A Day by the Galilee
We ended Friday night in Tiberias, a Roman city then and not a New Testament town, but now a thriving tourist destination. Our first glimpse of the Galilee was ringed by lights a night from our hotel room, but its beauty truly transfixed us in a morning of bright sunshine amid temperatures in the lower fifties. The first thing to know about the Sea of Galilee is that is not a Sea, but a lake. Actually, I think it looks stunningly lie Lake George surrounded either by mountains or villages.
Jesus came to this area after the crowd at the synagogue in Nazareth not only rejected him but attempted to thrown him down a “hill” which turns out to be a precipitous cliff of hundreds of feet. He came to the shores of Galilee and began his ministry to the world. It is here that he lived and called his disciples and perhaps even found himself.
We started our day in a perfect place – the Mount of Beatitudes. What else can you say about a lush hill perched above a lake on a clear day and sanctified by such holy words? It is adorned by another beautiful Barluzzi church, a circular masterpiece with an eight sided cupola atop, each with a beatitude written in Latin near its apex. It is perfectly attuned to its peaceful surroundings and a powerful place to pray. We had thirty minutes to explore and pray for which I was grateful, but if we were told we had to stay there all day, that would have been fine too. I must admit when I arrived at the patio on top of the hill and overlooking the water, my thought was “Heck, anyone could give a great sermon here.” It made think of how it must have been received. After all, some of the things in the Sermon on the Mount such as “Blessed are they who mourn,” and “Love your enemy” seem both illogical and unattractive. But on a breezy spring day in that setting, I bet everyone thought this crazy kind of unlimited and dangerous love was just the tonic we need. Beauty has the ability to do that. It opens our hearts and minds not just to more things, but to more positive things. The scope of what is possible and who we are grows wider in the presence of beauty. Then one more beatitude to celebrate this place: “Blessed are those who take in the beauty around them.”
At the base of the hill is Tabgha, the site of the feeding of the five thousand from five loaves and two fish. You realize that no area in the world was as thick with miracles as this small stretch of land of lakeside villages. Even scholars who approach Jesus from a purely historical perspective conclude he must have been a wonderworker give the unanimity of his praise. And no place was more blessed in that way than Jesus’ home base of Capernaum.
This is a relatively new site. The Franciscans (more on them later) had bought the land in the hope of literally unearthing something special in the town that Jesus may have called home for nearly three years. They were well rewarded. Once again, Christian tradition and archeological evidence of ruins and first century pious devotions led to the discovery of St. Peter’s house where a church dedicated to him peers gloriously over the water. In that rock hewn house appears to be a guest room, most likely used by Jesus. Capernaum saw many wonderful sites in the years Jesus lived there – both gentle like the hand holding of Peter’s mother-in-law to cure her of fever and the dramatic like the healing of a paralytic lowered through the roof of that same house. It seems to me this stretch in Capernaum was a decisive period in the life of Jesus for finding success and his voice, honing his mission and then understanding his destiny. When the town folk begin to claim him as their own, when the potential of a comfortable life as beloved rabbi and healer beckoned, he understood the trap. “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.”
We finished the morning celebrating mass at the Church of the Primacy of Peter. His primacy was given over twenty miles away in the region of Caesarea Philippi, but here the resurrected Jesus reaffirmed it after Peter’s heartbreaking denial on the night of the Lord’s arrest in the famous, “Peter, do you love me?” dialogue. The altar is built around the rock called Mensa Christi – the table of Christ. Jesus baked the fish while his disciples were fishing and they noticed him from afar (John 21). Outside you could imagine the disciples out in their boat, slow in their recognition of Jesus and the excitement that caused Peter to jump out of the boat and swim to Jesus.
In the afternoon, we traveled to the newly excavated site of Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene. The Legionaires of Christ bought and worked on this site just a few years ago and have found compelling and treasured artifacts, including one of only seven first century synagogues discovered in Israel. It was a well to do town. Fish from the Galilee were so renowned that they were shipped to Rome and Magdala seems to have been a fish processing center. The homes are large leading to the speculation that Mary was among the wealthy female disciples of the region that funded Christ’s mission. So let’s say it all toogether: MARY MAGDALENE WAS NOT A PROSTITUTE. The Legionaires of Christ have built a beautiful church dedicated to the women of Christ’s life and a wonderful church with a boat shaped altar and the staff of the mast standing as the cross. It looks like it is about to set sail on the Galilee.
And that is what we did next: we went out on the boat in the quiet of the Galilee. Jesus did a few famous things on the Sea of Galilee. He calmed a storm which countless rain delays at ballgames prove I cannot. He walked on the water which I did not want to risk, allowing for my insufficient sleep. He caused a great catch of fish which I thought a long shot for me. And he slept on the boat and I thought here is my true opportunity to be Christ like on the Galilee. I almost get there, but was awakened by the beginning of our prayer.
From the boat we had a panoramic view of our day with holy sites dotting the shore: the Mount of Beatitudes, Tabgha, the Primacy of Peter and Capernaum. The perspective showed how word must have spread. From miles along the coast, you could see if hundreds or thousands of people were milling around, or listening to someone a hill. You would be intrigued; what is happening? Can I make it there? It is hard to find a better spot for growing a faith. Let us pray we can find that ideal place in our lives.