Monthly Archives: December 2018

The Jordan River

The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.  He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.                                                                   LK 3:2-3

Screenshot (22)

The Jordan River flows in to and out of the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea and separates Israel and Jordan.  It is 251 km long, a rather narrow river that descends steeply at first and then gently as it nears the Dead Sea.  The West Bank refers to the west bank (of the southern section) of the Jordan River within Israel.  The Golan Heights, the territory captured by Israel from Syria, abuts the northern part of the Jordan to the east.

We went to the Jordan at Qasr el Yahud in Israel, about 9 km above the Dead Sea and the site where Jesus was baptized by John.  The actual baptism site is commemorated on the Jordan side which we could see from where we were on the Israeli side.


St John the Baptist Church is on the Jordan side

Most of us waded into the water and were ceremoniously baptized by Bishop Sylvain or Fr. Susui.  It was another memorable experience that we will never forget.  There were many other pilgrim groups dressed in white doing the same thing.   Many were singing.




This lady went full immersion

All was calm and peaceful under the watchful eyes of a couple of armed soldiers on each side of the river.  Sad that this is necessary but it is symptomatic of today’s divided world.



So this is the site where Jesus short ministry was inaugurated.  We could hardly believe that we were in the exact spot.  Thanks be to God.

Jesus baptism

The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca c. 1450 (courtesy Wikipedia)



1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized


So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.  He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.

LK 1:4-5

Screenshot (17)

Another long walk and this time Mary is heavy with child.  It had been prophesized in Micah 5:2 that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem which was known as Ephrata in the Old Testament:

“But you Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from old, from ancient times.”

Joseph was required to register his family in Bethlehem, the town of his origin, to comply with Caesar Augustus census decree.  He was from the house and line of David since Bethlehem was where King David had been born.   Bethlehem at that time was a small agricultural town.  Today it is a Palestinian town of 25,000 in the West Bank.  It’s economy is driven primarily by the millions of pilgrims who come here each year.


In front of the Church of the Nativity

The Church of the Nativity is the oldest major Christian church in the Holy Land still in use every day.  This church was specifically spaired from destruction during the Persian invasion of 614 CE.  This church along with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are regarded as Status Quo churches – i.e., their custody is shared with other designated Christian religious communities.  This can make change and upkeep difficult as each community must agree.


Inside the Church of the Nativity

The original church built by Constantine was destroyed in a fire, but Emperor Justinian restored it in 565 CE.  In its crypt under the altar is the Grotto of the Nativity, the place where Jesus is said to have been born and the ultimate pilgrim pitstop in the Holy Land.  It is accessed by a tiny staircase.  A 14 point silver star marks the spot.  Right opposite is the Grotto of the Manger marking the spot where Mary laid Jesus in the manger.  The grotto does not look at all like a stable now as it has been built over.  It was very crowded and we all had to funnel through the small chamber and keep on moving.  Someone collapsed on the way out and we were surprised to see that it was a young man, apparently suffering from dehydration.  We would have liked to spend much more time here but it is simply too popular a site with pilgrims.


Entrance to the Grotto


This is the spot where Jesus is said to have been born


The original manger was laid here but now resides in Rome

Whether or not this is the exact birth location, it is certainly one to the most moving experiences a Christian can have to walk through this grotto to be with the baby Jesus, even if only for a moment.  It is one we will never forget and makes for us the accounts of Jesus birth in Mathew and Luke, really come alive.


The famous Bethlehem Christmas Tree outside the church

It is at this church that the world-televised “Midnight Mass” on Christmas Eve takes place each year.  That should make it 5 PM EST.  Hopefully it will be easy to find on your TV dial this Christmas.  Don’t forget to watch!

We then drove by the fields where the shepherds were watching their flock by night.  First one angel of the Lord and then a whole multitude appeared and told them of the birth of Jesus.  So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger, in swaddling clothes.  And we left Bethlehem with a feeling of joy and much renewed hope for the world.

Screenshot (20)

Adoration of the Shepherds by Philippe de Champaigne c. 1645 (courtesy Magnificat)

Update Dec 25/18

Did you catch midnight Holy Mass from the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem yesterday?  It was hard to find but I found it live on UTube.  Mahmoud Abbas, President of the State of Palestine and Palestinian National Authority, was the guest of honour.  There were 3 Bishops present but I cannot determine who they were.  The principal celebrant made a short political speech about washing off the thin layer of dirt to find the beauty lying underneath of their local and of the world society in general.  His homily addressed the birth of Jesus and the immense hope for world salvation.  After Mass they all descended to the Grotto of the Nativity and continued with a prayer and song ceremony.  Hard to believe we were in the same spot less than a month ago.  Cheers,  Dave

Bethlehem Group


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Ein Karem


At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth.  When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.

