By definition, a pilgrimage is a journey, especially a long one, made to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion. Not particularly religious, I wondered about a specifically religious trip surrounded by the more faithful. Nevertheless, I promised to show up with an open mind and an open heart at the very least. As it turns out, that is all you need.
These are the Highlights of our Trip
Built by Herod the Great, Caesarea Maritima was once the ancient capital of the Roman Empire. Through the ruins, you can imagine the grandeur of what must have been a beautiful city by the Mediterranean Sea. A theater which has been restored is still used for concerts today, and a hippodrome where horse-driven chariots used to race coupled with remnants of intricately carved stone columns remind you of the advanced engineering the Romans were known for.
In the Town of Nazareth, the Basilica of the Annunciation honors the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to the Virgin Mary that she was to be the Mother of Jesus. The sunken, oval-shaped Church is unusual. Pilgrims descend on stairs to look at the cave behind the altar. We were happy to discover a Filipino interpretation of the event on one of the walls surrounding the Church. Here, we passed through the first of Four Holy Doors through which plenary indulgences are gained without having to travel to Rome.
An early morning boat ride on the calm, peaceful waters of the Sea of Galilee: Mentioned many times in the Bible, this is where Jesus walked on water and where He calmed the storm.
One of the many religious sites built by Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi, the Church at the Mount of Beatitudes commemorates the Sermon on the Mount.
At Tabgha, simple, modern lines of the Church of the Multiplication celebrate the miracle of multiplication of the loaves of bread and fish. Underneath the altar is a rock that marks the spot where Jesus fed the Multitude. Third and Fourth Century churches were built around this rock.
Each church presented opportunities to light a candle to pray to specific saints for special intentions.
The Wedding Church at Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle of changing water into wine for a wedding feast is small and intimate. A chapel nearby provided the site for Mass to celebrate the renewal of wedding vows for Teddy and Jeanine Diaz de Rivera, Ted and Susan Concepcion, Tito and Marit Yuchengco and Yong and Cookie Cuenca. Our ever thoughtful guide, Shafik Khbeis, provided flowers for “the brides” and an assortment of baklava at the end of the ceremony.
One of the many blessings received by everyone was daily mass said by Fr. Rey Culaba. A huge bonus was that we were able to celebrate it in close proximity to the altar. This is the beautiful altar at the Church of the Transfiguration. The peacocks on the stained glass window behind signify beauty and longevity. It is said that it takes 100 years before a peacock feather decomposes. The Church sits on top of Mount Tabor. Shuttle buses are used to navigate the narrow streets and hairpin turns.
Walking the steps to the Church of the Visitation can be physically taxing, especially for those with injuries. Glimpses of the picturesque and serene town of Ein Karem kept us company. With perseverance and the help of fellow pilgrims, everyone made it to the top. This Church honors Mary, the Mother of God, visiting Elizabeth, the Mother of John the Baptist. This is also where Mary recited the Magnificat, also known as the Song of Mary.
There’s a sculpture of Mary and Elizabeth in the courtyard and in the background, The Magnificat, in different languages.
Worth visiting is the Holy Land Model of Jerusalem at the Israel Museum. This impressive reproduction was based on various historical writings. It gives you an overview of what the city looked like and gives scale and proportion to the many sites of the Old Testament stories.
The Church of the Nativity in Manger Square holds a special place in my heart. This is where Jesus was born. Currently under renovation, it was a bit difficult to appreciate the Church above all the scaffolding. Greek Orthodox icons and chandeliers adorn the front of the Church and light the way towards the Nativity Grotto. A small flight of steps leads down into a small cave where everyone waits their turn to pray over and touch the star that marks the spot where Jesus was born. You only get a few precious seconds for this. It is over before your thoughts and emotions catch up. Just the same, it visibly affected everyone. People came out smiling and was in awe at what had just transpired. I felt my heart swell with emotion. I felt it fill to the very brim. And, as we celebrated Mass a few minutes later, I burst into tears of joy. I had not expected a reaction remotely close to this.
In contrast to the joyful and happy mood at the Church of the Nativity, The Garden of Gethsemane and Basilica of Agony beside it evoked quite the opposite. To get to the Church, you walk through the Garden of Gethsemane located at the foot of the Mount of Olives. You look at the olive trees and notice their wide, sturdy trunks very different from those that abound pretty much everywhere else. In fact, several of the trees here are among the oldest known to science. You realize that these were the trees that surrounded Jesus when he prayed before he was betrayed by Judas. Passing through another Holy Door, you are immediately drawn to the altar. In the middle lies a huge slab of rock surrounded by a wrought iron crown of thorns. The rock is believed to be the where Jesus prayed before his arrest. This beautiful Church has a facade with a mosaic depicting the different scenes honored here.
