I arrived in Tantur Israel to begin the Easter Experience programme with the five others from Perth. We joined nine other people from the United States, India and Ireland. The Rector, Fr. Tim Lowe, and staff gave a very warm welcome and outlined the programme. Firstly, on Thursday and Friday, we spent time in the environs of Jerusalem and had lectures on Biblical geography. Our guide helped the group connect with the landscape by reading from the Old Testament. In this way the Scriptures came alive for us. We went on to visit the ruins of the Second Temple Jerusalem. The guide explained the life and ritual of the Temple during the time of Jesus. In the Temple ruins we saw what had been the money changers’ booths; steps that Jesus climbed; ritual baths and ancient inscriptions. We finished our time by going to the Wailing Wall. On the Saturday, in preparation for Holy Week, we walked from the Mount of Olives to the Old City and reflected on the Gospel in each place.
After Mass on Palm Sunday, we joined the international ecumenical Palm Sunday procession. The procession was led by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. He was accompanied by the Papal Nuncio, Bishops and the Franciscans. The Patriarch began with prayer at Bethpage and ended the procession with Evening Prayer at St. Anne’s in Jerusalem near the Pool of Saloam (Jn 9). With the community from Tantur, I joined thousands of other Christians walking joyfully from Bethpage to Jerusalem. I was so happy to be joined by Sisters: Bernadetta, Magdalena, Christella, and Edyta from communities in Haifa and Nazareth. Together, we waved our palms and olive branches. We prayed and sang together as we walked towards Jerusalem. The Gospels relate this joy and expectation as the people shout, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Lk. 19:38).
For the first few days of Holy Week the group spent time reflecting on the early life of Jesus. We visited the caves at the Shepherds Field and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. We were given a tour of the Old City of Jerusalem Christian Quarter and had lectures. During Holy Week I was able to visit the Mount of Olives again, Dominus Flevit, Gethsemane and the church of Peter in Gallicantu (where St. Peter denied the Lord Jesus) and the room of the Last Supper.
It was a great grace to be in Jerusalem for the Easter Triduum. On Holy Thursday the group went to Ecce Homo to celebrate the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. After Mass we were invited to share a simple meal. Afterwards, I spent time in Adoration and quiet prayer at the Altar of Repose. Later that night, we attended the Holy Hour at the Church of All Nations, Gethsemane: I was able to watch and pray with the Lord. On Good Friday, with one of the priests, I went to Jerusalem in the very early morning to pray the Via Dolorosa. I met our sisters (Sr. Bernadetta and Sr.Renata) at the Damascus Gate and joined some others from Poland at 5.30AM. We wanted to pray the solemn Way of the Cross through the streets of Jerusalem. We gathered in silence – just before dawn we heard a cock crow three times.
After the Via Dolorosa I went with the sisters to the Polish House in Jerusalem. After a light breakfast, we went back to the Holy Sepulchre to join the Latin Patriarch for the Solemn Celebration of the Passion of the Lord. The doors of the Holy Sepulchre were opened at 8.00 and closed very shortly afterwards. No visitors or tourists were allowed in during the ceremony. With Sr. Bernadetta and Sr. Renata I was able to attend the ceremony at the Calvary itself and also to kiss the relic of the true cross during the Veneration of the Cross. After the ceremony the sisters and I were able to go inside the tomb to pray.
On Holy Saturday the group attended the Easter Vigil at Ecce Homo. On Easter Sunday morning I went back to the Holy Sepulchre with our sisters. We attended Easter Sunday Mass celebrated at the empty tomb by the Latin Patriarch. After Mass the Patriarch walks three times in procession around the empty tomb – and stops for a reading of the Resurrection from the Gospel. It was wonderful to hear the Gospel read in that Holy Place. The Patriarch stopped right in front of where I was standing. On Easter Monday we went to Emmaus for Mass. The Franciscan Custodian of the Holy Land was the chief celebrant with dozens of concelebrating priests. After Mass the Custodian gave each person a piece of blessed bread to share. It was a very joyful celebration.
The group spent most of the second week in Galilee. We stayed at Tiberius and visited the places associated with the ministry of the Lord Jesus. A highlight for me was to be able to visit our community at Nazareth and to spend some time with Sr. Speranza, Sr Bernadetta and Sr. Renata.
As the Tantur group arrived at Nazareth I was met by Sr. Bernadetta. I was delighted to see her. She began by taking me to pray at the well in the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation. Our Lady came to this well to draw water. Sr. Bernadetta then brought me to our house to visit our community in Nazareth. It was wonderful to spend just over twenty minutes with the sisters and to hear about their life.
I went with Sr. Bernadetta to visit the Church of St. Joseph. Most guides don’t bring groups to this church. The atmosphere was very quiet and prayerful. One of the many beautiful paintings shows the ordinary life of the Holy Family. This visit gave me an opportunity to reflect on the hidden life and love of the Holy Family. It also gave an opportunity to reflect on our charism. Finally, we went to the Church of the Annunciation. This is a very big church with many visitors. Fortunately, I was able to pray quietly, and almost alone, at the Grotto of the Annunciation – where the Word Became Flesh.
Sadly, I said goodbye to Sr. Bernadetta. I rejoined the group from Tantur for a visit to “Nazareth Village” (a reconstruction of Nazareth in the First Century). “Nazareth Village” is built on the site of a 2,000 year old farm. It is an attempt to re-enact the story of Jesus’ childhood and early life: we met a shepherd tending sheep, visited a synagogue and saw a carpenter in his workshop. We shared a traditional first century meal of soup, vegetables and bread, before saying goodbye to Nazareth.
In Galilee I visited many beautiful holy places. It was a great grace to be able to visit the Mount of the Beatitudes, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, and to pray in the Church of the Beatitudes. At Tabgha I saw the famous mosaic of the Loaves and Fishes – symbolising the miracle performed by the Lord (Mt. 14:16 -21) and the Church of St. Peter’s Primacy. Here the Lord appeared to the disciples after his Resurrection. At the River Jordan, I was able to pray, and with some others, renew my Baptismal promises. It was wonderful to go up Mount Tabor and to enjoy the peace and tranquillity of Mount Carmel. Among other things, we visited Capernaum and Cana and sailed in a “Jesus Boat” across the Sea of Galilee.
In my final days at Tantur I was able to spend more personal time in Jerusalem. Going to the Holy Sepulchre very early in the morning, I was privileged to attend Mass in the Tomb – with about 15 other people. I visited many of the Holy Places again – including the Church of the Dormitian, on Mount Zion, to pray to Our Lady.
During the final week of the programme we walked from the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. George to Jericho. This was a tough mountain hike on a very hot day. On the final day, we visited the Church of the Visitation and the Church of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.
The programme at Tantur also included visits to archaeological sites, lectures on the political and social situation in Israel and Palestine and Scripture lectures. We spent some time at the Dead Sea and had a short visit to Qumran. The group spent a day in Hebron and visited a Palestinian refugee camp beside the separation wall at Bethlehem. It was very upsetting to see the situation of the people. We also visited the “Tent of Nations”, near Hebron, where a Catholic family is trying to make a peace centre from their farm. Their peace farm is visited by people from all over the world but their land has been targeted by Israeli settlers. During the course, we had some lectures from Jewish and Palestinian people and also some input on the peace process. We began each day with Mass concluded the day with prayer together.
I was very privileged to spend this time in the Holy Land over Easter. It was a time of grace for me when I was able to pray at the Holy Places. I remembered all of your intentions in my prayers in the Holy Land. I am very thankful for this opportunity. I returned home with many blessings from the Lord.
Sr Joseph of Mary