Holy Land On Holy Week: Five Days Of Standing Where Jesus Stood, Walked, Performed Miracles
I visited Israel on a spring-cold November. This time is not exactly the peak of the tourist season yet (Holy Week and Christmastime are), but almost always there will be around 10 different nationalities converged in exactly the same church entrance. Tourists come with the territory not only because Israel—or the Holy Land—is considered one of the holiest places for many religions but because this unique destination is also highly dependent on tourism.
The wailing wall
Despite the crowds, there will be moments of solemnity and great humility as you tread the cobblestone alleys of the Old City for a reenactment of the Via Dolorosa or run your palms through the limestone remains of the synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus did his ministry and performed miracles. Your local tour guide will provide the historical details of a place, while the priest who comes with you on this trip, will give its biblical significance. Your daily tours are coupled with Mass celebrations at the churches you will be visiting.
Whether you do your pilgrimage during the Holy Week or on leaner tour months in Israel, it will include all the key places that cover Jesus’ life story from birth to death in a span of a week. It will be packed, but side trips to souvenir shops and tourists spots allow for a reprieve from what can be at times an overwhelming tour of, I guess you could say, Biblical proportions. The starting point can be either Galilee and Nazareth in the North, moving south to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, or vice versa (if Jesus actually took the wheel it would roughly take Him two hours from Jerusalem to Galilee, just saying).
If anything will be revealed to you on this trip, it’s that Jesus was the ultimate light traveler who literally brought no excess baggage, did most of his traveling on foot, and placed full trust on the hospitality of strangers (Luke 9:3 "And He said to them, "Take nothing for your journey, neither a staff, nor a bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not even have two tunics apiece."). He brought nothing yet left each place richer in spirit.
If only to get that tangible and 3D sense of how Jesus lived an inspiring life of movement that began Christianity and redefined the world, then this is more than enough reason for you to visit Israel at least once in your lifetime.
Here is a day-to-day guide of a typical visit to Israel:
Day 1: Jesus is Born | Bethlehem
Your day in Bethlehem, a Palestinian town, will cover the story of the beginnings of Jesus starting with a visit to Church of the Nativity, commissioned by Roman emperor Constantine the Great and his mother Helena in 339 AD. The church, considered to be the oldest Christian church still in use today, is built over the cave that marks the site where Jesus was born.
This first stop will be your introduction to a crowd of pilgrims who will comprise the long line that leads to the silver star that marks the birth site. Waiting for your turn to kiss this marker and pray before the site can take more than an hour but your tour guide knows the drill and will patiently fill you in on the beginnings of Christianity on this very site. A private Mass will be celebrated in a part of the Church before proceeding out to the Manger’s Square, an iconic spot where elaborate events are held during Christmastime. This will be followed by a visit to Lazarus’ Tomb in Bethany, the site where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, then to the Franciscan Chapel called the Sheperds Field. The Shepherds Field was where an angel appeared before shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus. Two other stops will be in Jerusalem, at the St John the Baptist Church, and the Church of Visitation, which commemorates the visit of Mary to Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.
Day 2: Stations of the Cross | Old City in Jerusalem
The Old City of Jerusalem
The cluster of sites on this part of Israel practically covers many highlights in the Bible and will be, expectedly, one of the most memorable. Your day starts with a visit to the Mount of Olives east of Jerusalem. Jesus came here many times to rest, pray, and speak to his disciples. It is also the site where He foretold of His Second Coming to His disciples and, more importantly, where he ascended into heaven. The Mt. of Olives, imaginably, is one of Jesus’ favorite places as it gave Him an unrivalled view of the Old City of Jerusalem sans the iconic Dome of the Rock that we see in every postcard of Israel today. This same area also leads to the Sunday Palm Road, which, during Holy Week, is filled with palm-carrying people who celebrate Palm Sunday to commemorate the day of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. At the foot of the mountain is the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed and where his disciples slept a day before His crucifixion. Today, the garden is fenced, filled with aging olive trees, which includes the 2000-year-old olive tree that dates back to the time of Christ.
