Savoring my first breath of air in the very birthplace of Jesus Christ, I instantly noticed the sudden shift of scenery as I stared out the window of our chartered bus. What arrested my attention was the fusion of colors representing the fertile lands dotting the countryside of Israel. The new topography that replaced the red desert dunes that dominated the landscape of Jordan provided a new visual spark for me to scrutinize. While I would miss the staggering golden tints characterizing the spectacular backdrops of Wadi Rum to Petra and to Amman, these fresh set of scenery added to the high I was feeling that moment. Coupled with a realization about how this trip is turning into notches more epic, I glazed at the backdrop with intent focus. Within moments away of tracking the path of Jesus Christ, an emotional air got through me – and knowing how extraordinary it is for anyone regardless of faith, to step into the very heart of the Holy Land – I felt all the good karma overwhelming me.
|The Old Jerusalem is seen at the background.|
Our first stop was in Nazareth where we visited the Church of the Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel proclaimed to Mary, that she will conceive and give birth to a son she would name as “Yehoshua.” On the verge of bursting in tears, realizing how sacred the ground was on which I stood, I stared intently at the modern day Franciscan-built Basilica of the Annunciation intersecting below the ruins of the Byzantine-era and Crusader-era churches. I hear our guide Johnny pointing to the towering cupola of the Church of Annunciation and explaining how it was built on top of the original house of the Virgin Mary.
|Church of the Annunciation|
Afterward, we proceeded to Mount Tabor. Surrounded by sweeping views of Israel’s countryside and adorned with lush gardens, the peak of Tabor is known as the traditional site of the Transfiguration of the Lord Jesus Christ. Inside, we listened to Johnny as he read a few Bible verses that afforded us a moment of reflection. As someone who last read the Bible many years ago, the passages knifed through me, penetrating my soul.
|View from Mount Tabor|
We capped our long day by checking in at our hotel fronting Lake Tiberias or the Sea of Galilee. Dripping with joy and thirsty for strengthening my faith, I sat at the veranda of my room and further immersed myself in this fantastic voyage. Intently gazing ahead, I saw the deep blue waters glowing from the sparkling rays of the late-afternoon sun. A tinge of electricity crawled up my spine as I realized that this was the same body of water where the young Jesus Christ conducted a lot of his ministries.
|Lake Tiberias screams of tranquility|
After a fitting spiritual humdinger of a day 1 in Israel, Day 2 couldn’t be any more rewarding. We started the day by making our way to the Church of the Wedding Feast in Cana, where we also tasted a variety of local wine flavors before proceeding to Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus Christ preached the Sermon on the Mount. In a stroke of luck, a small group of Indonesian pilgrims were also traveling with a priest, so they invited us to join their mass. Even though the mass was officiated in Indonesian Bahasa, the spiritual connection among the attendees wasn’t lost in translation. “Peace be with you” was never uttered so sincerely before as we shook hands with our fellow pilgrims from Indonesia.
|The Indonesian Priest who officiated the mass at the Church of Beatitudes|
|A beautiful woman prepares the wine in Cana|
At Tabgha, during our visit to the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fish, we met the two Filipina nuns belonging to the Benedictine Order: Sisters Kristeta Visperas and Aurea Monungolh as well as a cardinal from Zimbabwe who came with a busload of pilgrims from his country. Afterward, we continued to the Church of the Primacy of Peter, the place where Jesus asked Peter three times, “Peter, do you love me?” We capped the morning with a visit to the ancient city of Capernaum, where the ruins of the House of Peter and the Synagogue of Jesus still remain.
After feasting over St. Peter’s Fish we bonded over traditional Israeli dances and tunes aboard a Galilean boat as we enjoyed a sunny cruise over the Sea of Galilee. We ended the day renewing our baptismal vows at the Jordan River.
|Pilgrims taking a dip at the mouth of Jordan river to renew their baptismal vows|
We finally hit the road to Jerusalem on our third day stopping first at Mount Carmel where we visited Carmel Church and the Cave of Elijah, where prophet Elijah prayed for rain summoning God to halt three and half years of famine and drought. Along the way we caught sight of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Hanging Gardens of Bahai and were impressed by the sweeping marvellous view of the city of Haifa and the Mediterranean Sea. After lunch, we made a side trip to Caesarea, an ancient city founded by Herod the Great in 25 BCE, where the ruins of a Roman theater, hippodrome, and water aqueduct still stand. By late afternoon, we experienced the first glow of the sunset reigning over the city of Jerusalem.
|at the ruins of Caesarea|
|The Hanging Gardens of Bahai and the Mediterranean Sea in Haifa|
A day of many highlights comprised our fourth day in Israel. Touching the very spot where Mary delivered baby Jesus at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem proved to be the crowning moment for me that day. Notwithstanding entering Palestinian territory, I also experienced with my own eyes how the news could appear so differently from reality. “Even my 60 plus year old mother would feel safe taking this holy land trip” I thought to myself.
|the holy spot where Jesus was born inside the Church of Nativity.|
The rest of the day took us to Shepherds Field where Johnny led us to sing a few Christmas carols. Afterward, we ascended to Mount Olives and visited the traditional site where Jesus taught the Christ’s Prayer to his disciples, known as the Church of Pater Noster. Also on Mount Olives is the Dominus Flevit Church, the place where Jesus wept over Jerusalem. We end the day by walking down toward the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus drowned in sorrowful prayer prior to his betrayal of Judas and his arrest.
|The old city of Jerusalem|
On the sixth day we finally started our “Via Dolorosa” or the “Way of the Cross” inside the Old City of Jerusalem. Even in silence, with almost nary of a word shared between us, as we concentrated on our prayers, I could feel the somberness and the overflowing spirituality lingering over us as we made our way through the snaking path from the gates of Antonia Fortress to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, covering all 14 stations of the Cross culminating at Christendom’s most sacred place; the location of Jesus Christ’s burial and resurrection.
|Inside the Old City of Jerusalem|
“…and when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean, linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb which he had hewn out of the rock. Then he rolled a stone before the entrance of the tomb” —Matthew 27:59
On the more carefree days of my youth, reading this passage would not have made me feel anything extraordinary. But on that day, during those few minutes inside Jesus’ empty tomb, I felt every muscle in my body reacting to the sanctity of the place. Separated from my group during the queuing, I found myself entering the chamber with three other Western tourists. As they got lost in quiet contemplation and deep prayers, I hear myself choking up a bit and, for the first time, I finally relented and just let the tears flow freely down my cheeks.
Riding on a spiritual high brought by tracing the Way of the Cross, we spent our last day in Israel visiting the Wailing Wall, considered the holiest place of prayer of the Jews. The first seven layers made from meleke limestones, dates back to the reign of Herod the Great, making it the same set of stones Jesus laid eyes on during his time. Known today as a place of prayer, it was termed 'Wailing Wall' because of the practice of Jews to gather near this part of Old Jerusalem's wall to weep over the destructions of their temples, during the Byzantine Empire.
|Jews praying at the Wailing Wall|
Putting a perfect bookend to the Israel chapter of our Holy Land trip was a jaunt to the oldest and lowest city in the world—Jericho City. In the Dead Sea, we floated all our worldly worries away as the buoyant waters of the Dead Sea carried us on our back.
|Floating over the Dead Sea|
This is a segment of our 12-day Holy Land Business famtour organized by Tala Travel in Israel and NITAS (Network of Independent Travel & Allied Services Philippines). For inquiries on how to avail of the “Holy Land Tour” in Egypt, Jordan, and Israel, email the NITAS consortium at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
*This article appeared on the Lifestyle pages of the August 28, 2016 issue of Manila Bulletin*