Day Two: Tabgha
Posted January 28, 2012on:
Today we began the pattern that will shape the remaining days of our journey: awake, morning prayer, breakfast, excursion to holy sites, lunch, afternoon of quiet time, evening reflection, evening prayer, dinner, and more quiet time in the evening.
As we gathered for morning prayer this first day, still bleary-eyed from our long journey, I was noticing everyone’s shoes. Looking around the circle, it was clear that many people, like me, had bought new, sturdy walking shoes for the occasion. These clean, pristine, shiny shoes spoke of our eagerness and newness as pilgrims. How long, I wondered, before we get muddy? When we leave, will our shoes look worn and aged? Will they lose their shine and return home instead like familiar friends, comfortable and well-traveled? And will that be true of us as well—will our travels turn our eager excitement about Israel into familiarity and groundedness? Will we return home muddy, but wise? We sang “This is the day that the Lord has made!” and prepared to receive the gifts of this day.
The shoes were quickly put to the test. We walked to our first destination, Tabgha, the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes. It was a short and easy walk through groves of lemon, mango and olive trees, but the path was shared with animals. I doubt anyone’s shoes escaped the manure littering the path.
Tabgha is one of the “traditional” holy sites in Israel, which means that there is no historic record that the actual feeding of the 5000 took place on this exact hill, although we do know that it was somewhere very close. When Constantine conquered and Christianized the land in the 4th century, he and his mother built churches everywhere they deemed a holy site. Tabgha is the site of a Byzantine church from the 5th century that commemorates the story of the loaves and fishes. There is even a rock that the church was built around, which they hold was the spot Jesus used to break the bread and distribute it to the crowd on the hillside.
Whether this is fact or fiction does not matter. If it was not this hill, it was one just like it, right in this region. If it was not this rock, it was one very similar. The site is made sacred by the thousands of pilgrims that have come before, and by the way it enshrines a particular episode of Jesus’ ministry for us to remember in a physical place.
The German Benedictines have ownership of the site, but they were not allowed to build a church upon it until after the British Mandate in 1917. When they finally began to build, they discovered the original mosaic floor of the Byzantine church intact under the surface. The floor was preserved, and I was especially eager to see it. When we entered the church, I was astonished to see that the original mosaic floor, 1500 year old, was still the floor of the church, and we could walk right on it, touch it, and see it up close. Especially artistic sections were roped off, and much of the floor had to be repaired. However, they repaired it in black and white, so you can see the difference from the original colored Byzantine tiles. I sat in a chair in the chapel and simply ran my fingers over the pink and white tiles, placed by there by a Christian artist so many years ago.
Tabgha was the most moving experience for me today, but not for any reason I expected. I was moved not by what happened so long ago, but by the way Jesus’ meal is recreated over and over again all the time. Jesus stood on that hill, or one like it, surrounded by the beauty of the Galilee, and preached. Then he broke bread and passed it around, so that everyone who was hungry could be fed. Such a simple act, yet so profound. As I sat in the chapel, I thought about the church I serve, which offers a community meal every Saturday for anyone who is in need. We call that meal “Loaves and Fishes,” and imagine ourselves every week recreating Jesus’ miracle. I prayed for that ministry and its leaders, and all the people we serve.
I know our church is not alone—all across the world, churches feed people in Jesus’ name, performing the same miracle over and over and over again. Could Jesus have imagined, when he did something as simple as feed a hungry crowd, that his ministry would be alive and thriving, feeding hungry people two thousand years later?
My vision expanded to include every sacred meal I have shared. I remembered special times of holy communion, breaking bread at Shabbat in the home of a friend, picnics and church suppers, restaurant meals and family holidays. Any time a meal is shared, any time we pause say grace, any time we offer food to our neighbor, we are participating in the same story of Jesus that began right here, on an ordinary hill, an ordinary rock overlooking the Galilee. My heart was so full of memories—corporate memories of Jesus and the church, and personal memories of breaking bread with friends, of eating and sharing and being filled. Thanks be to God.