By Marlene M. Villanueva
Many believers dream of a Holy Land Experience – the opportunity to visit the land of the bible. (It is the dream of many believers to visit the Land of the Bible). It was here that Jesus was Born, began His ministry, performed many miracles, suffered, died, resurrected on the third day and ascended to Heaven. No book in the history of mankind can compare with the Bible.
Only recently, 48 of us Filipinos – with Fr. Gerry Mascariña of Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Philamlife Village, Las Piñas and Fr Ian Gabinete of Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Marcelo Village, Sucat – had the wonderful opportunity of walking the land of the Bible. The six days of travel made us relive Gospel scenes from the Nativity to the Crucifixion. It was like going back in time to the land of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the apostles, and the many other figures who played important roles in the Lord’s life. No doubt my familiarity with the Bible helped a lot plus the talks of our chaplains.
Upon our arrival at the Tel Aviv Airport, our Israeli tour guide informed us that when our plane touched down we brought along a blessing of rain from the heavens. “The rains should have come earlier” said our local tourist guide. Apparently, the blessing of rain had been delayed.
We visited so many places but I will mention only the principal ones… We toured the city of Tel Aviv and drove to Caesarea where you can find the Roman Theater, Herod’s amphitheater and the Promontory Palace. For 600 years, Caesarea was the capital of the Roman province of Judea and the official residence of its governors, including Pontius Pilate. We also visited the Mount Carmel Church and Monastery, St. Peter’s Church and drove to Cana, the Church of the First Miracle where we celebrated our first mass and seven couples renewed their wedding vows.
On the second day, we ascended to the Mount of Beatitudes and were simply awed by the magnificent view up the mountain! We had our early morning mass in the garden across the Church of Beatitude, overlooking the Sea of Galilee and likewise visited the Church of Beatitudes. We recalled and savored the famous Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who have the spirit of the poor for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted…” (Matthew 5 verses1-11) We then went to Capernaum, where Jesus lived after He left Nazareth. Capernaum was the home of St. Peter and in this place Jesus preached and manifested His goodness and omnipotence by many miracles. The remnants of the ancient synagogue where Jesus preached can be seen.
We also drove to nearby Tabgha, the site of the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fish, visited the Church of the Loft and Fish Miracle, and the nearby Church of St Peter’s Primacy. Tabgha was the lonely place on the lakeshore where Jesus withdrew frequently. Sailing at the Sea of Galilee gave us a chance to reflect on and savor the beauty of nature. Jesus’ public ministry took place along this shore. We could imagine Jesus walking on the water (Mark 6:48) and calling on the two fishermen, brothers Simon and Andrew who were casting their nets, to come and follow Him (Matthew 4:18-20). We drove to another familiar place, the River Jordan, for a baptismal service at Yardenit. You must remember this place where Jesus, in His humility, allowed John to baptize Him and the Spirit of God came down like a dove and a voice from Heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved…” (Matthew 3 verses 13-17)
On the third day, we drove to Mount Tabor very early in the morning to avoid the long line of pilgrims waiting for a ride to the Church of Transfiguration. It was traditionally on the summit of Mount Tabor that Jesus was transfigured in the eyes of Peter, James and John. (Matthew 17:2) It was very cold and windy but we made it on time for our eight o’clock mass. We were so blessed to have mass celebrated inside the Church of the Transfiguration. And as if the Lord’s transfiguration had extended to us, everyone’s face seemed illuminated! Our tour guide commented “Everybody looks so happy!” Yes, we were! Miracles kept unfolding each day!
On the way to Qumran we travelled along Jericho’s road and had a glimpse of the sycamore fig tree which Zacchaeus climbed to see Jesus while passing by.(Luke 19:5-9) We toured the Qumran Park, a dessert area where caves were discovered in 1952. The Treasures of Copper Scroll contain the oldest existing Old Testament texts like the Book of Esther and the war between the Sons of Darkness and the Light before the start of the Messianic Age. From here we proceeded to the Dead Sea, bathed at the sea of oil and salt, and learned how to float without really trying!
We had early Mass at St. Shepherd’s Field Church on the fourth day. After lunch, we went to the Basilica of the Nativity, traditionally the birthplace of Jesus. We descended the curved steps to the Grotto of the Nativity where the Silver Star overlies the spot of Jesus’ birth - a cave-like manger; the Star of Bethlehem can be seen at the other side. The present opening is a small door wherein one will have to bend fully in order to enter, one at a time. The entrance of the Basilica of the Nativity is shared by the Armenians, Greek Orthodox and the Latins.
