Monthly Archives: October 2010

The Jordan River

The Jordan River, which figures in so many of the sacred stories of the Holy Land, is still vital to this region today.  Though the river winds almost 200 miles from its sources at the base of the Golan mountains in the north into the Sea of Galilee and then on to the Dead Sea in the south, the direct distance from one end to the other is only about 60 miles. The river falls almost 3,000 feet on its way to the Dead Sea,.

The Jordan is sacred to Jews and Christians alike. It became holy to the Jews when they miraculously crossed it on their way to the Promised Land. The great Jewish prophet Elijah came from a town near the river’s banks. Later he returned to that part of the river to be safe from his enemies.

Elijah’s successor, the Prophet Elisha, also from Jordan area, told Naaman the Syrian general to bathe in the river to be cured of his leprosy, and he was cured. Ancient hot springs near Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee fostered the river’s curative reputation then. They’re still used today.

At the time of Jesus, the river’s fresh flowing waters were the life-blood of the land, making the Sea of Galilee teem with fish and the plains along its banks fertile for agriculture. Pilgrims from Galilee followed the Jordan on their way down to the city of Jericho, and from there went to Jerusalem to the temple to celebrate the holy days.

The Jordan Today

The river is still essential to the region. Lake Kineret, as the Israelis call the Sea of Galilee, is the primary source of drinking water for the region and crucial for its agriculture. The use of water from the Jordan is a major point of controversy between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

cf: “The Disputed Waters of the Jordan” by C. G. Smith Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers No. 40 (Dec., 1966), pp. 111-128 Oxford, England

Nourishing Prophets

The river nourished prophets in the past.  Somewhere in the stretch of Jordan near Jericho where people forded the river, John the Baptist preached to and baptized pilgrims going to the Holy City.

The place where John baptized was hardly a desert as we think of it. It was a deserted place that offered sufficient food for survival, like the “ grass-hoppers and wild honey” John ate.  In this uncultivated place,  you learned to depend on what God provided.

That was the teaching of Jesus, remember. “I tell you do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or drink, or about your body, what you will wear… Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” (Mt 6, 25 ff) The desert was a place to put worry aside and trust in the goodness of God.

When he entered the waters of the Jordan to be baptized, Jesus acknowledged his heavenly Father as the ultimate Source of Life, the creator of all things. Water, as it always is,  was a holy sign of life.  Like the prophets,  Elijah and John the Baptist, Jesus remained in this wilderness near the water for forty days to prepare for his divine mission. He readied himself to depend on God for everything.

The Jordan after Jesus

Later, when the Roman empire turned Christian in the 4th century, Christians came to the Jordan River in great numbers on Easter and on the Feast of the Epiphany to remember the One who was baptized there. They went into the sacred waters, and many took some of it home in small containers.

Early Christian pilgrims like Egeria, a nun from Gaul who came to the Holy Land around the year 415 AD left an account of her visit to the Jordan where she looked for the place of Jesus’ baptism.  Monks who had already settled near the river brought her to a place called Salim, near Jericho. The town, associated with the priest Melchisedech, was surrounded by fertile land which had a revered spring that flowed into the Jordan close by. Here’s how she described it:

“We came to a very beautiful fruit orchard, in the center of which the priest showed us a spring of the very purest and best water, which gives rise to a real stream. In front of the spring there is a sort of pool where it seems that St. John the Baptist administered baptism. Then the saintly priest said to us: ‘To this day this garden is known as the garden of St. John.’ There are many other brothers, holy monks coming from various places, who come to wash in that spring.

“The saintly priest also told us that even today all those who are to be baptized in this village, that is in the church of Melchisedech, are always baptized in this very spring at Easter; they return very early by candlelight with the clergy and the monks, singing psalms and antiphons; and all who have been baptized are led back early from the spring to the church of Melchisedech.” p 73

A 19th Century Pilgrim at the Jordan

Christians in great numbers have visited the Jordan River since Egeria. Towards the end of the 19th century, an English vicar, Cunningham Geikie described  Christian pilgrims following the venerable tradition of visiting its waters.

“Holy water is traditionally carried away by ship masters visiting the river as pilgrims to sprinkle their ships before a voyage; and we are told that all pilgrims alike went into the water wearing a linen garment, which they sacredly preserved  as a winding sheet to be wrapped around them at their death.

