The second full day in the Holy Land found the 33 pilgrims from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA traveling northward through the arid landscape of Israel. The rocky and dusty cliffs, and wide desert plains soon changed to green fields, and lush groves of tall palm trees as they neared their day’s destination – Capernaum.
Through the haze the passengers on the bus could just make out the shimmer of water in the distance. Soon they found themselves in a scenic drive beneath large trees as the bus pulled to a stop and they disembarked. Walking down a long entryway drive they were amazed by the chickens, turkeys, and peacocks which roamed the monastery grounds. They walked past an ornate fountain with grapevines growing around it and entered a courtyard with a sycamore tree so large that its canopy shaded the entire area.
Turning the corner, they were met by the large, red-domed Greek Orthodox Church of the Twelve Apostles. The church takes its name from the Gospel account of Jesus choosing the Twelve, an event that took place on a mountain in this area of Galilee. It is also known as the Church of the Seven Apostles — a reference to Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearance by the Sea of Galilee to seven of his disciples — Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James, and John “and two other disciples” (John 21).
The courtyard surrounding the church featured lovely, lush gardens, and palms, with a beautiful view beyond of the Sea of Galilee. Walking inside the pilgrims entered a golden heaven. Frescoes and murals decorated the walls of the church from top to bottom. Each wall depicted a particular parable, or miracle of Christ. Bright sunlight poured in through the stained-glass window casting beautiful rays of ethereal light throughout the interior. Gazing upward on one dome was a great icon Christ the Pantocrator and on the other was the Ancient of Days.
Donning his Epitrachelion and Omophorion, Archbishop Daniel placed the Gospel upon the stand before the Altar and read from it. As the group bowed their heads and prayed, others entered and respectfully joined. Having blessed his flock, Archbishop Daniel also bestowed his blessing upon those others who came forward, specially the group of Orthodox Christians from Romania.
As they turned to exit the beautiful church everyone stopped as they were confronted by reality of life… and death. The entire back wall of the church had a mural of the Final Judgment on it. God sat upon His thrown as His creation was judged. Little devils were seen pricking wretched souls, while angels guided the righteous towards their reward. With this blatant reminder that we are all to be judged one day, and that our eternities rest in our own hands as we guide our lives along various paths, the group exited into the bright sunshine of the lush courtyard.
There next stop was the other side of Capernaum, which is dominated by an ancient synagogue. It was in the Capernaum synagogue that Jesus gave the Sermon on the Bread of Life (John 6:35-59) “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day”. In this synagogue Jesus would regularly preach (John 6:59, Luke 4:33). Christ expelled a demon from a possessed man here (Mark 1:21-27) and cured a Roman officer’s servant of palsy, the centurion is thought to have had the synagogue built (Luke 7:3). Here the Lord also raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead (Luke 8:41-53).
The original synagogue was destroyed and later replaced in approximately 200 AD. The remains of the synagogue include one complete wall, the ruins of the other walls and several columns. It is white stone, unlike the characteristic black basalt rock used for other Capernaum buildings. You can still see some of the stucco work, frescos, and motif carvings on the walls as well as inscriptions in Greek and Aramaic commemorating the synagogue benefactors.
The pilgrims slowly walked around the ruins of the synagogue, envisioning Christ’s presence, surrounded by the ghosts of the Pharisees and Scribes who had sat and listened to Him preach. The limestone floors were slick and shiny from the millions of feet that had trod upon them over the centuries. It was easy to lose oneself in the history and spiritual significance of the temple.
Despite having performed many miracles in Capernaum, Jesus was disappointed in the village’s lack of faith and eventually cursed it. By the 3rd century it had fallen on hard times. The once thriving city had a mere seven houses of poor fishermen. It was later resettled, but again fell into disrepair.
Walking a little distance to the side they came to an octagonal modern church built on 8 solid pillars atop dark stone ruins. Archaeologists uncovered an early Christian home in Capernaum thought to have been the home of Peter. Christ cured Peter’s mother-in-law here (Matthew 8:14-16) and is thought to have lived in this house while in Capernaum. This is the site where Christ cured a paralytic who was lowered in through the roof (Mark 2:1-12). After Jesus’ death the home became a place of worship with a “home church” located in the center of the simple structure. In the 5th century, an octagonal church was built here to preserve the remains of the home church. Many inscriptions in Greek, Armenian, Estrangelo, and Latin are on the ancient stones. There now stands a modern hexagonal Franciscan church over the spot with a glass floor so that you can still see the ancient original church below. As the pilgrims walked through the church, they paused to look down at the ruins below, imagining St. Peter and the Apostles gathering there at one time.
