Visiting the Holy Land with Fr. Bill Murtaugh

Author: Mary Lanners
July 16, 2018

What can I say about Jordan and the Holy Land? It was like a dream to be where Jesus lived, died and rose!

I learned many things from the guide as we drove across stable Jordan, the buffer zone country.  The home of the Dead Sea, and the Old Testament, the fertile land of the Jordan Valley. Yet there is much desert in Jordan, areas that are home to the Bedouins, a nomadic people who move to different areas when they need more food or better weather.  We saw them spotted on the hills and sand dunes shepherding their goats and sheep and an occasional camel.

We drove on the oldest highway (5,000 years old) called Kings Highway to Petra, a World Heritage site. Petra is an incredible area of rose mammoth sandstone structures that was developed by the Nabataeans. In Petra, to help make a living, the Bedouins drive tourists in horse drawn carts up and down the road to see caves and sights of the ancient ruins. It has been suggested that the three Magi who saw the guiding star and presented gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus, were from the Nabataean kingdom.

We visited Bethany beyond the Jordan, home of the baptismal site of Jesus by John the Baptist; the next week we visited Bethany in Israel, the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus.  Fr. Bill read scripture at many of the sites; these scriptures are imbedded in our minds. At Mt Nebo, from which Moses viewed the Holy Land before dying, we were fortunate to have Mass in the chapel. We saw the Jordan Valley, viewed Jericho across the river, and visited the Christian village of Madaba, where we saw the ancient remains of a Byzantine church and a mosaic map of the Holy Land.

On Thursday afternoon, we crossed the border into Israel. We were struck by the beautiful, young soldiers, men and women who serve in the army for 2-3 years. Our Jordanian guide was not allowed to go across the border. Israel is a country where people are passionate about their religion, culture, families and land. It is also a land of discrepancies.

On the Israeli side of the border we were welcomed by our Arab, Catholic guide Maher, who is passionate about what he does and where he lives. He is truly a master of the Holy Land, very educated, and speaks several languages. Israel is truly the land of milk and honey with acres of date, lemon, pineapple, and avocado trees. At our hotel in Tiberius, on the Sea of Galilee, we were welcomed, settled in our rooms and walked the beautiful gardens overlooking the sea. The food at all times was incredible and a reminder of a welcoming and hospitable country.

During a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, Fr. Bill read scripture of Jesus meeting Peter and Andrew telling them to throw their nets to the other side to get their fill of fish but he will offer them to be fishers of men. We visited several churches during our pilgrimage. On this beautiful Spring day, Fr. Bill celebrated Mass at the Annunciation Church outside. We visited the home of St Peter, an archeological site in Capernaum, and Ceasarea, the city where St Paul was incarcerated before being sent back to Rome. We traveled to Cana where many of the pilgrims in our group renewed their wedding vows in a very moving ceremony.

On the following day, we visited Mt Tabor and had Mass at the Church of the Transfiguration.  We visited Jacob’s well where Christ met the Samaritan woman and drank the water from the well.
We traveled to the city of Bethlehem and to Ein Karem, the birthplace of John the Baptist, and visited Emmaus, where Jesus met the disciples after his Resurrection.

We were constantly surprised throughout our travel. One day, as our bus climbed a hill to the restaurant, we were met by three school buses of Israeli school children protected by Israeli soldiers. We were in Palestinian country.

Our guide Maher had arranged the most incredible lunch of leg of lamb, rice, hummus, dips, olives, and large platters of spiced pita with chicken on top, fruit and Turkish coffee poured by the owner and his nephew. I laugh at myself since I looked to see what kind of coffee they served. The coffee had cardamom in it and was wonderful.

In Jerusalem, we drove to the Mount of Olives where we had Mass.  We walked down the hill past the Jewish cemetery to Dominus Flevit, where Christ wept over the city.  We later visited the Upper Room, the scene of the last supper at Mt Zion. In the evening some of us returned to Gethsemane for a time of reflection; we enjoyed a view of the Wall of the Old City of Jerusalem lit up in glory and listened to the Muslim call to prayer. It was breathtaking.

We started the next day at 5:00am to avoid the crowds. We walked through the Lions Gate of the Old City to follow the Via Delarosa, ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Fr. Bill celebrated Mass at the tomb area. In this centuries old church, a cave really, we encountered different languages and religions: Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Egyptian Coptic, and the smells of the incense; it was truly a memorable experience.

Maher treated us to a wonderful Arabic dessert, kanafeh, in a small shop in the Old City. Goat cheese, with a sugar coating which turns red and pistachios on top served warm. Food is the hospitable gift in all languages! That afternoon we had an opportunity to shop in the Old City before visiting the Wailing Wall. We ended the afternoon with a visit to the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Centre for a reception and to take pictures of Jerusalem.

We had the privilege to meet the owner of the Guiding Star in Jerusalem, Gabriele who was in his 90’s. Fr. Bill was given several gifts and each pilgrim in our group received a cross and document marking our visit to Jerusalem.

On our last day we drove to Jericho, the oldest city in the world. Much of the city is under archaeological excavation; but we learned the history of the area, which is amazing.  Some of us were kissed by Sam the camel, which was hysterical!

In Qumran, we saw where the Dead Sea scrolls had been hidden in jars in caves on the hills. At the Dead Sea, some of us floated in the sea full of salt and minerals and lathered the mud on our legs and arms. Back at the hotel, we finished packing and after dinner we boarded the bus for the final trip to the airport in Tel Aviv.
There were many more events and memories, but this provides a picture of the remarkable pilgrimage we made.  Remember, “everything is expected.” as our guide told us. The group was remarkable. We bonded easily and helped each other navigate the rough roads and terrain. A wonderful singer in our group entertained us daily, and Fr. Bill truly was our shepherd on the trip.

Shukran Fr. Bill






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