“The scene of the yearly bathing of pilgrims now is near the ford, about two miles above the Dead Sea, each sect having its own particular spot, which it fondly believes to be exactly where our Savior was baptized…

“Each Easter Monday thousands of pilgrims start, in a great caravan, from Jerusalem, under the protection of the Turkish government; a white flag and loud music going before them, while Turkish soldiers, with the green standard of the prophet, close the long procession. On the Greek Easter Monday, the same spectacle is repeated, four or five thousand pilgrims joining in the second caravan. Formerly the numbers going to the Jordan each year was much greater, from fifteen to twenty thousand….”(Cunningham Geikie, The Holy Land and the Bible,Vol 2, New York, 1890 pp 404-405)

The Jordan and Christian Baptism

Today, every Catholic parish church celebrates the mystery of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan at its baptistery where new believers receive new life and regular believers remember their own baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some eastern Christian churches prefer to call their baptisteries simply “the Jordan.”

We will visit a baptismal site near the mouth of the Sea of Galilee. However, the most authentic site is further down the river in Jordanian territory at el-Maghtas, where a large church and pilgrim center are currently being built following excavations begun in 1996 by Jordanian archeologists. It is probably the  “Bethany beyond the Jordan” mentioned in the New Testament where Jesus was baptized and John the Baptist preached.

The Jordan River may offer its own commentary on the mystery of death and resurrection of Jesus, expressed in his baptism.  At one end is the Sea of Galilee brimming with life, and at the other end is the Dead Sea a symbol of death. The river holds these two realities together, and if we reverse its course we can see the gift God gives us through Jesus Christ.

Like him, we pass through the waters of baptism from death to life.

Nov 6 Tel Aviv to Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee

The drive from the airport to Tiberias is about two hours. Israel and the occupied territories are about the size of New Jersey, so our trips to different sites will not be too long.

This is the land of Jesus and we’re going first to where he was raised and began his mission: Galilee. In the scriptures he’s called a Galilean, from Nazareth. Our hotel is in Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, where we will be staying for four days. It’s not too far from Nazareth and Capernaum and other Galilean towns mentioned in the New Testament.

On a map of 1st century Palestine you can see where these places were.

Our official guide will tell us a great deal about Tiberias and the surrounding area, but let me say something about the city where we will be staying.  Today it’s a Jewish city of modern resorts, hotels and spas, but it’s also one of Judaism’s holy cities. Let’s look at it at the time of Jesus.

Herod Antipas

It was built by Herod Antipas,  Tetrarch of Galilee, around the year 20 AD. He made the city his capital and  named it after his patron, the Roman Emperor Tiberius.

Herod Antipas (4 BC-39 AD) is mentioned a number of times in the New Testament. Jesus called him “that Fox.”  He ordered John the Baptist beheaded and later wondered if Jesus might be John come back from the dead.

Pontius Pilate sent Jesus to Herod before sentencing him to death, but Jesus didn’t say a word to him. One other interesting connection to Herod: Johanna, wife of Herod’s steward Cusa, was a follower of Jesus who stood with Mary and the other women at his cross.

Like his father, Herod the Great, Herod Antipas loved to build, and his splendid Greco-Roman city of Tiberias arose from 20 and 27 AD, while Jesus lived in Nazareth. It had a Roman gate, stadium, spacious squares with marble statues,  a grand palace with a golden roof and a large synagogue. To pay for it, Herod relied on his tax-collectors in the cities and towns in his district–places like Capernaum and Nazareth– to squeeze the fishermen and farmers for whatever they could get.

The ruins of Herod’s city lie south of the present city of Tiberias.

Talmudic Judaism

After the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Romans in 70 AD,  pharisees and scribes from the city flocked to Tiberias and made it a base for reconstituting Judaism. Instead of the temple, they made the synagogue the center of Jewish life and worship. Tiberias itself became the site of over 12 synagogues and an important place for Jewish learning.  A rabbinic school established in the city eventually produced the Palestinian Talmud, a written collection of rabbinic teachings on Jewish laws and traditions, around the beginning of the 4th century. Jewish historians describe the early centuries after the destruction of Jerusalem as the Time of Talmudic Judaism.

The Gospel of Matthew

Some scholars say the Gospel of Matthew, the most contentious and polemical of the gospels, may have been written near Tiberias around the year 90 AD. (Other places they suggest are Antioch in Syria and Sepphoris, not too far from Nazareth)  The gospel certainly reflects the struggles between the Jewish authorities in Tiberias and the Jewish Christians of Galilee over the future of Judaism. The sharp critique of the scribes and pharisees in the 23rd chapter of Matthew is an example of the contentious spirit that must have existed on both sides.

