Holy Land, Holy Life: Tracing the Steps of Jesus
One never has to go far to feel the presence of Jesus. And while it is true that you don't have to travel farther than your kitchen or your local church to connect with your Christianity, it is a unique experience to trace Jesus' life in the Holy Land, the land where He was born and where He ministered to thousands.
We begin our Christian Holy Land tour of the life of Jesus Christ in the north of Israel. Though Israel itself is only the size of New Jersey, it is packed with sacred sites, each of which would be worth its own tour of the Holy Land. We will zigzag across the land, as we trace the chronology of Jesus through the places and people He touched.
Nazareth: News of a Child
Nazareth, located in the Galilee, was a small town in the time of Jesus, and is home to the Church of the Annunciation. This is where the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would give birth to a child, the Son of God. Jesus spent most of His young life here; make sure to visit Mary's Well, where, according to tradition, Mary often fetched water; the Church of St. Joseph, built over what was believed to have been Joseph and Mary's home; and St. Gabriel's Church, built on the site where, according to the Greek Orthodox tradition, the Annunciation took place.
Bethlehem: Following the Stars
The Wise Men, bearing gifts, followed a star which they believe foretold the birth of the King of the Jews. They were led to Bethlehem, to the modest home of Mary and Joseph, soon after Jesus was born. The Church of the Nativity, the site of the birth, is one the holiest sites for a tourist on a Christian tour to the Holy Land. The highlight of your tour of the Church will surely be the visit to the Grotto of the Nativity. The Grotto is a cavern beneath the church, which you can access via a flight of stairs. A silver star marks the precise spot of His birth. Enjoy the beautiful wall and floor mosaics, some dating back to the 4th century. The Wise Men are commemorated here as well, in the Armenian Altar of the Three Kings.
The Jordan River: A Baptism Takes Place
One of the top three holiest sites for Christian pilgrims is not even in Israel. Just over the border, on the Jordan side of the Jordan River, parallel to Jericho, lies Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan, which can be accessed via the King Hussein Bridge, or Allenby Bridge. (Note: American citizens crossing the King Hussein Bridge do not need to obtain prior visas, but will be subject to fees. However, visit the Embassy of Israel website for updated information on visa requirements prior to your visit.) Recent archaeological digs have uncovered churches, caves, and baptismal pools, dating back to the Byzantine period. This spot is heralded as the actual location of the baptism of Jesus. In May 2009, Pope Benedict XVI visited here and held Mass for more than 18,000 Christians. This is also the site of the Israelites' passage into the Holy Land, as well as of "Elijah's Hill," where Elijah is said to have ascended to heaven in his fiery chariot.
The Desert: Temptation
Following Jesus' baptism, He retreated into the desert for forty days and nights. According to the Gospels, while there, He was continuously tempted by the Devil, but did not give in, and angels came and brought Him nourishment. Today, you can visit the Monastery of the Temptation, located in Jericho, under control of the Palestinian Authority. To access the Monastery, you can take the Palestinian Service bus, which leaves outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, to Ramallah. From Ramallah, take the Jericho Service, which brings you to the center of town. (Note: Jericho and Ramallah, like some other cities in the West Bank, are not under Israel's jurisdiction. It may be worth consulting your tour guide as to what this may mean in terms of travel advisories and the like.) The Monastery is owned and managed by the Greek Orthodox Church. The current church was built at the end of the 19th century, on the site of the ancient stone where Jesus sat during his fast. The church is currently inhabited by Greek monks who guide visitors around the site. It is a bit of a hike to access the desert caves, but well worth the effort!