusalem.’ For Catholic pilgrims there is a special tradition, called the Solemn Entry to the Holy Sepulchre (the church built over Christ’s tomb), dating back at least a millennium. In the coaches on the way up to Jerusalem, our Footprints pilgrimage group is informed that we will be granted the privilege of the Solemn Entry. A stir of excitement spreads for what for most in the group will be the climax of the pilgrimage. In the ceremony pilgrims gather near the entrance to the Tomb of Christ. Bells ring, and as they process in, the organ plays and the Franciscan Friars sing the Te Deum in Latin - first to welcome the pilgrims’ safe arrival, then to celebrate their entry into the Tomb. After the Te Deum they enter one the Tomb to pray.

We arrive at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center guesthouse, located across from the New Gate at the walls of the Old City. We quick go to our rooms, get settled in the late afternoon, and then gather to walk to meet our scheduled time for the Solemn Entry. Everybody is more than punctual – we are early. After walking through New Gate and down the twisting streets of the Christian Quarter, we gather in the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in front of the entrance door and wait. We are told to form ranks of five for the procession, and they form instantly. More waiting. Then the signal is given, and the pilgrims advance into the dark of the ancient church interior.

The dulcet tones of the Te Deum wash over the pilgrims from the Franciscan friars arrayed in a line facing the ranks of the processing pilgrims. The sights and sounds come in a blur as this large group moves forward at a good pace:

Te Deum laudamus: te Dominum confitemur.
Te aeternum Patrem omnis terra veneratur. …
… Pleni sunt caeli et terra maiestatis gloriae tuae.

(We praise Thee, O God: we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship Thee and the Father everlasting. ...
… The heavens and the earth are full of the majesty of Thy glory….)

The pilgrims take their places at a series of simple wooden benches with impressive order. The tones reverberate from the ancient stones. Just when it seems the harmony cannot get any fuller, it becomes deeper, richer. And then the sweet sounds stop, almost jarring in effect - the escaping last tone reverberating for a short moment.

The head Franciscan, standing before the entrance to the tomb, gives the pilgrims a short welcome and encouragement. Then the pilgrims come forward to the entrance of the edicule (the stone structure encompassing the tomb). Control of the church structure is shared between a few ancient apostolic Churches (Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian, Ethopian Coptic) in a complicated arrangement dating back centuries. Our time is strictly scheduled and limited, so the pilgrims come forward in twos and venerate the empty tomb, touching the stone. The group is so large that there is no time to linger. It’s not been a particularly demonstrative group, instead best characterized as happy, focused, attentive, enthusiastic. But as they leave the tomb a few are quietly weeping.

The group gathers outside in the courtyard and walks back to the Notre Dame Center. At supper, Fr. Joseph announces that confession will be available in the chapel, and there are a number of takers.

Emergent vegetation zone around Sea of Galilee at the Yigal Alon Museum. Phragmites reeds in the foreground. (Glenn Juday photo)

Remains of first century fishing boat recovered from mud offshore of the Yigal Alon Museum. (Glenn Juday photo)

Church of St Peter's House in Capernaum, build above fourth and first century churches. (Glenn Juday photo)

Star or shield of David carved in limestone for the white synagogue at Capernaum, one of the earliest known uses of the symbol. (Glenn Juday photo)

Blessing the pilgrims at the end of the ceremony of the Solemn Entry, entrance to the Tomb of Christ. (Glenn Juday photo)

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