Saying Farewell to the Holy Land

The last two days have been rather hectic as we wrap up our time in the Holy Land. We visited the New City of Jerusalem, heard again from Fr. David Neuhaus, and made our way to the city of Jaffa in preparing for our departure tomorrow from Tel Aviv. There are many pictures to be shared, but a slow internet connection makes it impossible to do so currently. Pictures will follow with our return to the U.S.

In the meantime, thank you for following our adventure from the Holy Land. We are all having learned so much, having enjoyed the company of true friends, and having been forever changed.

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More adventures

The day began with some gray clouds and sprinkles, as we drove up the mountain pass of Mount Gerizim in the West Bank, near the city of Nablus. This mountain is one of the highest in the West Bank, considered sacred by the Samaritans, now a small community of several hundred people living in Palestine.


Driving up Mount Gerizim in the rain.

Winding our way down the other side of the mountain, we found our way to the West Bank city of Nablus. Just east of Nablus, we paid a visit to Jacob’s Well, a site associated with the Biblical patriarch, Jacob, and the place where Christians believe a Samaritan woman offered Jesus a drink of water (John 4:13-14). The well, located within the current church of St. Photina the Samaritan, was built in 1860 by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.


The Church of St. Photina the Samaritan


Drawing water from Jacob’s Well


The Church of St. Photina the Samaritan

We then drove through some of the ruins of ancient Samaria near the Palestinian village of Sebastia, and stopped for a delicious lunch of maqluba and other Arabic fare. DSC01810.JPG

No visit to Nablus would be complete without sampling kanafeh, a dessert that is the speciality of the Palestinian city.


Students being served kanafeh.

After enjoying our dessert, we traveled back to Jerusalem for a lecture on “Ecumenical Perspectives on the Holy Land” by Fr. Frans Bouwen, a White Father and specialist in Eastern theology, ecumenical relations and Islam in Rome and Athens. After Fr. Frans’ talk, we toured the beautiful Church of St. Anne, the traditional site of the home of Jesus’ grandparents, Anne and Joachim, and the birthplace of the Virgin Mary.


Fr. Frans Bouwen and Professor Mahoney


Exterior of the Church of St. Anne


Interior, Church of St. Anne

Our day ended with a final lecture by Fr. David Neuhaus, SJ, Patriarchal Vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics at the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, on the topic of “Jewish Theology of Place and the Land.” We will meet with Fr. David again tomorrow for a continuation of this discussion on this topic from the Christian perspective.


Fr. David Neuhaus

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To the Galilee…

Yesterday morning we boarded our bus, joined by Fr. Peter Dubrul, SJ, who we met earlier during our trip, and headed north to the Galilee region of Israel. As we drove, the scenery changed dramatically, shifting from desert to areas of evergreen trees and lush, green fields.

Our first stop was Mount Tabor in Lower Galilee, which many Christians believe to be the site of the Transfiguration of Jesus. On the mountain stands the Church of the Transfiguration, a Franciscan basilica, offering serene spaces for contemplation and gorgeous views of the valleys below.


The Church of the Transfiguration


Students in front of the Church of the Transfiguration


Father Peter Dubrul speaks to us outside of the Church of the Transfiguration

Our next stop was Nazareth, which the New Testament describes as the childhood home of Jesus. After a lunch of shawarma and falafel, we made our way to the Church of the Annunciation, which Roman Catholics hold to be the site of the Annunciation, or the announcement of the Incarnation by the angel Gabriel to Mary.


The Church of the Annunciation


Our tour guide, Ibrahim Salameh, describes some of the architectural features of the Church of the Annunciation

After a few afternoon showers, we proceeded to Cana, where Christians believe Jesus performed the first of his “signs.” This miracle involved Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding festival, when the bridegroom ran out of wine to serve his guests.


The Wedding Church at Cana


“Wedding wine”: a bestseller in Cana

After our visit to Cana, we headed to Tiberias, an Israeli city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, named after the Emperor Tiberius. That evening, Fr. Peter gave us a lecture on “Jesus in the Galilee.”

Our next day in the Galilee began on the Mount of Beatitudes, on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, which Christians commemorate as the potential site where Jesus delivered his “Sermon on the Mount.”


In front of the chapel on the Mount of the Beatitudes


Fr. Peter has students read the Sermon on the Mount in the chapel.

Our next destination was Tabgha, traditionally accepted as the site of Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, as well as the site of the fourth resurrection appearance of Jesus.


