All arrived in Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport in good health — not exactly bright-eyed and bushy- tailed — maybe more like bushy eyed and bright tailed, but we all made it. After a bio break at a terminal bathroom, and then assigning each pilgrim a number (for counting off purposes during the trip) and a short prayer, we proceeded to immigration and baggage claim. All the luggage made it — thank you God!, and we proceeded through customs to meet our guide Rimon and our bus driver Faris.
Rimon is a Palestinian Christian (there are only approximately 8,000 of the nearly 1,000,000 inhabitants in Jerusalem). His family tree has a long history in the Holy Land, and he is one of the most experienced and respected guides in the country. He does a lot of certificate training for new Holy Land guides. Fr. Marty offered a prayer, and then, without any notes in hand, Rimon proceeded to share with us the history of all the places we passed as we drove from the airport west through the town of Tel-Aviv and then northward up the coast towards our first pilgrimage stop, Caesarea Maritima.
We watched a short movie and then Rimon led us on a tour of the area. Caesarea Maritima has an important place in Jewish history as well as Christianity. It was an important arrival port for trade ships from all over, and was built by Herod the Great with a large statue of the emperor to Caesar that would have been visible to all arriving ships. (Caesar had announced himself as God to be worshipped, and, as Rimon told us, this was Herod’s way of “sucking up” to the emperor.) This is the place under the governorship of Pontius Pilate, and is where Paul was imprisoned for two years. There are ruins of a Byzantine church that commemorates that spot. This is also the place where Peter baptized Cornelius as the first gentile Christian, as recorded in the book of Acts. Since this was the “official” beginning of the church under Peter recognizing that ALL are welcome — it truly is the “home” of Christianity for all of us. Rimon explained this after starting his talk by saying to us “Welcome Home.” There are ruins of another Byzantine church here that commemorates the spot of Peter baptizing Cornelius.
We then boarded the bus and proceeded northward towards Mount Carmel. We stopped at a local restaurant for a wonderful salad buffet, with falafel sandwiches enjoyed by most on fresh pita bread. After lunch, we re-boarded the bus, and then experienced the challenge of trying to count off 1-30 to make sure everyone was present. (Oh boy, Fr. Marty has his hands full with this group!) After a final verification that 30 pilgrims were actually present, we continued to the Abbey at Mount Carmel, the place connected with the story of Elijah as recorded in 1 Kings 18-19. With Rimon’s genuine charm, he was able to arrange for us to celebrate an opening Eucharist in the chapel there. (With so many on this pilgrimage who have participated in a Celtic pilgrimage before this, we included Sanctuary in our hymn list, since that is the traditional first hymn we sing in St. Margaret’s Chapel on that pilgrimage.)
Leila read the story from 1 Kings connected with this spot, and Fr. Marty read the transfiguration Gospel to set the tone for our pilgrimage. Though the Gospel writers don’t emphasize it, in order for the disciples to experience the mountaintop with Jesus, they had to be willing to hike up the mountain. These pilgrims have extended the energy to get to this point, so pray with them that they will be open to the mountaintop experience that God wants each of us to have. After a stunning rendition of Sunday’s “Go Now in Peace” hymn (that would have made David Clyle Morse proud), we proceeded up to the viewing area overlooking the historic valley of Jezreel – the site overlooking the area where many Biblical battles had been fought.
We then boarded the bus for the 45-minute trip to our hotel in Nazareth. (This time the group was able to successfully count to 30.) Check-in was smooth, and after a short social gathering, the group gathered for a wonderful buffet dinner at 7:00pm. Most were in bed by 8:30pm to rest after the longest (and best) day ever…