January 15, 2015
I woke early today to the sound of a steady but light rain outside the door of my Pilgrim House room. A heavy mist hung off shore, over the Sea of Galilee, and the temperature was cooler than we’ve had so far. Because of the weather, I decided to wear my sweater today, and you’ll notice that in the pictures from this day.
After breakfast at the Pilgrim House (which, being run by Germans is more familiarly known as Pilgerhaus), we piled on our bus and headed to our first stop only minutes away.
The Church of Peter’s Primacy is a small parish church which tradition says marks the spot on the shore of Galilee when Jesus cooked a breakfast of fish for Peter and the other apostles. We can tend to forget that part of the Gospel story, though, since it comes at the end of a larger story. You may better remember how Peter was discouraged with how bad the fishing had been and how Jesus told him to go out into the Sea of Gailee in his boat and cast his nets. Peter protested, but did as Jesus asked. When no fish were caught initially, Jesus told him to put the nets on the other side of the boat…which is when things went nuts. When Peter pulled up the fish net, he had to ask for help from a partner’s boat crew because his net was so full of fish. After the fish had been harvested, Peter felt badly that he had doubted, but Jesus said all was well between them. To prove it, Jesus cooks some of the fish for them on a rock near the shore, and they all eat breakfast. Eventually, Jesus tells Peter that he is the rock upon which he will build his church – this idea is known as the Primacy of Peter as the apostle (The Rock), representing a particular strain of Christian tradition and thought.
The Church of Peter’s Primacy contains within it (in front of the altar) a large area of exposed rock, the rocky area on which Jesus is said to have cooked the fish, the apostles gathering around for breakfast after a successful pre-dawn fishing expedition.
After arriving at the small stone church, our group had a brief prayer service in an outside chapel on the grounds before going in to explore the church. I lit a candle and prayed near the rock before heading outside to explore the shore just a few yards away. The shore of the Sea of Galilee is very rocky with the black basalt of the area, but the Primacy of Peter is one of the few places around the sea where it’s possible to gain easy access to the fresh water of the inland sea, fed by the river Jordan.
Rather than a sandy shore, though, the beach near the church is actually made up of millions of very tiny sea shells left behind by the life that flourishes in the waters. Some of the shells are hardly larger than grains of sand, so you have look closely at what you’re walking on to realize how amazing it is. I’m pretty close to the ground, as little dogs are, so I thought this experience was especially cool!
Our next stop along the Galilean shores was Capernaum; the town where Peter lived and worked in his family’s fishing business before he left home to be a part of Jesus’ ministry. In the first century, Capernaum was strategically located along an important trade route of the time known as the Via Maris (“The Way of the Sea”), because it ran along the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Not so long ago, archaeologists excavated the remains of a series of early Christian churches (Byzantine and Crusader eras) built around the foundation of a first century home. Evidence at the site strongly suggests that first century Christians believed this to be the home of Peter – a place that the Gospels tell us that Jesus visited frequently and where he healed Peter’s mother-in-law when she was sick.
The Franciscan community that owns the property now built a large building over the site of Peter’s house that looks as though a giant spaceship has landed, complete with extended landing legs like the Apollo lunar module. Though the architectural affect is pretty hideous, you can walk up into the spaceship for a good view of the ruins of Peter’s house, looking down through the paneled glass floor. I suppose it’s a reminder of how a family once got a sick man through the crowd around Peter’s house for Jesus to heal by cutting a hole through his mud and thatch roof and lowering the sick man down into the house.
The first century ruins of Capernaum also contain a Byzantine era synagogue, but underneath the foundation of it are the remains of a first century synagogue – one that Peter and Jesus would have visited. For a long time, religious scholars didn’t think that Hebrew communities really had local synagogues, that the only place they would gather for worship was the Temple in Jerusalem. But as the years go by, more and more sites are being discovered that show us that many towns around the Galilee did have small synagogues in the first century, all facing the south – the direction of Jerusalem.
All the evidence indicates that Capernaum was a relatively large, predominantly Hebrew town, based around a bustling fishing industry which the Romans economically exploited during their occupation in the lifetime of Jesus and the apostles. In some ways, for Peter and the others to leave their livelihoods behind was also to freely (and dangerously) walk away from the unjust system of oppression experienced under the Roman Empire.
Ghussan reminded us that we had to hurry back onto the bus in order to get to our pre-arranged boat trip out onto the Sea of Galilee.
Operated by a Jewish community known as a kibbutz, our group walked along a dock from the learning center to board a large version of the types of wooden fishing boats used in the first century. Only, the boats of the first century were not motorized (as this one was) but driven by wind and sail. As we boarded, the pilot and crew quickly ran up an American flag to fly alongside the flag of Israel. We would pass boats with Japanese and British flags during our time on the water. People from all over the world come on pilgrimage to this place.