It would be good to keep Matthew’s gospel in hand as we travel around Galilee.

Peter’s confession at Caesaria Philippi that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God”, the highpoint of the Matthew’s gospel, makes a claim that the Jewish authorities from Tiberias would fiercely dispute.  After all, Jesus came from nearby, inconspicuous Nazareth where his own neighbors rejected him.  Did he really rise from the dead? Rumors were that his disciples stole his body from the tomb. Perhaps he resembled Elijah, or John the Baptist, or one of the prophets, but he could be a false prophet too.

The Jewish authorities would also question the credentials of the chief followers of Jesus–  uneducated fishermen and unpopular tax-collectors. Could they be authentic teachers in Israel?

Modern scriptural studies point out the real life situations that influenced the creation of our gospels. They didn’t drop down from heaven, they came from people struggling over the questions Jesus asked Peter: “Who do people say that I am?” “Who do you say that I am?” They were written to answer his critics then, and we hear these old disputes even now.

For example, Matthew’s gospel speaks to questions about the origins of Jesus, born of a virgin and conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Matthew’s Jesus speaks to the crowds from a mountain, like Moses, not in a synagogue like the Pharisees. The gospel is filled with Old Testament references backing up his claims. Matthew’s gospel  challenges the story that after his resurrection his body was stolen by his own disciples. Matthew takes on the task to disprove that story.

Finally, Peter, the fisherman, and Matthew, the tax-collector are star witnesses of Matthew’s gospel. “Flesh and blood” hasn’t revealed this to them, but the Father in heaven.

Did the Christians Lose?

I think the followers of Jesus lost the battle with the new Jewish establishment in Galilee at the end of the 1st century, and many moved on to other places. Only some  remained in Galilee. The final words of Jesus to his eleven disciples in Matthew’s gospel seem to indicate a call to other places.

“The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.  When they saw him they worshipped, but they doubted. Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”  Mt 28, 16-20

Fourth Century Christian Expansion

The Christian presence in the Holy Land increased when Constantine gained control of the Roman empire in the 4th century and favored the Christian Church. As Christians came to the Holy Land and built churches and shrines over the places where tradition said Jesus lived and ministered,  Galilee remained a Jewish stronghold.

When Muslims conquered the Holy Land in the 7th century, Christians and Jews alike came under their rule. Because of harsh Muslim rule under the Seljuk Turks and their destruction of the great Christian shrine of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem in the 11th century,  Crusaders from Europe invaded Palestine and re-established a Christian presence again. Evidence of Crusader churches and fortresses can be seen today.

Muslims, Jews and Christians

Muslims regained control of the Holy Land in the 13th century and remained in power  till the 20th century. Under Ottoman rule, Jews were treated more favorably than Christians, but as the fortunes of the Ottoman Empire declined so did the economy of Palestine. By the 19th century , Jewish and Christian and Muslims saw a land that was poor and neglected.

As the nation states formed in Europe in the 17th century, persecutions of the Jews increased and Jewish aspirations to return to their ancestral lands strengthened. By the 19th century Jews from Russia and Poland were settling again in parts of Palestine, in Jerusalem as well as in Galilee. After the holocaust, the Jewish population dramatically increased.

The Christian presence today is small and increasingly limited to shrines at Christian holy places, sustained especially by religious like the Franciscans.

Tiberias Then and Now

An English visitor to Tiberias towards the end of the 19th century offers an interesting glimpse of this Jewish city at the time:

“The Jews are very numerous in Tiberias,  it and Safed being, after Jerusalem and Hebron, the two holiest towns; for the Messiah is one day, they believe, to rise from the waters of the lake and land at Tiberias, and Safed is to be the seat of his throne.

“Prayer must be repeated at Tiberias at least twice a week, to keep the world from being destroyed. The worship in the synagogue seems to be in some respects peculiar, since the congregation seek to intensify different parts of the service by mimetic enforcement of its words.  Thus, when the Rabbi recites the passage, “Praise the Lord with the sound of the trumpet,” they imitate the sound of the trumpet through their closed fists; when a tempest is mentioned , they puff and blow to represent a storm; and when the cries of the righteous in distress are spoken of in the Lesson, they all set up a loud screaming.