LK 1:39-41

Screenshot (15)We chuckle a bit about the distance and terrain. Mary was walking from Nazareth to Ein Karem, a distance of 150 km. She would have descended the big hill from Nazareth and crossed the plain, but soon would have encountered the Samarian hills and then the Judean hills. Or perhaps she went the way of the Jordan Valley and then up the steep hills to Judea. It probably took a week even if she was on a fast donkey. Furthermore, as she was 3 months pregnant and it was June, things were likely heated up. An ardent journey for a pregnant woman but perfectly “normal” for the time.


Mary and Elizabeth greet each other


Photo courtesy Wikipedia

We visited the Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem, now in the south-western outskirts of Jerusalem.  Tradition attributes the building of the first church here to Helena, the Emperor Constantine’s mother.  She had identified the site as the home of John the Baptist’s father Zachariah.  Crusaders later erected a newer church here. Lost again to the Saracens for centuries, it was the Franciscans who eventually built a modern church here in 1937, the one that we visited.  Since a church dedicated to the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth has existed here since Constantine times, it is very likely that this indeed was the site of this very holy meeting.  There was some very lovely artwork in this church including the painting above and those below.

Another church we visited nearby was the Church of John the Baptist.  It was here reputedly where John the Baptist was actually born.  We learned a lot about John the Baptist on this pilgrimage.  He is the last prophet and hence links the Old Testament to the New Testament.   People thought he was the Messiah including his followers so he repeatedly had to deny this and prepare the way for Jesus – the logos made flesh.  One account has Mary and Elizabeth being 1st cousins, so John and Jesus were related.  However this is not known for sure.

We definitely were feeling blessed and privileged to have seen these holy places first hand and to begin to understand the Bible and theology at a deeper personal level.



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized


I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling ’bout half past dead
I just need some place where I can lay my head…

                                                                                   The Weight by The Band


We now embark on a more detailed look at each of the holy sites we recently visited starting with Nazareth.  It was here that the Virgin Mary was betrothed to Joseph and the Angel Gabriel came to say “Do not be afraid Mary for you have found favour with God and will bear a son and his name shall be called Jesus.”

At the time of Jesus, Nazareth was a tiny Galilean village of no more than 300 people.  Today it is a small city of 80,000 as seen in the photo above.  It consists of Upper Nazareth where the majority of Israeli Jews reside and Lower Nazareth where Israeli Christians and Muslims live.  Our modern hotel was in the upper part overlooking the older town.

The first highlight we saw was the Nazareth Village, an outdoor museum that depicts Nazareth daily life in Jesus time.  It consists of houses, fields, vineyards, stables and olive press complete with actors dressed for the part.  We learned a lot about the different trades such as carpenter, weaver, wine maker and shepherd.  The structures and talks were very well done giving one a good idea of what daily life was like there and then.  We were given a small ceramic lamp with wick as a departing gift.


Jesus was likely raised in a room much like this one

The real highlight here was visiting the Basilica of the Annunciation.  It is a new church built over the Byzantium and Crusader ruins in the lower part of the church.  It was here where the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary announcing that she was to be the “Mother of Jesus”.  There are at least three levels: the parish church, the Grotto of the Annunciation on the ground floor and a deeper section where an ancient well is visible.  Apparently, Nazareth also had a synagogue where Jesus unrolled the scrolls and read from Isaaih  “The spirit of the Lord is upon me…(LK 4:16-20).  There is a Christian church there now I think but I don’t recall seeing it.


The exact spot where the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary

The last local highlight was visiting an ancient town 6 km NW of Nazareth called Sepphoris.  It was a large active town in Jesus day and Joseph his father, would likely have worked there.  Strangely, this town is not mentioned in the Bible.  Some pious accounts have Mary being born here to her parents Joachim and Anne, although most believe she was born in Nazareth.  Notable structures here include a Roman theatre, two early Christian churches, a crusader fort and many beautiful mosaics. We walked around the ancient ruins which were made more dreary by the light drizzle that day.  The mosaics were indeed amazing.



One thing that we were starting to notice is how hilly, rocky and dry the land is here and so how difficult it would have been walking from place to place in Jesus time. We were getting tired but we had a tour bus and daily water bottles!

Jesus was raised and then rejected here.  “Can anything good come of Nazareth?” asked the Apostle Nathaniel.  When Jesus read from the scrolls that day the people became infuriated and took him out to the cliff to push him off.  But Jesus stared them down and walked through them and away, LK 4:29-30.  This rejection was for us the start of a profound sadness which was to engulf us during this pilgrimage.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Son of Man

The term, Son of man, is used by Jesus 80 times as a way to refer to himself (32 times in Matthew; 14 times in Mark; 26 times in Luke; and 10 times in a qualitatively different way from the Synoptic Gospels in John).  In all these texts Jesus is the speaker; no one ever addresses him as Son of man.  When we were in the Holy Land, Dave asked Sammy why?