A group photo in the courtyard of the Church of the Loaves and Fishes


The Church of the Loaves and Fishes


A Bible reading outside of the Church of the Primacy of Peter, Tabgha


The Church of the Primacy of Peter, Tabgha


On the shores of the Sea of Galilee

Departing from Tabgha, we traveled to Capernaum, which was historically a fishing village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, and the center of Jesus’ ministry after leaving his hometown of Nazareth.


The ancient synagogue at Capernaum, in which Christians believe Jesus gave sermons.

Fr. Peter leading students in a Bible reading in the ancient synagogue.


Students in the Capernaum Synagogue.


Fr. Peter leading students in a reading of the Gospels in the Synagogue at Capernaum.

Our final stop in our journey to the Galilee was Magdala, a small fishing village active during the life of Jesus, believed to be the birthplace of Mary Magdalene. Recent archaeological discoveries have revealed an ancient synagogue from the time of Jesus, as well as an entire ancient town, including Jewish purification baths. After viewing these discoveries, we also toured the site’s spirituality center, completed in 2014, called Duc in Altum, which means “go into the deep,” a reference from the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus asks the Apostle Peter to take his boat out “into the deep” for a catch (Lk 5:4)


Students listening to a talk about recent archaeological discoveries in Magdala.


Viewing the ancient synagogue in Magdala.


Viewing the ancient ritual baths.


The Boat Chapel in Duc In Altum, with the Sea of Galilee in the background.


The Mary Magdalene Chapel in Duc in Altum.

After a very exciting two days in the Galilee, we boarded the bus for our temporary home in Bethlehem, looking forward to our adventures to come.

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Happy New Year!

Today we visited the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, which consists of thirty-five acres of buildings, fountains, and minarets, and is home to Islam’s holy sites on the Temple Mount in the city of Jerusalem. At the center of the sanctuary is the Dome of the Rock, while Masjid al-Aqsa stands at the southernmost end.


Students with Masjid al-Aqsa in the background.


The Interior of Masjid al-Aqsa



Exterior of the Dome of the Rock


Interior of the Dome on the Rock

After our visit to the Temple Mount, we stopped at the Tomb of the Virgin, believed by Eastern Christians to be the burial place of Mary, the mother of Jesus.


At the Tomb of the Virgin



Lighting candles at the Tomb of the Virgin



After our trip to the Tomb of the Virgin, we boarded the bus and made for the city of Jericho, a city in the Palestinian Territories near the Jordan River.


On our way to Jericho

DSC00995.JPGOur next stop was Qumran, an archaeological site in the West Bank managed by Israel’s Qumran National Park. The Qumran Caves are famous for the famous discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls.


Taking in the views at Qumran National Park


Qumran National Park


Qumran National Park

We ended our day with a relaxing and fun-filled afternoon at the Dead Sea. After covering ourselves in the mud of the Dead Sea, our skin has never felt softer!


Fun at the Dead Sea


Hot chocolate after our mud baths. 

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Bethlehem – The City of David

We spent the full day in Bethlehem. Though we have been staying here at the Grand Park Hotel since we arrived, this was the first opportunity actually to see and experience this “little town of Bethlehem.” In the time of Jesus, Bethlehem as a town of 700-800 people. Now there are some 35,000 citizens in a very busy and bustling city that hosts tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists every year – 2016-2017 is no exception.

Father Jamal Khader, the Rector of the Latin Patriarchate Seminary who also teaches at Bethlehem University and is an active participant in inter-religious dialogue, spoke to us about the relationship of religion and politics and how this mingling can affect the social, cultural and political situation in the Holy Land. He suggested that when religion is narrowly appropriated by some believers (Jews, Christians and Muslims alike) and then intermingled with politics, it can lead to defining one’s religious tradition in exclusivists categories, which can eventually lead to acts and systems of injustice an all sides. Father Khader is a leading proponent of interfaith dialogue that will lend itself to a peaceful and just resolution of conflicts that seem to plague this small piece of land to this day. While some  (perhaps many) may feel that such a resolution is not possible, Father Khader believes that one’s faith must be lived in hope, always looking for opportunities to discover new paths that lead to a fulfillment of Isaiah’s promise that “the lion and the lamb will lay down together…and there will be no more harm or ruin on [God’s] holy mountain.”

The group then set off for “Shepherd’s Field” with a short stop at a local gift and souvenir shop where we were able to visit a small “atelier” or workshop where local artisans carve olive wood and create stunning works of art as well as smaller pieces that are very popular with visitors to Bethlehem.

