My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Saturday, 1 February 2014

A Bus called Hope: Jesus' Lakeside Ministry at Capernaum

This is Day 5 of our Pilgrimage. Breakfast has to be seen to be believed. There is the best of spreads imaginable, including rows of artistically arranged pastries of all descriptions and a honeycomb, simply dripping honey into the tray beneath - soon all devoured by 150 hungry pilgrims! These amazing hotel breakfast spreads are usually the highlight of my daily culinary experiences.
We arrived at our hotel last night after a day full of experiences, not least being the renewal of our Baptism vows in the River Jordan, a very special occasion for all of us. Our hotel is on the outskirts of Tiberias on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, which was extremely rough when we arrived. Two swans clearly couldn't read the warning signs against swimming in these conditions. The waves were lashing against the concrete pier with some force. Some brave ones among us (or foolish?) planned to swim but we managed to dissuade them. Today we begin the second stage of our pilgrimage, in the footsteps of Jesus as he went about his Lakeside ministry around the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee.
approaching the Capernaum ruins

So soon after breakfast we are on our way, continuing northwards in our coach along the Western shore of the Sea. The water is as calm today as it was rough last night, and looking a distinctly more attractive colour. Those keen swimmers who forewent their pleasure last night were up early Some were even up early for a swim, but they said it was very cold! I was happy to snatch a last few moments of sleep!
Our first stop is at the ruins of Capernaum, the centre of Jesus' Galilee ministry, which was a small fishing and farming village in his day. Jesus came here after being driven out of Nazareth. "When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea" (Matthew 4: 12-13). He needed somewhere else to live and here he would have found political shelter under the wing of the centurian who could protect him as he carried out his ministry. Here he lived for a considerable time, preaching in the synagogue, healing the sick and performing his miracles. It became his home.
Why did Jesus choose to settle here? Probably, it is said, because his first converts, Peter and Andrew, lived here. It was here where he called not only Peter and Andrew, but also James, John and Matthew to follow him. There are more gospel references to Capernaum than to any other place in the Holy Land. Capernaum means Place of Rest. The ancient city was built near to the Via Maris, the Way of the Sea, which was the main trading route of the time from this busy fishing port to Damascus.
St Peter
There is so much to see and take in among the extensive ruins. We stand in the white limestone fourth century ruins of what is said to be the best preserved synagogue of its kind in Israel. These ruins stand on an earlier black basalt synagogue where Jesus preached. Also at the site we see the ruins of shops and houses almost certainly known to Jesus and his disciples and where he would have walked daily. All of this brings me out in the same goose bumps as I felt several years ago walking down the main street of Ephesus where Paul would have walked. The houses here in Capernaum were of a very simple cheap construction, all sizes of stone piled together to make the walls with no mortar, a little like the idea of our dry stone walls but perhaps not as neat. Such walls could not support an upper story, only a simple wood and mud roof, through which it would have been easy to lower a sick man on a stretcher into the room below (Healing of the Paralytic Mark 2: 1-12).
The late twentieth century Roman Catholic Church of St Peter's House here is built over the ruins of the house where Peter almost certainly lived, and which would have been visited by Jesus. Peter came from Bethsaida to Capernaum, perhaps to be near to his mother in law who Jesus later cured (Matt. 8:14-15; Mark 1:29-31). There is a joke the guides love to tell that this is why Peter later denied Jesus three times! Peter's house dates from before the birth of Christ and in the late first century AD there is evidence that the courtyard was used as a house church (Domus Ecclesia) by the early Judeo Christians. Late in the fifth century an octagonal church was built over this area, with the centre exactly over the foundations of this courtyard. The modern church has been designed by the Italian architect Ildo Avetta both to protect the excavated remains of St Peter's house and the fifth century church as well as to offer a place for worship at what is such an important gospel site. Inside the church pilgrims can view the remains of these below a central glass window.
inside the Church of St Peter's House
Some of us find this modern church ugly and out of place. I simply love it. I think it has been very sensitively designed and the striking contrast of the ultra modern building above an important site of such antiquity adds something to the whole experience for me. I think the inside of the church is stunning. There are beautiful wooden reliefs all around the walls surrounding the auditorium style seating, depicting scenes from the life of St Peter and the church is full of motifs recalling the Sea, waves, fish, fishing nets and so on. Some say the appearance of the church itself from outside is reminiscent of the shape of a fishing boat. Altogether I find the church a very spiritual place full of atmosphere and meaning, not always found, it has to be said, in many modern churches back home. Many of us are moved to stay and pray here for quite a while before reluctantly having to leave and travel onward.

Sea of Galilee
The Sea of Galilee, sometimes referred to as the Sea of Tiberias, (by St John), Lake Gennesaret (by St Luke), Lake Kinnereth (on road signs - derived from the Hebrew for Harp), even the Syrian Sea (as in "In simple trust like theirs who heard beside the Syrian sea, in that wonderful hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind by J. G. Whittier), is the biggest water reservoir in Israel. It is 200 metres below Mediterranean Sea level, and c. 21 km long by 12 km. wide. Its maximum depth is 50 metres. Since 1954 there have been dams at the southern end built to restrain the water flow, presumably the reason why the River Jordan which we saw yesterday is much narrower now than it would have been in Jesus' day. Three tributaries feed this freshwater lake from the Golan Heights, and it has been an important source of life since biblical times. The low lying river plain is best known for growing mangoes and bananas and we see fields of them as we travel on the coach. The bunches of bananas are wrapped in blue plastic - protection against something pests no doubt. It is sobering to reflect that in this peaceful part of the Holy Land we are nearer here to Damascus in Syria, over the Golan Heights that we can see on the other side of the Lake, than we are to Jerusalem that we left just yesterday. Some later say that they heard blasts from that direction, and we certainly saw and heard air force activity during our stay up here in the northernmost part of the Holy Land.

No comments:

Post a Comment