by Brian Grab and Prof. Sarah Byers
“Who would believe what we have heard” and seen? (cf. Isaiah 53:1). Over spring break, thirteen students, professors, and other friends of the Boston College St. Thomas More Society traveled to the Holy Land for a pilgrimage/sightseeing trip. I was a member of this group. We visited the sites of almost all of the events recorded in the Gospels (not to mention touching many holy rocks), as well as other historical-cultural sites such as Qumran and Masada. This article will detail only a small portion of the places we visited, and is split into two parts. First I will focus on sites related to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and secondly I will describe those pertaining to Christ's passion, death, and resurrection.
Just outside the city walls of Jerusalem as they stood at the time of Christ, stands a Crusader-built church marking the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the site of the house of Saints Anne and Joachim. This also happens to be adjacent to the Pools of Bethsaida/Bethesda, where Jesus later cured the crippled man who had no one to take him down into the healing waters of the pool (John 5:2). Mary spent her infancy here with her parents, but according to extra-Biblical early Christian texts, Mary's parents were elderly when she was born, so they gave her into the care of an orphanage on the Temple Mount. After she reached puberty, she was sent to live with relatives of St. Joseph in Nazareth until it was time for her to be married to Joseph.
Today Nazareth is an Arab, mostly Muslim, town with a McDonald's that sells a sandwich entitled "The Big American." Nazareth is also home to the Church of the Annunciation, which is built on the remains of the house of Joseph’s relatives and hence marks the spot where the Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Blessed Virgin Mary and she responded to God's call with "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." (Luke1:38) This is where Mary said "yes" and the Word became Flesh. The church here is similar to many in the Holy Land; it is a building dating to the 20th Century, built on the ruins of a Crusader church, built on the ruins of a Byzantine (4th century) church, built on ruins dating to the time of Christ.
We were also fortunate enough to see the Church of the Visitation where the Blessed Virgin Mary visited her cousin St. Elizabeth, St. John the Baptist leaped for joy in his mother's womb, and Mary recited the Magnificat. The most arresting thing about this church is a large fresco of Mary depicted with her infant child held close, standing atop the world as its Queen. To reach Bethlehem, we crossed through the boundary wall into the Palestinian Territories. The Church of the Nativity is the oldest continuously used church in the world, with the original 4th-century floor and pillars intact but partially undergoing restorations financed by the Palestinian Authority. The iconostasis of this church is incredibly beautiful, and as we entered the Grotto of the Nativity itself (behind and below the main altar), the holiness was palpable. I observed this phenomenon at several sites in the Holy Land, but this place was especially intense. This cave in Palestine was where Christmas happened.
Jesus in Jerusalem
The Mount of Olives sits across the Kidron Valley from the East Gate, which opens into the Old City of Jerusalem and the Temple precinct. Olive trees are still cultivated on this mount. Located on this mountain is a church called Pater Noster, which sits atop sandstone caves in which Christ taught his disciples. The name of the church reflects how Jesus taught his disciples to pray the "Our Father." The prayer that our savior taught us can be found on the walls of the courtyard in many languages, symbolizing its universality.
Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which we commemorate on Palm Sunday, was from the Mount of Olives (Luke 19:37), and we followed this route, walking down the side of the mountain. We stopped at a small Franciscan church, Dominus Flevit, marking where Christ wept for Jerusalem before making his triumphant entry. From the Mount of Olives, we saw the Eastern (or “Mercy”) Gate, which is where Christ triumphantly entered Jerusalem and “looked around at all things” (Mark 11:11), thereby indicating his priestly authority over the Temple, which would shortly be even more palpable when he cleansed the Temple (Mark 11:15-17, etc.). This entrance to the Old City was sealed when Jerusalem was under Ottoman control (16th century AD). Amazingly, this perfectly fulfills the prophecy given in Ezekiel (6th century BC): “And he brought me to the gate that looked towards the east. And behold the glory of the God of Israel came in by the way of the east: and his voice was like the noise of many waters, and the earth shone with his majesty... And the majesty of the Lord went into the Temple by the way of the gate that looked to the east… And he brought me back to the way of the gate of the outward sanctuary, which looked towards the east: and it was shut. And the Lord said to me: This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it: because the Lord the God of Israel has entered in by it, and it shall be shut” (Ezekiel 43:1-4, 44:1-2).
Near the Zion Gate, we found the location of the Last Supper. The Upper Room, reconstructed by the Crusaders, is located adjacent to the Tomb of David, where it was moving to see Jewish people praying intensely. (As at the “Wailing Wall” of the Temple Mount, men and women are segregated here, and all males must don yarmulkes before entering.)
After Christ shared the Last Supper with his disciples, he went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. Although in the Gospels this is recounted without elaboration about the distance travelled, it actually would have taken one hour to walk from one place to the other. In this garden, he leaned on a large rock formation, praying in agony. He sweated blood and spoke to His Father, "Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done." (Luke 22:44) On this holy rock, there is now a church called the Church of All Nations, because twelve nations donated money towards its construction. According to the official gardener of Gethsemane, there are trees outside the Church that are 3,000 years old, meaning that we were looking at the same trees that Jesus himself looked at.
Once Jesus was arrested, he was brought back across the Kidron Valley (another hour-long trek) to the house of Caiaphas, the High Priest, for trial and judgment. Of course, there is a church to mark this spot as well. The church is called "Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu" (Gallicantu means “cock crow”). The church is built upon the ruins of Caiaphas’ property, which had a subterranean prison owing to Caiaphas’ judicial role. We visited the deepest dungeon, where Christ was lowered by ropes and kept overnight before being taken to Pilate in the morning (cf. Matthew 26:75-27:2).
The next day Christ faced Pontius Pilate and began what we now know as the Stations of the Cross. These stations snake through the Muslim quarter of the Old City and many are marked by churches. Following the Way of Cross, we eventually entered the Christian Quarter and approached the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This enormous church is the most holy site in the world for Christians, enclosing Golgotha and the empty tomb at two different ends of the building. It was very moving to be there and to see many people overcome with devotion as they reverenced the tomb, and the rocks of Golgotha that protrude from around the sides of the central altar. We attended Mass twice in this church, once at the Golgotha altar at 6:30 a.m. and once in a side chapel. Here there are many languages (we attended Mass or Vespers in Greek, Syriac, Armenian, Latin, English, and Italian) and many interesting variations in clerical dress, but there is one Easter Faith.
The St. Thomas More Society may do another trip like this soon. If you are interested, contact Professor Byers, firstname.lastname@example.org.