Then the bus took us to Shepherd’s Field, the traditional site where the angels announced to the shepherds that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. We lingered in a cave, that since the fourth century, has been honored as the place of this visitation by heavenly choirs to simple, poor and ill-regarded shepherds. A sign that Jesus was especially cognizant of and concerned for the poor, the sick, the vulnerable and anyone on the margins of society. The Franciscans have a church above this cave which is dedicated to the angelic visitation and after hearing about the architecture of the building we sang “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.”

By this time we were ready for lunch and stopped at “The Tent,” where we enjoyed a feast of sorts, with traditional dishes and salads served with warm bread (which was in never ending supply), and topped with generous portions of grilled vegetables and meats. We could not end the meal without treating ourselves to baklava.

Heading back to Bethlehem, we stopped at the “Palestinian Heritage Center” where the Maha Saca, the owner and director, spoke to us about the history of the center and its purpose. Inside there is a small display of furniture and implements used in the traditional crafts of needle work and embroidery done in small homes in villages throughout Palestine. The center is a place where women from around Palestine are able to sell their products and gain modest incomes. Maha embroidered a stole for Pope Francis when he was visiting the Holy Land two years ago, and proudly displayed the picture of the pope wearing her beautiful work.

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Exploring Bethlehem

Today began with a lecture with Fr. Jamal Khader on Religion and Peace  in the Holy Land. Fr. Jamal, the Chairperson of the Department of Religious Studies and the Dean of Arts at Bethlehem University, shared his perspectives on the role of religion in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as the potential of religion to act as a tool of peace.


Fr. Jamal Khader

After the lecture, the class toured various sites in Bethlehem, including the Bethlehem New Store, which has an on site factory where artisans produce hand-crafted olive-wood pieces.


An artisan at work.



The class then headed to the village of Beit Sahour to visit Shepherd’s Field, where many Christians believe an angel appeared to shepherds to announce the birth of Christ.



Chapel at Shepherd’s Field

After a delicious lunch at a local Bethlehem restaurant, The Tent, we visited the Palestinian Heritage Center, founded by Mrs. Maha Saca in 1991, which aims to preserve Palestinian culture, particularly the arts of embroidery and traditional dressmaking. According to the Center’s website, the Center “produces fair trade, handmade embroidery, crafted by women from villages and refugee camps around the city of Bethlehem.”



Maha Saca speaks to students at the Palestinian Heritage Center


Palestinian Heritage Center

The class ended the day at the Church of the Nativity. This basilica, commissioned by Constantine the Great and his mother, Helena, is built over a cave which traditionally marks the birthplace of Jesus.


The Church of the Nativity


Students entering the Grotto of the Nativity


Students at the altar of the Nativity


The altar of the Nativity

Tomorrow, the first day of 2017, we will visit the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, and also travel to Jericho and Qumran.

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Two Days in Jerusalem

We spent the first two days visiting the many sacred sites in Jerusalem. The first day focused on the Jewish Quarter.


Students look at a model of Jerusalem and surrounding areas in the Davidson Center.


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A student asks a question about an ancient Jewish ritual bath, or mikvah. 

We focused particularly on the Western Wall and recent excavations and discoveries around the Western Wall – often known as the Wailing Wall. These days, Jews around the world celebrate Hanukkah, and nowhere is it commemorated as in Jerusalem. Last evening we were able to spend significant time at the Western Wall, approaching the wall to pray, stand quietly in remembrance or simply experience the awesome communal expression of joy and hope by the Jewish pilgrims – men, women, children, families, young and old – as they prayed, sang and danced in the square in from the the Western Wall.


A gold menorah in the Jewish Quarter.


The Western Wall of the Temple Mount.


The Western Wall

Today, we focused on the Christian sites in and around Jerusalem. The day started with a lecture by Father Peter DuBrul, SJ who is on the faculty at Bethlehem University. He gave us some deep insights into the mind and heart of Jesus and Jesus’ relationship to this holy city. The day proceeded by following the path of Jesus from the Mount of Olives, through the Garden of Gethsemane, the Kidron Valley, the Via Dolorosa (Way of the Cross) and finally to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is the traditional site of the death and burial of Jesus. Again, we entered this shrine with a sense of awe and wonder knowing the Christians have been coming here to pray for nearly two thousand years.


A view of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.


The Garden of Gethsemane.


The Church of All Nations, next to the Garden of Gethsemane.


The Church of All Nations.


The Via Dolorosa, or “The Way of Suffering.”


Students walking along the Via Dolorosa


The Church of the Holy Sepulchre


The Church of the Holy Sepulchre


Students light candles at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Tomorrow we spend the whole day in Bethlehem. Updates will follow tomorrow.

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