“The Israelites of Tiberias are chiefly from Russian Poland, and do not speak German. Poor, thin, and filthy, they are certainly far from attractive;  but the women are neatly dressed, many of them in white and look much better than the men. “  Cunningham Geikie, The Holy Land and the Bible,Vol 2, New York, 1890 p 543

Tiberias today little resembles the city the visitor describes then.

Holy Land Pilgrimage

Itinerary: November 5-16

Pilgrims in the Holy Land

Over the centuries, countless Christian pilgrims have gone to the Holy Land. Among the first were women like Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, who is largely responsible for building Christian shrines over places like the Tomb of Jesus, Calvary and Bethlehem in the early 4th century AD.

A nun from Gaul, Egeria, visited the holy places later in the 4th century and left a wonderful account of her visit. Here’s what she did at every place:

“It was always our practice when we managed to reach one of the places we wanted to see to have first a prayer, then a reading from the scripture, then to say an appropriate psalm and another prayer. By God’s grace we always followed this practice whenever we were able to reach a place we wanted to see.”(9)

We are going to do that too. At most of the places, we will read from the scriptures associated with the place and celebrate Mass. Though our trip is primarily a pilgrimage, it’s also an opportunity to broaden our understanding of this part of the world and its place in our history.

On Egeria and other early women pilgrims:

Where are we going?

Here’s an outline of the places we’re going to and the scriptural readings at Mass. I’ll provide some material beforehand and as we go along. We’ll have a professional guide with us who is certified by the State of Israel.

The guidebook I follow is The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide, by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP  NY 2008

The Gospel of Matthew is an important gospel to have as a reference in Galilee. The Gospel of John is important for Jerusalem.

Nov. 5 Newark departure

Nov. 6 Tel Aviv to Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, where we will be staying for four days.

The drive from the airport to Tiberias is about two hours. Israel and the occupied territories are about the size of New Jersey, so most of us should feel right at home. Our trips to different sites won’t be too long in Galilee– less traffic than the Garden State Parkway.

Nov. 7 Tiberias to Cana. (Mass) Is 62,1-5   Jn 2,1-12.  John’s gospel also recalls a Jewish ruler came to Jesus at Cana asking him to cure his son. (Jn 4,46-54)

Then to Nazareth, now a city of 70,000 people, mostly Muslim, and the capital of Galilee.  At the time of Jesus it was an insignificant village of about 500.

Nov. 8 Mt Carmel, where the prophet Elijah, who is closely connected to Jesus,  defeated the priests of Baal and King Achaz and his Queen Jezebel. In the ancient world, mountains like Mt. Nebo and Mt. Tabor, were places to get your bearings. (Mass) Sirach 48,1-15 Mt. 16,13-20  From Mt. Carmel to a baptismal site on the River Jordan near the Sea of Galilee.

Nov. 9 Sea of Galilee sites where Jesus lived, taught, gathered disciples, left a memory. Mt. of Beatitudes, Primacy site along Sea of Galilee, (Mass) Jn 21,1-19  Acts 5, 27-32,40-41 Tabgha, Capernaum, Peter’s house. Synagogue.

Nov. 10 Tiberias to Mt. Tabor, where Jesus was transfigured. (Mass) 2 Pt 1,16-19  Mt 17,1-9) Jericho, Qumran, Jerusalem.

Nov. 11 Bethlehem (Mass: Shepherd’s Cave) Luke 2,1-2 Tit 2,11-14

Dead Sea Scrolls: Mystery Solved? Cf: National Geographic Special, Robert Cargill, 60 years ago.

Nov. 12 Jerusalem, Old City  Western Wall, Temple Mount, St. Stephen’s Gate, Upper Room (Mass) Mk 14,12-16.22-26  Heb 9,11-15   Jesus is the new Temple.

Nov. 13 Mount of Olives. Peter in Gallicantu (Mass)   Jn 18,15-27 Is 50,4-9a

Nov. 14 Via Dolorosa, Church of Holy Sepulcher (Mass)

Nov. 15 Return to Newark

The Political Situation

We are going to the Holy Land as negotiations between the Israeli and the Palestinians have reached a critical point. You may find these background stories from the website of the  BBC  helpful to understand the current situation:

Obstacles to Peace: Jerusalem

Obstacles to Peace: Borders and Settlements

Obstacles to Peace: Refugees

Obstacles to Peace: Water

There’s an important Synod on the Middle East involving Catholic and other religious figures that convened at Rome now to discuss the situation of Christians in that area.  You can follow it at the Vatican Radio site: