A visit to the Holy Land

Day 1. On which there were swallows and a glimpse of heaven:

So it seems there were swallows swooping and skipping over the wavelets while the aroma of barbecued fish eddied in the morning breeze, the day the risen Christ stood on the shore calling to Peter and the others to try their luck on the other side of the boat.

The bible doesn't mention it, but for some reason it leaps out of the scene like an absolute truth as I stand on the shore of the Sea of Galilee with my fellow pilgrims on this April morning, only a few days after we remembered his death on the cross all those years ago.No-one told me there would be swallows. It's strange but that's the thought that catches my throat and makes me turn away to wipe my eyes surreptitiously. Suddenly I see the scene as if from his eyes.So there were swallows, darting and chirruping and affirming Life in all its fullness. Of course there were.

And of course they built a church here. It seems no inch of the Holy Land is safe from that very human urge to build monuments. Someone a thousand years ago concluded (perhaps caught unawares and surreptitiously wiping away a tear like me) that Jesus had needed a table from which to serve his fishy breakfast, and finding a large, flat rock in the right vicinity had built the church of Mensa Christi, the table of Christ. The swallows swooped and chirruped inside that building too, and though I was charmed by that it was outside on the shore that I felt his presence, seeing and hearing what he too must have seen and heard.

After breakfast we visit the place where (we think) Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount (maybe).The rationale is that we know he had to be at the north end of the lake, and this is an obvious place, a natural amphitheatre. The argument is compelling - it's hard to see where else it could have taken place. The Franciscans have, of course, built a church surrounded by formal gardens. We declineto enter it, and spend our time instead trying to visualise the place as it would have been, and in observing our fellow pilgrims. Particularly we enjoy the East African lady filming the Middle East through her (western) iPad. Again I'm caught unawares by tears as I think about Jesus' ruthlessly simple teaching, cutting straight to all our hearts, in every culture.We discuss the whole monument thing and conjecture that God appreciates it in the same way we appreciate the grey pastry bunny rabbit made for us by a child. We didn't really want it but we think its sweet that they made it.

After seeing the swallows, we walk to a quieter spot on the shore nearby where a simple open air chapel has been set up, with logs to sit on, a huge boulder for a communion table and where a wicker canopy shelters us from a light shower. There are many more or less elaborate constructions around, where the various groups could book a worship slot, and we wait politely while four Germans overrun their allocated half hour. The unruly wind blows my gluten-free wafer away, and it has to be fetched back. One of the students present points out a sheep's skull lying near the altar and we ask each other mischievouslywhether 'alternative' liturgies are perhaps allowed after hours. I love the lack of formality. Messy church has nothing on this.

Later we visit Capernaum. Apparently I have been pronouncing this wrong for the past thirty years. It's Kaffer-nowm. Not Ka-purr-nay-um. I simply hadn't understood how much of Jesus' ministry was focused here. I need to re-read my bible with geography in mind. Of course he came here - it was a cosmopolitan metropolis in its day. Where else would he go in this area? We see the foundations of (perhaps) Simon Peter's house, where Jesus lived as part of the family and healed Simon's mother in law. I am more excited by the synagogue, mostly 4th century, but with the foundations showing from Jesus' time. This is undeniably a place where Jesus walked, and taught, and healed. He was really here. And we eat tilapia (aka St Peter's fish) for lunch - thinking all the while that surely Jesus must have eaten this kind of fish too - the whole of this day's experience is above all sensory. This is what he saw, and heard, and smelt, and tasted, and touched. I hope he had better wine than we are getting though.

After lunch we take a boat back to our hotel in Tiberias. This is fun but not quite as significant as I expected. If only we could have sailed, if only I didn't feel more of a tourist than a pilgrim. Still it is good to see the shore from the lake - as he did - and the demonstration of net-casting is fun.

In the bar that evening we catch an unexpected glimpse of heaven. Speaking to a gentle little African American Catholic lady from New York we make an instant connection, talking about the very human scale of all we have seen, and our renewed sense of intimacy with the Lord. We totally understand each other, within seconds. We are full of joy. At the piano is an elderly Taiwanese man with little or no English. Again there is connection, understanding and joy.

So often we worry about who we will meet in heaven. Will Auntie Minnie be there, will Joan, will Dorothy? Today I realise it simply won't matter. We will be there, and whoever else is there we will connect with, we will be overjoyed. It will be like meeting fellow pilgrims in a bar in Tiberias, only (perhaps) with better wine.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4