Day 3

Today was an incredible day filled with so many different holy sites, several fun activities, and a lot of quality time in prayer.  So far it has been one of my favorite days because of how many smiles I saw on the students’ faces.  This group has been so much fun to know on a deeper spiritual level.

We began the day with a quick breakfast at the hotel followed by a short drive to the Mt. of Beatitudes on the Sea of Galilee.  Here, we spent some time reading the gospel where Jesus taught the crowds the Beatitudes and reflecting on how it must have looked during the time of Jesus.  We then went into the Church of the Beatitudes run by the Franciscans where we each randomly chose a Beatitude to ponder.  After some time in prayer, the group walked around the gardens and enjoyed the scenery of the Sea of Galilee.

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We then hopped back on the bus and headed to Capernaum where Jesus lived with Peter and his Mother-In-Law (Mark Chapter 2) during a lot of his teaching years.  Here we had Mass at the church built over the ruins of the house.

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At Mass we read the gospel where Jesus teaches the crowds about the bread he can give them so that they will never hunger again.  We spent some time later in the synagogue directly outside of the church that Jesus most likely taught in (it was rebuilt in the 3rd century) talking about what the people must have thought of Jesus while he taught there.

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It was so special to be in the exact place where Jesus had his so called headquarters of his ministries.  There were even rocks from the original synagogue that Jesus taught in that he could have stepped on! Needless to say, this experience helped us to feel very close to our Lord.

After Capernaum, we took a short bus ride to a dock where we we able to ride on a boat across the Sea of Galilee.  Many of the Seniors said that this was one of their favorite experiences thus far on the whole trip.  Xavier commented to me that he was so excited to see the exact topography that Jesus’ divine eyes gazed on not 2000 years ago.  The whole ride was so picturesque!

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After a lot of time taking pictures and enjoying the calm lapping of the water as it brushed by the bow of the boat, we read the Gospel about the calming of the storm from Matthew Chapter 8.  After we read the Gospel, we listened to a song that was perfectly fitting for the scene (Oceans).  One of the most beautiful parts of the whole experience was the time after the song was over.  A complete silence fell over the boat, and we spent a solid minute without any sound at all.  The combination of the Gospel, and scenery, the music, the silence, and the moment was one of the most memorable of the entire trip.  So many of the Seniors commented on it during our evening recap.  After this, we did some dancing on the deck of the boat before docking.

We ate lunch and then continued our pilgrimage by visiting Tabgha, the location of the multiplication of the fish and loaves.  Again, we spent some time in prayer after reading the gospel.  The Church was built on the rock that is believed to be the location where Jesus performed the miracle.  We hopped back on the bus and traveled to Peter’s Primacy next, where Jesus appeared to the disciples and hands over his flock to Peter.  The church here was set beautifully on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and the students spent a lot of time wading in the water and skipping stones.  We have been so blessed to see all of these sites in gorgeous weather.

Finally, we drove a short distance to Magdala where we visited an excavation site run by the Legionaries of Christ. Here we saw a synagogue from the first century, as well as a wealthy city from the same time period.  After looking at the ruins, we went to the church built by the Legion on the site.  It was a beautiful church, and we spent some time in the church reading the Gospel from John Chapter 20 where Mary of Magdala find the empty tomb of Jesus.

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Afterwards, we all found somewhere to sit in silence and reflect on our day.  It is so easy to get caught up in your faith when you are surrounded by so many holy sites.  Our visitations were over for the day, and it was time for the group to head to Bethlehem for the night.  As we drove through Jerusalem, Hani played us a song that got everyone excited about seeing the town for the following day.

Some of the best time we have spent on this trip has been the time we have been in silence.  We have found the God is impacting us all in a very personal way, and we need time to just sit and listen in order to truly understand what he wants for and of us.  I invite you to find some time in the near future to just spend some time in silence and see what he wants for you.

We are spending the night in the Holy Sepulcher tomorrow evening.  Please keep our group in your prayers!

Day 4

Today was the most action packed day we have had yet!  We did so many amazing things today, so I will try to be brief in my description of the day and skip the finer details.

We started out at the Western/Wailing Wall which is a retaining wall that was built around the 2nd temple in Jerusalem.  This wall is over 2000 years old, and we had the chance to pray at the wall as is Jewish tradition.  It was really awesome to see some of the history of the Old City.  We then went into the walls surrounding the Dome of the Rock.  This is a Muslim Shrine that you will have definitely seen if you have ever seen a picture of Jerusalem.  It is built on the location that once housed the Ark of the Covenant, but the shrine is now controlled by the Muslims, and it is called the Dome of the Rock. It was fascinating to see the relationship between the Muslims, Jews, and Christians.