Sammy’s answer, Daniel 7:13-14:

“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven.  He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.  He was given authority and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him.  His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”

In the Aramaic and Hebrew languages “son of man” means a human being or simply a human.  However Jesus refers to himself as “the Son of Man” i.e., using the definite article.  The most plausible explanation I have found goes like this.

Jesus wanted to obscure his divine identity so as to fulfill his ministry on earth.  If he came right out and publicly called himself the Son of God, he would likely have been lynched as a madman by his fellow Israelites.  Instead, he refers to himself mysteriously as the Son of Man e.g., in Mark 10:45 “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

These references to the Son of Man would have been very alarming to the Pharisees as they no doubt knew the scripture reference in the apocalyptic book of Daniel.  However as Jesus was being obscure, they could not pin anything directly on him.  When Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say I am? it is Peter who says you are the Christ, Son of the living God.  Jesus tells them not to tell anybody.  It is only near the end when Pontius Pilate asks Jesus are you the King of the Jews and Son of God?  “I am” answers Jesus finally.

Nevertheless the term Son of Man remains a mysterious one.  There is no scholarly consensus on just what Jesus meant.  Was he trying to emphasize his humanity in the context of his humble earthly work?  Or, was he referring to his coming suffering, death and resurrection?  Or perhaps his future coming in heavenly glory as Daniel 7 seems to suggest?  What do you think?  This is a one interesting thing I learned about on our Holy Land pilgrimage.

Daniel 1





Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Holy Land Pilgrimage – By the Numbers

NT Map

We are safely home now after an amazing trip.  Our flight from Tel Aviv was long and crowded.  The 787 must have blown a tire on take-off as we landed on a flat tire and they held us on the tarmac in Toronto for 2 hrs. while they changed it out.  So we were a total of 14.5 hrs in the plane coming home.  The other side of this is that is we were sitting with Bishop Lavoie the whole way so we got to know each other more.

By all accounts this was a trip of a life time, very different in tone and tenor from a pilgrimage we took to Poland a few years back.  Here there was much more laughter, light heartedness and joking.  Bishop Sylvain and Fr. Susai were constantly joking with us and each other.  Our daily Masses were chances to snap multiple pictures and for joyful singing led by Dan and Joanne.  Virtually everyone got to read or otherwise participate in the Eucharist celebrations.


In front of the Tomb of Jesus, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

The highlight for Marie and I was receiving the Eucharist in the inner Tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  This was a once in lifetime experience and we felt so blessed and appreciative for this gift.  It was a timing thing and we happened to be invited into the inner tomb with Fr. Susai and Bishop Sylvain just as they started to distribute the Host.  (There is only room for about 4 people at a time in the inner tomb.)  Having a Mass there (in the outer tomb) at 5h30 was a real coup and Maria Drueco our tour organizer deserves much credit for this and her excellent overall organization and care of us: Marianatha Tours.


Fr Susai and Bishop Sylvain in the Inner Tomb of Jesus



We place our hands on the slab where they laid Jesus body

There was virtually no complaining about anything – perhaps a few raised eyebrows when certain things happened, but that was it.  Contrast this with the very vocal complaining one often hears on any major trip like this and the sense of entitlement some display if they have to line up, don’t like the food, etc..  The group bonded very well and we all helped each other whenever necessary.  Furthermore, we felt totally safe at all times and saw no security threats.  It’s fair to say that the Israelis have state of the art security systems in place and that one is likely as safe here as anywhere.


After Renewal of Wedding Vows and Mass at Cana in Nazareth


Several years of militia service is compulsory for young Israeli women like these

It was great that our friends from Arnprior, John and Christine came on this pilgrimage too.  Plus we made many new friends, some of them Oblate Associates like us.


With Christine and John at the Wailing Wall


At the Jaffa Street Market in Jerusalem with friends

Should every Christian feel they should make this pilgrimage once in their life?  No, it’s not necessary in our view.  One good reason is the profound lack of religious unity and homogeneity one experiences here.  When we were in Poland, 95% were Catholic and over 80% of these were actively practicing their faith.  We felt at home.  In the Holy Land, Christianity is a very small minority, so a Christian is surrounded here by much otherness.  While the sites are the most holy and meaningful in Christendom and everyone is nice, one cannot escape feeling a sense of sadness at the reality of the Holy Land today – walls up, restrictions on travel, security concerns, intolerance, land grabs, poverty, litter, identity politics, violence etc.  Nothing has changed since Jesus time except there is perhaps even more division now it seems.  So  we are left with an even greater appreciation of St Paul for bringing the message of Jesus to the world – to us!


On the Sea of Galilee

Uplifting were the faces of thousands of other pilgrims like us eager to visit each sacred site and extend their faith in this dimension.  A pilgrimage to the Holy Land can indeed be transformative and for many including us, it is.  In the days to come we hope to unpack this a little more.

