Looking southwest from the Mount of the Beatitudes, one could see a rift in the green mountains, once forested with fir trees, where the 20-mile highway to Nazareth was now. But that road was a late invention. Jesus would have avoided the steep hills and dales in his hard trek from Nazareth to Capernaum by hiking northeast along a high ridgeline, with only a forced, jarring slide down a cliff to get to the fertile flatlands and the sea.
In Nazareth, we found a busy Palestinian, majority-Muslim city where there had been just a forgettable Jewish village when Jesus grew up there in a cave on a high hillside. We had Mass in the Basilica of the Annunciation in honor of the girl Mary’s agreement, made perhaps at age 14, to become a handmaid of the Lord and the mother of God’s son. A few miles from Nazareth is Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle by turning huge jars of water into wine at his mother’s request. Married couples on our pilgrimage repeated their wedding vows in Cana, as did those committed to religious life.
In Magdala, we lunched in a fine restaurant, then went out onto the sea in excursion boats, drifting in hymns and emotions of companionship with Jesus before visiting a museum dedicated to a newly recovered sailboat from the first century. Constructed with cedar planks and a variety of scrap wood, it was large enough to hold 15 fishermen and flat-bottomed so that it could get close to the shoals to dragnet sardines. The sloops and yawls of my imagination were given a healthy adjustment.
Israel is just a sliver of a nation—half of it desert—that could fit tidily inside our Lake Michigan, so it was just a short journey south to get to Jericho in an oasis on the Wadi Qelt more than 800 feet below sea level. East of Jericho is thought to be the spot on the Jordan River where, in a gesture of humility, Jesus was baptized by an Elijah-like John. Our guide accurately described the surprisingly narrow river’s green as the color of Mountain Dew, but it seemed to me more like a lawn pesticide. Still, some Russian Orthodox women with white linen sheets over their underwear risked repeated plunges into the Jordan in a renewal of their own baptisms.
The biblical Bethany is where Jesus dined with the sisters Martha and Mary and wept at the tomb of Lazarus before raising his dear friend to life. Established on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, Bethany was just a mile and a half from Jerusalem overland by foot but a longer circular ascent in our touring buses as they groaned in their climb to the high altitude of Jerusalem.
The Old City there is predominantly one or two-story white buildings on terraced heights that were furrowed by ravines and surrounded by a tall fortification of stone walls whose color the fancy would call ecru. Ringing the Old City are chains of high hills with names like Mount Scopus, Mount of Offence, and Mount of Evil Counsel.
We were staying outside the walls near the New Gate at the Hotel Notre Dame. It is run by a pontifical institute and is just a ten-minute walk to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But the first site we visited was six miles south and chronological: the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem (meaning “House of Bread”). The main entrance to the Church of the Nativity has over many centuries and under various governments become such a small doorway that guests have to get on their hands and knees to crawl inside, and within is not a manger and the representative statuary of a tableau but the silver lamps and candles and jewels of Byzantine decoration.