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We then headed to the Ecce Homo, the church built on the location where Jesus was judged and scourged by the Romans.  We walked around the caves underneath the church where it is believed that the judging took place. We then celebrated Mass together back on the first floor of the church.  One of my favorite things about this trip so far is the fact that we get so celebrate mass daily in such close proximity to each other all by ourselves. After visiting this site, we then walked over to the Church of St. Anne.  This is a location that Mary may have lived during her childhood, and also the location of the Pools of Bethesda.  According to the Gospels, Jesus healed a crippled man in these pools (Jn 5).  We walked through the ruins and took many wonderful pictures.

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The Church of St. Anne is also known for its’ wonderful acoustics, and we had the opportunity to sing “Lord I Need You” (an Everest favorite) at the site.  All of the seniors really enjoyed this opportunity, and I think we sounded pretty good!

At this point we were starving, so we headed to lunch at a restaurant run by one of our tour guide’s old students (our tour guide knows everybody in Jerusalem). We ate, then spent some times haggling with the street vendors in the Old City.  Some of the group was happy with their purchases, while others felt a little ripped off! It was a good lesson for us all.

Back to the bus! We loaded and headed to the oldest city in the world: Jericho.  As we drove into Jericho, I saw a sign that said the city was 10,000 years old.  Everything in our country just seems so new compared to the things that we see here in Israel. In Jericho, we saw the approximate location of where the devil tempted Jesus by falsely promising him all the kingdoms of the world.  We also had a few seniors ride a camel and dress in traditional desert gear.

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After Jericho, we drove by a sycamore tree that was near the location where Zacchaeus the tax collector climbed a tree to see Jesus.

Our next stop on our marathon day was the Jordan river, which was the river the Jesus was baptized in.  We all renewed our baptismal vows and received a blessing from Father Daniel using water that he blessed from the river.  Several of the students spent some time standing in the river as well.

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During mass earlier in the day, Father Daniel gave a homily in which he told us a story about finding a dove with a broken wing as a boy.  He didn’t understand it then, but he thought that maybe it was the beginning of his vocation.  Strangely enough, upon arriving at the Jordan River, we found a dove with a broken wing.  This was one of Father Daniel’s favorite moments of the trip, and he was certain that the Holy Spirit was at work!

After the Jordan River, we went to the location that the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.  We learned that a small boy, the son of a shepherd, found the scrolls as well as other artifacts in a cave up on the mountain.  These scrolls are 2000 years old and were written by some Jewish priests of a sect called the Essenes  in the village of Qumran (we were able to walk through the ruins of this village).  It was very interesting to see this location, and many of the students did some shopping for Dead Sea paraphernalia.  After shopping, we went to the Dead Sea and had some fun floating in the buoyant water.

We then headed off to the Notre Dame Center back in Jerusalem for a wonderful dinner. The Notre Dame Center is a retreat center run by the Legionaries of Christ, and it is absolutely stunning.  We went to the roof of the building to get a view of the Old City.  It was a beautiful view, and a stunning way to cap of an incredible day.

I asked one of the students what they thought the theme of the day was, and she told me that it should be renewal.  We swam in the Dead Sea, and the salt content of the water helped to renew our skin.  This was a physical renewal.  We also went to the Jordan and renewed our baptismal vows, which was a spiritual renewal for all of us.  Every day this pilgrimage helps us to renew our faith, and it is an experience that is in some way life changing for all of us.

But wait, there’s more! We actually didn’t end our day at the Notre Dame Center.  After dinner, we walked to the Holy Sepulchre, where we were locked in the church for the rest of the night… More details to follow.

This has been the most action packed day we have had yet!  We did so many amazing things today, so I will try to be brief in my description of the day and skip the finer details.

As mentioned earlier, we were blessed with the opportunity to spend the night in the Holy Sepulchre on Tuesday night.  This is the church built over the location that Jesus was crucified, and also laid to rest in a tomb.  We walked in the doors at 7:10, and they shut and lock the doors at 7:30.  There was no leaving the church until 4:00 AM in the morning.  Our entire group of 15 people plus two other lucky people were the only guests in the church for the entire night. In short, we had the entire church all to ourselves, to spend the night however we saw fit.

Instead of me telling you about the church and our experience, I thought it best to let a student give her experience, as most of the students agreed that this night was probably the highlight of their trip. Here is Bella Ebbert’s experience:

“One of the first things we saw in the Holy Sepulchre was the slab of rock that Jesus’ body was prepared for burial and anointed on after He was taken down from the cross. Everything there is so overwhelming. Up on the second level was the rock of Calvary. There was a beautiful shrine and altar. Underneath the altar was a hole in the ground where you can put your hand down into and touch above the stone. It was such a powerful experience.

Everywhere we looked everything was so adorned, especially inside The Tomb. In order to enter, you have to duck under a stone archway. It was an extremely humbling experience. The overwhelming peace and comfort of Christ surrounded us completely. Leaving made me wish I could stay there forever in order to always feel that way.

Wherever you go in the Holy Sepulchre there are glass and metal lanterns, gold and silver, by the dozens hanging from every single ceiling. There are at least a hundred small, medal idols all over. There are small and large altars around the entire building. The one thing that there is barely any of is light. Throughout the entire Sepulchre all the lights are dimmed, no matter where you go.

