By Frank Bienas
Today, Day Four, we find ourselves on the Mount of Beatitudes celebrating Mass in the lower level of the Church of the Beatitudes. Leaving the Mount after Mass, we traveled to the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee. Although this was my third pilgrimage to Israel, it was my first visit to Kursi.
Kursi is where Jesus cured the Geresene demoniac and 2000 pigs subsequently jump off a cliff and drowned in the Sea of Galilee. It is in the area of the Decapolis and its inhabitants are mostly Gentiles. Ruins from a Crusader Church still stand there today.
We renewed our baptismal vows which is a rejection of Satan and reaffirmation of our loyalty to Christ and His teachings. Water was poured on our heads three times in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. This is a wonderful reminder that our souls belong to the Creator of all mankind.
The Jordan River at this point separates the country of Jordan from Israel, a distance of about 30 feet. The river was extremely muddy with reeds and grass on both sides still maintaining the rustic beauty of its original wilderness. Tourism may change the appearance of this area of Christ’s baptism in the near future. It has only been open to pilgrims for about a year.
Boarding our bus we then traveled through the desert up a winding high hill to a deserted spot in the middle of mountainous rocks and valleys. Although not a scheduled part of our tour, our guide thought we would enjoy it.
We departed from the bus and walked 50 yards on a narrow stony path to look into an extremely deep valley containing St. George’s Monastery owned and built by the Greek Orthodox Church. At one time, 1,000 monks and priests carved out caves to sleep in and erected a huge monastery on the side of this steep, rocky mountainside. It boggled my mind as to how this was accomplished.
In the valley, you see the only plush and green area for many, many miles. It is like a teardrop from God landed into a forsaken part of the world. According to our guide, the valley parallels the old Roman road to Jericho, the backdrop of the Good Samaritan of Luke 10: 29 – 37. Today, only three priests live there. It was well worth adding an extra hour to our day of travel.
Our last visit of the day was in Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity, the birthplace of Jesus and the third Joyful Mystery. Beneath the wooden floor of this very large church is a mosaic floor from the fourth century church built by St. Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine the Great. She erected several churches in the Holy Land over several holy sites.
The Church of the Nativity is built over a grotto or cave which you descend into by a narrow stairway. Here we saw an area marked by a 14 point silver star – the birth spot of Jesus. The star designates the 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 generations from David to the Babylonian exile, and 14 generations from the exile to the birth of Christ. This is the genealogy of Christ found in Matthew 1: 1 – 17.
About 15 feet behind the star is a manger where the Christ child was placed. With 20 or 30 people crammed into this small area, I believe everyone got on their hands and knees to place a loving kiss on the star. It was extremely quiet and reverent there.
Leaving the Church of the Nativity and entering into another doorway under the same roof, we were now standing in St. Catherine’s Church. In the lower level is another cave where it is believed that St. Jerome translated the Old and New Testaments into Latin from Hebrew and Greek. He was also a prolific writer, a Doctor of the Church and spent his last 34 years of life primarily in Bethlehem, a city he dearly loved.
Bethlehem is under the control of Palestinian Muslims on the West Bank, five miles from Jerusalem surrounded by a concrete wall 26 feet tall and several feet thick. It will be over 400 miles long when completed. The Berlin Wall was only 11.8 feet tall. All travelers must pass through a check point to enter and exit Bethlehem.
In 1947, the Christian population of Bethlehem was 85% and today it is 15%. It is a modern day Exodus. My wife and I support a young Palestinian Christian boy and girl with their education through high school graduation. This is done through the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land whose goal is to educate Christian children and provide college educations and jobs for Christian adults. The unemployment amongst the uneducated Christians is 65%. Without an education, there could someday be no Christians in the Holy Land and all the holy sites will become museums.
Leaving Bethlehem, we arrived for our first night in Jerusalem at the Notre Dame Hotel. It was directly across the street from the Old City which has four quarters; Muslim, Jewish, Armenian, and Christian. There are eight gates into the Old City which is surrounded by a 40 foot wall and the wall of the Temple Mount. This was the end of our fourth day in the Holy Land.