Once out into the middle of the sea, the pilot shut off the gas engine. During our prayer service, the silence was only broken by the sound of Israeli jet fighter planes buzzing our particular boat, tipping their wings towards us – perhaps because of the American flag. Altogether, six Israeli military aircraft buzzed our boat while we were out on the water. I’m fairly certain we were supposed to feel glad and honored by it, though in truth, we all seemed to feel a bit awkward. We are, after all, a fairly reflective group, what with trying to pray and all.
Once back on shore, we made our way into the Kibbutz center where an important archaeological find is on display. Inside are the carefully preserved remains of a first century fishing boat, and example of the type of boat used on the Sea of Galilee during the first century. It’s made of all kinds of different woods from the local area, as though they used whatever they could find to do the job or make a repair. The locals call this display, “the Jesus boat.”
Our next stop was completely unexpected, since it was not on our itinerary at all. Because the weather was so cool and overcast, the bishops had made the decision to move our daily Eucharist from the outside venue they had intended in Tagbha to a special visitors center located on the site of the first century town location of old Magdala.
The newly erected center is dedicated specifically to the women who followed Jesus during the time of the apostles. Inside the entry level of the center is a high arched round hall with a large burbling well fountain in the center. Five pillars support a painted dome above, with each pillar representing a woman noted in Scripture as those who accompanied Jesus and the apostles.
The pillar that moved Rachel most was the pillar that did not have a name inscribed on it. Our center guide, Alessandra, told us the nameless pillar was intended to represent all the women throughout Christian history who were not named but who were faithful, continuing to pass along the Christian tradition to their daughters and sons. In many cases those nameless women of the centuries were leaders, healers, mystics, scholars and teachers of the church.
Beyond the large entry hall is a glass wall, with an airy chapel dedicated to the twelve apostles. There is a model of a fishing boat from the time, with another glass wall that looks out over the Galilee. There are twelve mosaics, one of each apostle.
Descending down a spiral marble staircase to the floor beneath the center, our group celebrated Eucharist on the exposed stone sub-floor of the occupation level of a Byzantine church over which the center is built. Bishop Barry led the service, with Dominic assisting. Bishop Greg had Rachel take up an offertory collection, which we gave to the Magdala Center.
In 2009, the people who purchased the land to build the center made an amazing discovery as they were breaking ground for pilgrim hotel. They found the town ruins of first century Magdala, which include a synagogue.
Jennifer, an archaeologist from Chicago who works at the center, gave us a tour of the synagogue ruins. They continue to excavate more of the town, known for its fish salting industry during the time of Mary Magdalene. It’s amazing to understand that she would have walked the streets there, gone to the synagogue and sat in the women’s gallery there. It was a town that Jesus would have known well, to which he could have sailed or walked easily during his time in Galilee. He would have needed to pass through it every time he accessed the walking road through the mountain pass near there – the road to Jerusalem from the Galilee.
The next stop was lunch! Some of us ordered “Peter’s Fish,” the type of fish that live in the Sea of Galilee and are harvested even today.
After lunch we visited a Catholic church called The Mount of Beatitudes. No one really knows where exactly Jesus gave his sermon on the Beatitudes, but the tall banks of the shores in this particular area would have acted as a natural amphitheater for someone to talk and be heard by many people gathered on its slope.
There were some weird things about this site that were confusing to me. Can a thirsty dog have a drink or not?
But we did have a brief prayer service in the church and had a look around its gardens.
Our final stop of the day was back at Tagbha, on another part of the property where we are staying.
The Church of the Multiplication has long been associated with the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. The exposed mosaic floors of a Byzantine church (which goes back to the 300’s) were likely created when the shrine was expanded in 480. The central focus of the shrine is a particular rocky outcrop. You can see a part of the rock just beneath the present day altar. In front of the rock is a 5th century mosaic of two fish and a basket with five loaves of bread.
I lit candles at the icon of Mary in the church, and Rachel and I said prayers for a parishioner (Julie Amdal) at Trinity who is having surgery soon. We have also been saying prayers for the repose of the soul of Wick Congdon and comfort for the Congdon family (and other parishioner’s, too) in the prayer services we have had.
The atmosphere in the Church of the Multiplication is very quiet and restful. Even a puppy gets the sense of the long history of quiet prayers in this place. Today, a small German order of Benedictines regularly says prayer offices and leads Sunday services in the church.
After visiting this last church of the day, Bishop Greg, Rachel and me (along with several others) decided to walk back to the Pilgrim House. First, though, we visited the two outdoor chapels outside the church and near the shores of the sea. We sat quietly for some time at each of the chapels, and at the first one, we were met by a local hyrax – little furry rock dwellers (about the size of a groundhog) that have pointy noses just like mine!
At the second chapel, Rachel and I walked down to the shoreline, which is more typical with rocks and grasses (and more difficult to negotiate) than the unique beach at the Primacy of Peter.
After a short shower of rain (from which we were protected under the shelter of the chapel), our group walked back to the Pilgrim House for quiet time, dinner and Compline. Like yesterday, I was so tired that I went straight to bed to dream of the fish, hyrax, cats, seagulls and dogs that I met along the journey this day – all companions on my earthly pilgrimage. I feel very grateful to be here in this place with them all.
Here’s to barking at squirrels!