From Gethsemane, the route takes you to the Christian quarter in the Old City in Jerusalem. Here you will visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where you will find your way to the Stone of the Annointing, the slab of stone on which Jesus’s body was laid in preparation for his burial. To see pilgrims surrounding the stone, down on their knees kneeling, head bowed as if mourning Jesus death, can be quite a moving sight.
A highlight of the day is the reenactment the Stations of the Cross or the Via Dolorosa using a rented wooden cross. The place will be packed but trust that you will have your time to walk the stations and get your turn at carrying the wooden cross. Taking off your pilgrim’s hat, it will be in this area where you will get a taste of the Israel you’ve always pictured in your mind: cobblestone streets, tight alleys, bored cats lounging in all possible forms of lazy, bursting colors of pomegranates and oranges on side streets, elderly gentlemen selling bread and pickles of all kinds, hanging potted blooms juxtaposed against limestone blocks, and backpack-toting kids walking home from school.
After the Stations of the Cross, you will walk through a market maze until you reach the Wailing Wall. Here, you will find yourself among the praying Jews and between their shoulders you will search for a crevice on the wall deep enough to hold your paper of intentions.
Day 3: Tempted | Dead Sea and Jericho
This day brings you to the lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea. On the way you will stop at the site where you get a good view of the Mount of Temptation. It was here where Jesus prayed and fasted for 40 days (the basis on which Catholics observe lent for the same number of days) and the place where the devil tempted Him twice. As a sidetrip, you will visit the spot where the dead sea scrolls is said to be located and take a dip into the saline-soaked Dead Sea, probably one of the best memories you will ever take home with you.
Day 4: Childhood and His First Miracle | Nazareth
This day brings you to Nazareth in lower Galilee, the place where Joseph and Mary resettled and where the childhood home of Jesus was until the peak of his ministry. Your tour here starts with a visit to the Church of the Annunciation, built to commemorate the place where the Angel Gabriel appeared before Mary to announce that she will carry in her womb the Son of God. In the same area, you will visit the Church of St. Joseph that houses Joseph’s workshop, making you imagine the life of Jesus as a boy who watched his father work. After being a carpenter himself, Jesus devoted his all to the ministry.
Day 4 also brings you to the Wedding Church of Cana, which commemorates the earliest public miracle of Jesus where he turned water into wine at a wedding feast. Here, couples in your tour group can renew their wedding vows. Witnessing this renewal ceremony can be touching as you see the brides’ cry as they march down the aisle. A full mass is held with the couples saying their "I Do’s" all over, perhaps, this time richer in meaning. There will be no wine served, however.
Day 5: Ministry and Miracles | Galilee
Just when you thought you’ve lost count of the many churches you’ve visited, this last route will give you renewed energy. This day brings you to two significant bodies of water that have played key roles in Jesus’s life—the Sea of Galilee which you will learn is actually a lake, and the Jordan River. But first you will be brought to the Basilica of Transfiguration in Mt. Tabor, the site where Jesus’ transfiguration took place and where Moses and Elijah appeared before Him to tell Him of his fate in Jerusalem. You will proceed to Capernaum, originally a fishing village where most of Jesus’ ministry and many miracles (healing the sick and casting out demons) took place. This experience is particularly special as it allows you to sit among the ruins of a synagogue that existed during Jesus' time, helping you imagine how He stood before awed listeners, performed miracles, and preached with authority. To take in the essence of the place as a fishing village, tilapia will be served to your group for lunch.
You will proceed to a cruise on the Sea of Galilee—just like Jesus’ disciples had done 2,000 years ago. It was on this very sight where Jesus’ dramatic miracles of walking on water, calming the storm, and appearing before his disciples after his death occurred. From Galilee, a 40-minute bus ride will take you to your very last stop, Jordan River. Just like John the Baptist had done for Jesus in this very same place, you will be baptized, bringing your pilgrimage to a most apt Christian ending.
Most pilgrimage tours to the Holy Land today is not limited to just Israel but usually covers a variation of a three-country circuit following the routes of both the Old and New Testaments. It begins in Egypt, entering into Israel and ends in Jordan where the final stopover will be at Mt. Nebo, the point from which Moses stood to watch the Promised Land.
Photo by Rob Eye on Unsplash