CNEWA’s Father Guido Gockel, M.H.M., and Gabriel Delmonaco are accompanying a group of friends and benefactors on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Saturday, 11 February
As if modern Magi, we are looking for the birthplace of Jesus, but unlike them we are not following complicated astronomical trajectories. Our comet and guiding star is a Palestinian named Tony and instead of slow camels we are using a much faster and reliable Hyundai minivan. Unlike the Magi of the East, we came from the United States with one thing in common: we, in different ways, work for a papal agency that strives to support Christians in the Middle East and other troubled countries in the world. We don’t carry precious gifts … only our desire to learn more about the situation of Christ’s followers and the way CNEWA is making a difference in their lives.
The Holy Land of the Magi has changed a lot. Villages on the shores of the Sea of Galilee are now inland; the waters are receding at a remarkable rate. Others are only remembered on dusty plaques; their ruins have been swallowed by earthquakes or ravaged by wars. The Magi didn’t have to go through Israeli checkpoints to adore the Christ child. Today, they wouldn’t even have been able to cross the River Jordan since the country traditionally associated with the Magi, Iran, isn’t exactly on good terms with Israel.
Despite all these differences with our predecessors, Father Guido, Steve, Joe, Al, Mary and I are motivated by the same desire of learning more about the man who changed our lives so much.
In Nazareth, at the site of the Annunciation, we reflected on the feelings of Mary when she was announced the great news. In Capernaum, a flourishing town in the time of our Lord, we walked through the sites where he performed his ministry and called some of his disciples. Although this village is now a quiet archaeological site, we could easily imagine what life must have been like. As we walked from the house of Peter to the Synagogue Jesus attended on the Sabbath, we brought the life of the town back again.
As Father Guido read the pages of the Gospel, we heard Jesus say, “Which is easier to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven, ’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”
On the Mount of the Beatitudes, we could still hear the awe of the people listening to his message and witnessing the multiplications of loaves and fish. Steve Marcus, a Maronite deacon of the Eparchy of Brooklyn and a loyal benefactor to CNEWA, said that he’ll never hear the Gospel the same way after this trip. As we travel and listen to the Gospel, he avidly takes notes for future homilies.
Mary and her father Al from Boston cannot believe how beautiful these biblical places are and how torn by political issues they have become today. Joe, a retired lawyer, reflects silently, overwhelmed by this experience.
Sunday, 12 February
On the second day, on board our air-conditioned and comfortable four-wheel camel, we circumnavigated the Sea of Galilee. From Tabgha, we drove north and then east and south, through the occupied Golan Heights, once a part of Syria. Observing the level of infrastructure that has been built since the aftermath of the Six-Day War of 1967, it seems unlikely these lands will one day be returned. The hilly Golan Heights strategically overlook Galilee and the land beyond.
As we approached Jericho, Father Guido noticed how unusually green and lush the soil was. Our comet, Tony, explained that there has been an unusual, steady rain in the past few days.
Before reaching Jericho, we stopped at the rocky and deserted area of Qumran. What appeared before our eyes, although blinded by the strong midday light, was a monumental excavation site that brought to life the place where the Essenes, a monastic religious Jew community, once thrived. The area is important, for it is here that the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by Bedouin in 1947.
After a quick look at the Dead Sea, where we saw swimmers floating on the salty waters, we entered the lowest and oldest city of the world: Jericho. Described in the Bible as the city of palm trees, today it is inhabited by 20,000 people. When I last visited in 2009, I had to go through two check points: first an Israeli followed by a Palestinian. Today, only the Palestinian one is active and the soldiers greeted us cheerfully. Jericho is an important biblical site. The Old Testament describes Joshua’s army of Israelites marching around the city, blowing their trumpets and destroying its walls. The New Testament documents the conversation between Jesus and the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus, on a sycamore tree.
Before the sun disappeared completely behind the mountains beyond Jericho, we decided to walk through an impervious canyon carved out of a rocky deserted mountain to reach the monastery of St. George of Koziba. Located in Wadi Qelt, in the eastern West Bank, minutes from Jericho, this Orthodox monastery is built into a cliff and it took us about 2,000 steps to reach it at the bottom of the canyon. After praying in a crypt and meeting some of the monks, we decided to head back. What on the way down had been a pleasant walk now seemed a harsh and steep climb. Two in our group didn’t feel they could handle the hard walk. They closed a deal with Bedouins and returned on the back of a donkey. Unfortunately, we have a gentleman’s agreement and I cannot disclose their names … But I guess I can tell you one is a deacon and the other a lawyer.
After a typical Middle Eastern dinner, we returned to our modern camel and headed toward Bethlehem.