In addition to the many Holy Sites we visited, we saw Masada, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Overlooking the Dead Sea, the view is breathtaking from above. Built by Herod the Great, this magnificent fortress sits on top of a mountain which is flat as a result of its geographical formation. It is mindboggling to see the different areas that allowed hundreds of people to live way up high many, many years before. It boasts two palaces one of which is the Northern Palace or Hanging Palace that served as Herod’s private residence. Exploring the area reveals caldariums or hot baths, store rooms, humongous cisterns used to store rainwater and even a synagogue. Remains of Roman base camps can still be seen down below today. It is no wonder that it took the Romans two years before they breached the walls of Masada.
One of the most precious memories for the group was walking the Via Dolorosa or Way of Sorrows at 5 a.m. This was the route taken by Christ as he was led to his crucifixion. Taking turns carrying different parts of a cross made this even more meaningful. Each station commemorated by a wall plaque was sometimes hard to see as we navigated the cobbled streets in the dark. This gave us but a glimpse of what Christ went through. There was not a dry eye as we made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to complete the last four stations.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre sits on the Hill of Golgotha. From the courtyard outside, it looks fairly simple. Yet, it is one of the most important churches in all of Christendom. It commemorates the Crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Christ. A steep but short flight of stairs leads you to Golgotha. The Rock of Calvary protected by glass is from the site of the crucifixion. It borders The Altar of the Crucifixion. Underneath the altar is a hole where the cross was placed. Here, we were unencumbered by the usually long lines to a sacred site. By the main entrance lays the Stone of Unction. This was used for the anointing of Christ’s Body after his death. It is covered in oil whose scent permeates throughout the Church. Underneath the large dome of the Church is the chapel called the Aedicule. The outer chamber shows you a fraction of the stone that was used to seal Jesus’ tomb. The inner chamber is where the tomb actually is. It is difficult to process all the emotions and thoughts that run through your mind. Everything leading up to this moment … it was truly overwhelming. I was overcome with so many mixed emotions. I felt I needed some time and a chance to sort it all out. I was grateful for the chance to just sit and be.
Filipinos love food and shopping. Any trip would not be complete without both. We enjoyed sampling all the familiar and not so familiar fare. We had all kinds of hummus, lamb, olives, dates, labane, pomegranate juice, many types of cheese, babaghanoush, kibbe, falafel, tabouleh, lime mint juice and Za’atar spice on anything, even bread! Then there was pita bread, naan bread, flatbread…and, baklava! We LOVED the Food! On the other hand, the Market in the Old City provided wonderful opportunities for shopping, extreme haggling encouraged. There were different colors and scents of exotic spices, local delicacies, food, clothes, incense and of course, ALL kinds of religious souvenirs. It was everything I imagined a souk would be!
Taking a dip in the Dead Sea was quite an experience. We laughed as we gingerly made our way to the water and squealed with delight as we sat back and floated instantly. Our raised hands and feet were testimony to the Sea’s legendary buoyancy. Later, we covered ourselves with mud, eager to partake of its many benefits.
And then, there was Petra! Established by the Nabataeans around 312 BC, it was once a busy metropolis and a center for trade. Walking through the passageway or Bab-el-Siq to the Treasury is remarkable in itself. The winding gorge is cool and filled with examples of monuments and water channels carved out in the stone. At the end is the view of The Treasury, magnificent in the sunlight! The rich, red color of sandstone gives it its characteristic glow. We rode camels led by Bedouin guides to the Royal Tomb, a huge city complete with a theater and temples. Your eyes marvel at the intricate carvings and chambers deep in the rock. This archeological site truly deserves its place in The New7Wonders of the World. I want to return to explore this marvelous city some day.
As I put away my luggage, I reminisce with great fondness the many things I saw. I marveled at the tenacity of many of my companions to sometimes just keep up with the group. I welcomed the small opportunities of getting to know different people at unexpected times and places. I graciously accepted the help and encouragement generously shared. I basked in the wide smiles that brought even more sunshine to my day. I miss the laughter and banter with my newfound sisters. Father Rey constantly reminded us to keep still and take mental pictures of the many Holy Sites. Instead, I chose to remember the feelings these sites evoked. Many times, I would find tears running down my cheeks not quite sure why I was crying. But, this I know. Literally walking the way, touching sacred objects and seeing the Bible come to life gave me a deeper understanding of my faith. It has also given me a thirst for more. And, most important of all, as I continue my life journey, and breathe in God’s peace, I know that I am Truly Blessed, Highly Favored and Deeply Loved.
I would like to thank Shafik Khebeis for helping me with the many, little details of each of the places. He truly was the difference that made our pilgrimage a great one.
Photos used were taken from a compilation of the Group's photos. Photos used with Group's permission.
Practicing dentistry for the last 20 years and counting, Genevieve Dee feels deeply about helping others. Health and wellness have been a constant in her life, exercise and healthy living a priority. Her passion for food and travel has also allowed her to indulge in her love of learning and exploration. A mother of two, she tries to live life with gratitude and appreciation