Following a prayerful trip to Capernaum, the group traveled to port of the Sea of Galilee to catch a boat ride in the sea, thus reflecting upon the ministry and miracles of Christ around the city of Capernaum and Sea of Galilee district. Protopresbyter Stephen Hutnick and Very Rev. Fr. Mykola Andrushkiv chanted the Gospel reading, thus enabling all to recall the miraculous walking on the sea of Christ and his call to unconditional faith and trust in the Lord.
The anthems of both the United States of America and Ukraine were sung by the pilgrims. His Eminence Archbishop Daniel, speaking from the middle of the boat, right in the center of the Sea of Galilee called upon all to offer their prayers for the peace and end of invasion in Ukraine.
With smiles and abundant joy the group gathered to take a group photo, and were sad when the boat once again returned to the dock. The late morning hours would not be complete without enjoying a tasty lunch. Having been to the site where the Lord called the Apostles, where they left behind their fishing nets and followed Him, it was time to enjoy some of those same fish. Seated in a large cool restaurant with stucco walls, the group enjoyed a leisurely lunch of fresh fried fish, caught that day from the Sea of Galilee.
The next stop was a short distance away as once again the pilgrims found themselves walking down a long driveway towards the Sea of Galilee. Tranquil Tabgha, located at the foot of the Mount of Beatitudes, on the north-western shore of the Sea of Galilee, is best known for Christ’s miraculous multiplication of loaves and fish to feed a multitude. The name comes from an interpretation of “Seven Springs” as several warm sulfurous springs enter the lake here, attracting fish even in the winter. Therefore, it was a prime spot for local fishermen, and certainly was familiar to Christ and His disciples. It is easy to imagine Jesus speaking from a boat in one of the little bays, with crowds sitting around on the shore.
Before walking to the shore of the sea, the group turned left and entered the Church of the Multiplication of fish and loaves. As they walked in everyone immediately noticed the mosaics. The entire floor is covered in mosaics depicting the flora and fauna of the area in vibrant colors — peacocks, cranes, cormorants, herons, doves, geese, ducks, a flamingo and a swan, as well as snakes, lotus flowers and oleanders.
As they moved forward, they noticed on the floor near the altar, they saw the beautiful mosaic of a basket of loaves flanked by two Galilee mullet. Instead of the “five” loaves, only four are depicted, as Christ Himself is considered to be the fifth. Beneath the altar is the rock on which it is believed Jesus placed the loaves and fish when He blessed them.
The group exited the church and went down the steps to their left and along the rocky shore to reach the gurgling waters of the Sea of Galilee. Many removed their shoes and waded in, while others reached down and splashed their friends on the shore. With laughter everyone enjoyed their firsthand experience with the Sea of Galilee. Pilgrims from all of the world were gathered here. Everyone was smiling and laughing and enjoying being in a place they knew the Lord had visited. Selfies were taken with complete strangers, who were now friends, as they were here seeking Christ as well.
The bus next took them upward towards a beautiful of the Mount of the Beatitudes. Overlooking the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, it offers an enchanting vista of the northern part of the lake and across to the cliffs of the Golan Heights on the other side. Within sight are the scenes of many of the events of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, including the town of Capernaum, where he made his home. Just below is Sower’s Cove, where it is believed Jesus taught the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-9) from a boat moored in the bay.
The group walked the expansive grounds and gardens, delighting in the colorful blooms, swaying palms, and picturesque vistas. Every corner of the grounds had little groups of pilgrims from all corners of the earth gathering in prayer beneath the shade of trees, reading scripture upon boulders, or just basking in the sunlight of the glorious day.
Here, in the sacred temple of the Beatitudes, His Eminence took out the Gospel book and read from Matthew 5: 1-11:
“And seeing the multitudes, he went up into the mountain: and when he had sat down, his disciples came unto him: and he opened his mouth and taught them, saying, Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets that were before you.”
The actual site of the Sermon on the Mount is further down the mountain, marked by the ruins of an ancient Orthodox Church. However, on the top of the mountain, commemorating the sermon, the Roman Catholic Church of the Beatitudes is an elegant octagonal building with colonnaded cloisters, blends nicely into the slope rather than dominating it. It was built in 1938 for a Franciscan order of nuns, to a design by Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi. The eight sides of the light and airy church represent the eight beatitudes, and these are also shown in Latin in the upper windows. Everyone entered the church and walked around the circular perimeter observing the centrally placed altar which is surmounted by a slender arch of alabaster and onyx. Around it, the seven virtues (justice, charity, prudence, faith, fortitude, hope, and temperance) are depicted by symbols in the mosaic floor.
The day concluded as the tired pilgrims returned to their hotel to rest and re-energize for the next day’s adventures. They had much to think about and absorb before they went to sleep this night. Their souls were overflowing with joy and awe as they contemplated all the holy sites, they’d seen this day. The sun slowly set in the west as final notes were jotted down and memories written in journals. Tomorrow would be another day filled with new experiences as they all got a new appreciation for their Faith and strengthened their own faith in the Lord.