WHEN our guide Taleb welcomed us to Israel, I was immediately impressed by the lush vegetation surrounding us; especially the sight of fully-grown mango trees that were probably as tall as me. I soon learned that Israel was famous for its agricultural expertise hence the bountiful acres of cultivated farmlands that seemed endless.
Our first stop was the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter, a Franciscan church located in Tabgha built along the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. There is a rock in front of its altar that is venerated as being the spot where Jesus had laid out breakfast for his Apostles and where he told Peter to “Feed my sheep,” after that miraculous catch made from the Sea; when Jesus appeared to them for the third time after his resurrection.
We proceeded to Capernaum and sat together under the shade of the trees as our guide explained to us that Jesus had spent the last three years of his life here. The home of St. Peter is marked by a church; the apostles Andrew, James and John also came from here. Jesus had selected this town to be the center of his public ministry and here, he healed many sick people. But in the end, Jesus cursed Capernaum – along with Bethsaida and Chorazin – because they did not believe he was the Messiah. This place today becomes a ghost town once the tourists leave at the end of the day.
The Yardenit Baptismal Site was our last stop of the day. Though this is not the exact baptismal site of Jesus, it is a government-regulated baptismal site, but still part of the River Jordan. We prayed and renewed our baptismal vows and thanked God for a very fruitful first day in Israel.
We woke up to a beautiful Easter Sunday and had the Basilica of The Annunciation as our first order of the day. A Latin church in Nazareth, its towering cupola stands over a cave that tradition holds to be the home of the Virgin Mary, who was about 14-years-old when the Angel Gabriel appeared to her. When we reached the lower level of the church where a sunken grotto houses the traditional cave home, I could not help but shed tears. I was unprepared for the surge of emotions I felt when I realized this was where it all started. Inside the cave stands a simple altar with a Latin inscription: Here, the Word was made Flesh.
We had our Easter Mass at one of the smaller chapels beneath the main church and took the time to walk around beautiful gardens filled with mosaic walls depicting the Virgin Mary as she is known in other countries. A little further to the right of this edifice is the Church of St. Joseph, which is said to have been built over Joseph’s carpentry shop.
After a short visit to see Mount Tabor that is known as the site of the Transfiguration, we ended our second day in Israel with a boat ride in the Sea of Galilee. Known locally as Lake Kinneret, this is the lake where Jesus walked on water, the site near his famous Sermon on the Mount and where the Miracle of the 5,000 loaves and fishes happened. As we rode around on the wooden boat chatting and singing a Jewish folk song, I felt so serene and happy to be where I was - the only place that Jesus visited that remained unchanged.