By the numbers:

  • 13 days, 2 countries, 28 pilgrims
  • average age say 68, 9 men, 19 women
  • 20,000 kms flown, 7 time zones
  • about 1000 km bussed
  • 6 hotels (2-5*, 2-4*, 2-3*), 12 buffet dinners, 1 served
  • food varied from excellent to run of the mill (lot’s of stews)
  • lots of sauces and spices, fruit sometimes hard to find, no coffee at dinner
  • prices generally expensive and appreciation to be shown by tipping
  • photos taken 610, 6  bottles of wine
  • 25 sites visited, likely same number of churches
  • rain 2 – 3 days, rest sunny, ave high temp 22
  • 12 Masses held in the most amazing places
  • Overall rating 8.5/10


Thanks be to God for this safe holy trip and to you for travelling with us.  God bless.





1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Holy Land – Day 13

Our hotel last night in Amman was the Harrar Palace. There is a security machine you must go thru on entry. The room was small but the bed was big.‎ Nothing worked too well – the safe, the shower – but we were comfortable sleeping nonetheless. In the morning, Marie’s shower is cold. Dave asks where is the swimming pool? Straight faced the desk attendant says it is closed. I ask him when will it open? “In the spring” he says!! (I had assumed they had an indoor pool…)

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (HKJ) gained it’s independence from British rule in 1946. Prince Abdullah became King Addulla and the country’s name changed from Trans-Jordan.‎ 4 million people live in “The white city” – all of the buildings are made of white stone. ‎The streets are lined with coniferous and palm trees and some cactus. It’s a big traffic crowded city. It’s another sunny day and we are headed north to Jarash‎, the ancient Greco/Roman city.

Hadrian built up this city in 135 CE. We walk down streets lined with columns and arches. We see the theatre, amazingly well maintained. The Temple of Artemis (Diana). Italians and French are working here to expose more of the ancient ruins. ‎Their are squill plants growing among the rocky fields. We finish our walking tour and Dave buys 2 keffi‎yeh, the distinctive Jordainian red checkered headress with black ring as gifts.

We head for the Israel border north crossing. We are nearsing the end of this pilgrimage. At the border, everything on the bus with us has to be scanned. Then a departure tax has to be paid HKJ and we go thru an iris scan and database check before our passports are stamped for departure. After we cross the Jordan River, we get off the bus again with all our baggage. Once again everything including us is scanned. They ask Dave if anyone in Jordan gave him something to deliver in Israel. Then passports are scanned again and we are issued a tourist visa card. ‎By the time we leave for Jericho with Sammy again, almost 2 hours have elapsed.

We spent our last night in a truly 5 star hotel after Mass at the local Catholic Church ministered by Franciscans. There are 324 Catholics here out of a population of 30,000. We are done, thanks be to God for this great pilgrimage trip.

See you at home soon.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Holy Land – Day 12 Petra

Petra is an ancient city dating from the third century BC. After a short but restful night, we are anxious to see this World Heritage Site and one of the declared New Seven Wonders of the World. The Nabateans prospered in the trade of frankensense, myrhh and spices. This was their capital. They had advanced and ingenious water systems which enabled them to move around the dessert area and control access to water for caravans. They also extracted bitumen and salt from the Dead Sea and exported it to Egypt for mummification.

You have seen Petra in the Indiana Jones movies like the Last Crusade in 1989. We walk down a slowly descending gravel path. There are mountains in view. The way narrows and we enter a canyon. There are horse drawn buggies speeding by. Some people ride horses or donkies. The cobble stones give way to a smoother Roman like road. The steep rock walls becomes pink in colur. We snap pic after pic and suddenly there it – the Tomb of King Aretas IV. King Aretas is mentioned in 2 Cor‎ 11:13. He ruled a large empire between Egypt and Persia just skirting the east and southern end of the Dead sea.

They were annexed by the Roman Empire in 106 CE. In 324 they become part of the Byzantine Empire. In 363‎ a major earthquake crumbles some of their greatest buildings. Another earthquake in 551 knocks out their civilization for good.

We hear snipets of conversations. Ancient eartquakes opened up fissures here. Water gushed down over millions of years ago. It carved out the deep canyon more than 200 feet deep. We continue and climb many stairs to the Urn Tomb. We can see the top of the 8000 seat ampitheatre. We turn back.‎ We get back to the bus after a 3 hr hike.

Today, phosphate and potash are mined and exported. Jordan has great leadership I King Abdulla II tries to keep Jordan as neutral as possible. They set a very good example in this turbulent area – live and let live. It is a beautiful country – Yosef our guide was right. We have seen and learned a lot here.
‎We get to our hotel in Amman at 7:30. There is a large wedding party going on in the lobby. The contrast with Petra could not be greater.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized