“WHEN JESUS BEGAN his ministry he was about thirty years of age…” (Lk. 3:23). Technically, so was I, and that is perhaps the extent to which I can compare myself with Jesus. I was ordained a few days after my 30th birthday, on May 17th, 2014. You can imagine my excitement after realizing that I would be celebrating a lint anniversary where the priesthood all began.
After two nights in Bethlehem, we traveled to our next hotel stay near the seashore of Lake Gennesaret, also known as the Sea of Galilee. On our way there, we ended our first portion of visiting the sites of the early life of Christ by going to the village of Nazareth to visit the house of Mary during the moment when she heard the greeting of the angel Gabriel – the place where God took on flesh in the womb of Mary, and the same town where, after seeking refuge in Egypt due to Herod’s onslaught, Mary and Joseph raised the child Jesus. Most of these years are hidden to us in Scripture, only sparing silence some details regarding his birth, the manner of his birth and genealogy, and a fragmentary account of an incident in the temple when he was 12 years old. (cf. Luke 2). Next to the writings of Sacred Scripture, we only have ancient traditions, hearsays, and mystical accounts to envision the younger Christ. The rest is kept unrevealed in the sweet memory of his mother who, “kept all these things in her heart” (Lk. 2:51).
Above photo: A sketchy map of our pilgrimage route through the Holy Land. (It may be hard to see). The blue line depicts our route for the first 2 days, the red line for the next 3 days, and the green line for our final three days, as we followed the footsteps of Jesus Christ.
We continued our route to the location where Jesus lived during the remainder of his adult life, near Capernaum off the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where Peter had lived as a fisherman. We stopped at the Jordan River, marking the location, as the Gospels tell us, where Jesus began his public expedition through his baptism by John, his exile into the desert for 40 days, and his eventual calling of the 12 Apostles. It was here on the Jordan River that I celebrated my fourth anniversary as a priest, the memory of which I will always treasure.
During the remainder of our time on the river, each one of us renewed our baptismal promises. After visiting Jericho for lunch (the oldest known human civilization in the world) we headed out to the desert land of the Essenes near the coast of the Dead Sea to view the sites where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered some 80 years ago. Afterwards, we took the afternoon to float on the salty water. The surface of the“Dead Sea” as it is appropriately named is the lowest elevation on earth, resting at nearly 1,500 ft. below sea level. The river Jordan empties out into the Dead Sea, but nothing ever leaves it. It is, as our tour guide told us, the great biblical image of the worse kind of death – the grabbing and unfruitful hoarding of God’s free gift of love.
We stayed at a hotel near the shoreline in Galilee for three nights. During this portion of our pilgrimage, we visited as many sites as our group could handle in the 105 degree weather. We visited many shrines, ranging from Caesarea Philippi (where Jesus asked his apostles “who do people say that I am?” (Mk 8:27); to the Mount of Beatitudes; then to the Church of the Seven Springs in Tabgah, dedicated to the location where Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes; even to the lake of Galilee on a boat tour. But my favorite stop for prayer and veneration was the Church of the Primacy of Peter. In our last stay in Galilee, we stopped by this church along the seashore, which is known as the place where Peter jumped out of the boat in the Gospel of John and swam to the shore to meet the risen Jesus.
Hugging the withdrawn waterline by the church on the rocks stands an ancient boat harbor. Through the passage of the years, all that is left is what looks like boulders on an incline. Housing the venerated spot where the resurrected Jesus was making breakfast, stands a very modest church. Marked solely by “Mensa Christi” (Table of Christ) there isn’t much to see inside the church. Besides the large rocks and an altar, most of what is left behind requires a bit of imagination. Of course, at the time of Christ, the shoreline was significantly closer to where the harbor now sits, along with the church that now uses it as its foundation.
The rock-harbor just outside the walls of the church would have been immersed partially under water during the time of Christ, and the wooden spikes on which the boats would have been docked would also have been mounted in linearly submerged anchors of large stones. What the passage of years has left to our generation is a natural formation of heart-shaped rocks. It was right here, in the Church of the Primacy of Peter, that Jesus asked him, “Peter, do you love me…Peter, do you love me…Peter, do you love me?” (cf. John 21).
When I went to Jerusalem for the first time during seminary, the Sea of Galilee was my favorite part. It remains this way, though nothing ever really compares to the feeling one gets standing inside the tomb of Christ. That will follow in the next article. But the Sea of Galilee is a very peaceful place. Its landscape remains relatively immaculate, and visually speaking, it is far easier to imagine what Jesus himself would have seen. But most of all, there is something special about being by the mountains and the water. My inability to take it all and grasp it into my head, my heart, puts me directly into the biblical story. The true miracle of Jesus’ walking on these waters was not that he didn’t sink, but that he chose the perfect spot to reveal the essence of Christian faith: the incomprehensible surprise that makes us walk on water.
— Fr. Matt Jamesson