This day was our second tour of Jesus, a tour of his life. It was incredibly powerful to visit the places from the stories I heard growing up in church. It put things in perspective to know how long Jesus must have walked to get from one location to the next, to stare out at the same sea that he stared at, to stand on the same mount where he preached.
Before I get too ahead of myself, I’ll walk through a quick tour of Jesus’s adult life as we experienced it that day.
Yardenit, Jesus’ baptismal site
A short drive up from Haifa, we parked in a small parking lot next to an unassuming building that marked the baptismal site on the Jordan River. The only signs of life were the murmurings of a large tour group inside. Before walking through the building to the river, we were confronted with beautiful tiles that outlined a passage from the Bible. About 80 titles made up the following Bible passage.
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove, and a voice came from heaven; ‘Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well please.’
Mark: 1, 9-11
This passage was translated into dozens of languages and printed on these tiles that lined a wall leading up to the building.
Yardinet is famous as the site of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. No entrance is required, and we wandered through the building and turned right. Lining the path were saplings donated by various groups to honor churches and people. We meandered down a path that led straight into the river. The river’s thick green color that in any other context would have looked muddled but felt fitting for its purpose. This water, clear for the first five feet, quickly turns to this powerful turquoise. To me, the river’s murkiness was doing its part to hold in the holiness and memories of a different time.
It was a special experience to sit there and soundlessly reflect on the significance of the place. After we’d taken our moments, we headed back to the other side of the river, which held the baptism pools and a healthy number of tourists. This place runs like a well-oiled machine, where people are baptized in the same waters as Jesus. People lined up down the metal staircase into the water, slowly wading deeper into those turquoise waters until it was their turn to be efficiently blessed and dipped under water by a priest in white robes.
Inside the gift shop, I discovered the delights of date spread, Israel’s hybrid of honey and Nutella, and was convinced to buy a few jars of almond date spread. I would recommend giving this delicacy a try at least once during your time in Israel.
Our next stop was the site where Jesus appeared after his resurrection, and where he performed the miracle of the loaves and the fishes to feed the crowds. Tabgha marks this holy place with a modern church, the Church of the Multiplication, that preserved walls from a church in the late 300s. It was in the remains of that church that archeologists discovered a mosaic of two fish and a basket of loaves. This discovery led people to believe that this is the place where Jesus broke bread during his famous feeding the multitude. Reported by all four gospels, the first of two of these miracles was the “feeding of the 5,000.”
When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick. As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”
Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
“We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.
“Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves.Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Our time there was fleeting, but the small modest church was well taken care of and we were greeted with a peaceful moment of silence after a small church group left quietly singing a hymn of praise.
Onwards we went to Capernaum, a small fishing village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Archaeologists discovered two ancient synagogues built one on top of the other. This place is said to have been the home of Saint Peter but still considers itself the “The Town of Jesus,” according to its new sign at the entrance.
This town was the center of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus spent much time teaching here. It was said that in the synagogue Jesus healed a man who was possessed by an unclean spirit, Simon Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever, and a paralytic lowered by friends through the roof.
What is now left of this place is mostly ruins. You can see many areas are in the middle of a rebuild. Your eye is naturally drawn to a modern octagonal church built on stilts above what is considered to be “the first church in the world” and the place where the house of Apostle Peter was.
My favorite part of the day was sitting on a bench overlooking the Sea of Galilea. Its misty waters were quiet and gave a sense of stillness. While the world changed with the city, synagogues worn down, endless generations living full lives before moving on to their next life, homes destroyed, the sea always remained. Its constancy provided me with an authentic tie to Jesus’s life. What I was seeing when I looked out into the sea is what he saw all those years before.
Mount of Beatitudes
Our last stop of the day was the Mount of Beatitudes. This hill is where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Another unassuming place, we walked along palm trees to get to the chapel at the top. Along the way were plaques with the beatitudes written on them. I slowly walked by them, taking in each sentence.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
These blessings are the heart of Jesus’ teachings. Each sentence is a proclamation. They express a new set of ideas that focus on love and humility. It seems fitting that he proclaimed this teaching especially on top of this hill, shouting loudly so all from the heavens to the surrounding towns could hear. These words still hold their power today. They need to be a reminder to all of us the influence of hope and love.
It was a long day of checking off sites on our list. I felt fortunate to have experienced so much of his life and these important moments captured in the Bible.
What continues to strike me as I go through this self-guided pilgrimage through Jesus’ life, it’s shocking how quaint all of these places really are. If you think about it, these sites support thousands of visitors, but they still have only just started catering to the tourists. Parking lots are small and—for the most part—there are no overwhelming number of shops pressuring you to buy kitschy memorabilia.
Considering the value and relevance of these stories and of Jesus in my life, it’s almost incomprehensible that these people who live in these areas don’t see these places in the same way as I do. It’s just another tourist destination for them, not really a place of serious significance. It’s hard to describe, but it’s something that I felt I should mention as I get close to the end of my time in Israel.
It forces me to put my world view into a new perspective again. These names of these places that sounded so foreign to me as a pigtailed schoolgirl at a church in Indiana are the everyday realities of the people who live here. And to them, well, it’s just not that big of a deal.