Everywhere was almost completely silent, except for the occasional squeaking of shoes on the shiny, stone floor. I walked around the entire Sepulchre at least three times, up and down, and I feel like there is still so much to see. I love being able to think and pray in silence and peace. Stepping where Christ stepped, seeing what Christ saw brings an overwhelming sense of peace as well as unrest, knowing that everything He endured was for you and everything you have done in your life has lead to this moment.

Although still completely unfathomable, I think we were all able to discover a new sense of appreciation and reverence for not only Christ’s passion but also our faith. It was an experience we will cherish for the rest of our lives.”

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Wake up call came at 9am for a scheduled departure time of 9:45am.  Needless to say, after a sleepless night in the Holy Sepulcher this wake up call was not very welcomed and some people moved a little slower than usual, which meant we left around 10:05am.  But once we all made it to the bus and found out that today we would “celebrate Christmas,” our excitement for the day’s adventures began.  You see, when you celebrate Mass in a holy site you use the liturgy – prayers, readings, songs – of that place; so since we were visiting the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, we celebrated Christmas Mass!  Before Mass we spent a few minutes at the spot which marks Christ’s birth and where he would have been laid in the manger.  We had the place almost to ourselves, and our tour guide told us how rare this is; the Nativity site is usually packed with pilgrims, but it would seem that our Lord wanted to give us the gift of a quiet moment in the place where he was born.  After each of us had a chance to touch the spot marking his birth, we gathered to reach the Nativity story and sing Silent Night and O Little Town of Bethlehem.

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Christmas Mass was celebrated in another part of the site, down in the St. Jerome chapel.  St. Jerome was the man who translated the Bible into Latin; it is thanks to him that we now have the Bible in many other languages, including English!  Upon taking on this task of translating Scripture, Jerome decided to dwell in a cave as close as possible to the place of Christ’s birth, perhaps to aid his prayer and concentration.  It is in that area that we celebrated Mass, complete with Glorias and Joy to the World.

After Mass we visited Shepherd’s Field where we sat in a cave and reflected on the angels appearing to poor shepherds to announce the good news of the Savior.  Here we had the chance to venerate a statue of Baby Jesus by processing forward to kiss him, symbolizing the way we want to welcome Christ into our lives.

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Before leaving the site, we stopped in the chapel for a visit and pictures of the beautiful paintings, and since it has great acoustics, we sang a verse of Angels We Have Heard on High, which left most of us humming “Gloria in excelsis deo” on our way to lunch.

The restaurant we ate at had a very Mediterranean feel to it, much more than any of the other places we’ve eaten.  Once again we were welcomed with a large spread of items to eat with pita bread, including hummus, olives, tomatoes, and cole slaw.  We are definitely not going hungry on this pilgrimage, and we were happy to see baklava for the first time all week!

The long-awaited moment of shopping for religious gifts came just after lunch when we were brought to a store run by Christians in Bethlehem full of beautiful hand-carved wooden figurines.  Perhaps some of you reading this email will receive a special gift from this place, and you should know that much love and deliberation went into every purchase made, for the students wanted to find something that was “just right” for their loved ones.

Once our shopping appetites were satisfied, we piled back into the bus and headed towards to rolling hills of the land of Judah.  Writing this now, I am reflecting about how awesome it is to be traveling in the places that fill our Bible in both the New and Old Testaments! We arrived at our destination of Ein Karem, the site of the Visitation, and were greeted with a long climb up to the top of a steep hill to the Church of the Visitation.

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Here we had a gospel reflection, and then split into guys and girls to discuss the Gospel in more detail.  Afterwards, we knelt together at the altar of the church and said a Decade of the rosary, the second Joyful mystery, for all of our intentions.

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Please know that we pray for all of you often. Upon the conclusion of our Decade, Jill sang Holy is His Name, a version of the Magnificat which echoes the song of praise Mary uttered after Elizabeth’s greeting. There are so many moments on this trip that make you feel close to God, and this was no exception. We walked back to our bus, and enjoyed a quiet ride back to our hotel.

Once we got back to our hotel, we had about 20 minutes of time to just talk about the last two days.  It was beautiful to hear the testimony from each and every student.  Some opened up about their favorite part of the last two days, while others spoke of the moments they found most powerful.  Whether or not they know it, these students are being impacted by our Lord, and it is very special to witness.

Dinner was next up on the agenda, and we were presented with an elaborate smorgasbord of food.  We ate, and were satisfied.  To close the night, a group of us went out on the town of Bethlehem for some Frozen Yogurt!  We enjoyed seeing the night life of the ancient town, and of course, we enjoyed every last bite of our Frozen Yogurt!HL Frozen Yogurt

Tomorrow is a busy day, and we are excited to set forth on another Journey!

God bless,

Jill Swallow and Jeff Stencel