The Church of Dormition in Mt. Zion commemorates the tradition where Mary fell into eternal sleep. Mary’s life-size statue which is made of cherry wood and ivory is located in the center of the crypt in the upper church. This is also believed to be the place of the Last Supper. We were teary-eyed as we sang the Salve Regina, praying that like the Blessed Mother, we too will have the privilege of a peaceful and happy death.
On the fifth day, our first stop was the Mount of Olives where the most magnificent view of the Old City of Jerusalem can be seen. Knowing the Filipinos’ penchant for picture taking, you can imagine us having our photos taken with the city of Jerusalem as the background. On top of Mount Olives is the Chapel of the Ascension, a small domed octagonal building, marking the traditional spot where Jesus ascended to Heaven. On the feast of the Ascension, celebrated forty days after Easter, the different Christian sects hold their ceremonies here.
On the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives is the garden of Gethsemane where we had our mass. To this day, a stately grove of eight ancient olive trees and their fruits is maintained well by the Franciscan brothers. We recall that it is in the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus was arrested by the soldiers of the High Priest. The focal point of the garden is the Basilica of the Agony, also known as the Church of All Nations. In front of the altar is the traditional Rock of the Agony upon which Jesus prayed and sweated blood the night before his arrest.
The Church of Pater Noster was originally erected in the fourth century by Empress Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine under whose reign Rome was converted to Christianity. A cavern where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer is now a chapel and the Carmelite cloister here is lined with glazed tiles bearing the text of the prayer in more than sixty languages including Pilipino and the local dialects of Ilonggo and Kapampangan.
The milky white Church of the Milk Grotto is a Franciscan chapel built over the cave in which the Holy Family took shelter during the flight to Egypt. The Bible tells us that an angel warned Joseph in a dream that King Herod would order all male children, aged two years and below, to be killed when he heard from the three wise men that a new King of the Jews had been born in Bethlehem. (Matthew 2 verses 13-17) Tradition holds that, while nursing the baby Jesus, some of Mary’s milk spilled on the stone floor turning the entire cave white. Now packets of powdered milk are sold here and many believe that whoever drinks this milk will get pregnant! Pictures of families blessed by a child abound the corners of this church, including a family from the Philippines.
Another site we passed by was the Western Wall known as the “Wailing Wall”, containing the vestiges of the first and second temple. By tradition, Jews all over the world gather here to pray for the sick, the peace of Jerusalem and the coming of the Messiah.
Our last stop on the fifth day was at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, located in the heart of the Christian Quarter of the Old City. This is definitely the holiest place in all Christendom. It was already dark when we reached the tomb of Jesus. Patiently we waited by meditating on the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary. The long line to the tomb took almost an hour. Only four or five people can enter at a time. Inside the tomb an altar was built, the sacred rock was covered with marble and above it are paintings depicting the Resurrection.
In the Gospel of John Chapter 10 verses 11-18, we read how Jesus’ resurrected body appeared to Mary Magdalene. She was the first to see the risen Master. While in front of the tomb, I had that strange heavenly feeling, much like sensing the smell of incense. Like Mary Magdalene, I felt that in my own way, I had to proclaim the good news of Christ’s Resurrection.
We managed to go up to the place where Jesus was crucified along with the two thieves. The place called Golgotha is now a chapel belonging to the Greek Orthodox. The altar has a silver disk beneath it marking the exact place where the Cross stood. As I looked with unwavering attention at the altar, I thanked God for the crosses in my life.
Going back to the Joyful Mysteries…We travelled to the village of Ein Karem, located in the hill of Judah, the birthplace of John the Baptist. In the second Joyful Mystery, we reflect on how the Virgin Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth when she learned from the angel Gabriel that Elizabeth was pregnant. The different dialects of the Magnificat can be seen around the patio of the Church of the Visitation. We had our mass in the Church of Lazarus in Bethany, the home of Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, the friends of Jesus.
Concluding the tour, we were grateful that we were blessed with tour guides and pilgrimage chaplains who led us in moments of spiritual reflections. Travelling is always a learning experience and pilgrimages are so much more enlightening and uplifting. Back home, reading the Bible and listening to homilies will be more meaningful to me. Having walked where Jesus walked, the Gospel scenes should be more vivid now!
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