Day Three: Mountaintops and Valleys
Posted January 29, 2012on:
Today was just as filled with God as yesterday was, but God treated me a little more gently, and with humor.
Our first stop this morning was at the Mount of Beatitudes, which is the semi-traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount. I say, “semi-traditional,” because the tradition does not go back even to the fifth century Byzantine church, but only to the last 100 years. Like Tabgha, it’s best to say that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount on a hillside very much like this one, if not this very one.
It was my turn to lead morning prayer, which took the shape of a Sunday morning communion service in a small, open altar area atop the Mount of Beatitudes, looking out over the whole of the Sea of Galilee. The leaders had already assigned a natural scripture: the Sermon on the Mount, and I knew that all I needed to do was create space to hear those familiar words, and then get out of the way. I divided up the long sermon into short pieces, and various members of the group took turns reading them, with pauses for silence in between each of the 12 sections. When we got to the part containing the Lord’s Prayer, we prayed it together. Afterwards, we sang a confession, shared the peace, served one another communion, and sang the Doxology.
I felt much less of a connection to the world of Jesus’ day while I was up on the Mount of Beatitudes. The entire mountaintop is a well-sculpted campus for the Benedictine sisters, with a chapel, hostel and multiple outbuildings. In my mind, Jesus delivered the sermon on an untamed hillside, not a manicured one. However, the vistas were spectacular and the campus beautiful. They were preparing for a major mass in a few hours, for the Feast of Beatitudes. The nuns were busy setting up chairs and putting out bulletins, preparing for the Patriarch’s visit from Jordan. I felt a connection to all their hustle and bustle, recognizing the work we share in preparing for special occasions of worship in our communities.
Listening to the Sermon on the Mount in that place, in its entirety, gave me a better imagination about the images Jesus used to illustrate his message. Anyone gathered on that mountainside, or any other in the area, has a view of the whole of the Galilee, its towns and roads and the Sea itself. When he talked about a city on a hill that cannot be hid, you could look out and see Upper Tiberias to the south, and knew that Chorazim was on a hilltop behind you. When he talked about rain falling on the righteous and the unrighteous, his audience could look out over the whole territory surrounding the Sea of Galilee, including the pagan city of Tiberius and the Samaritan towns considered unclean. When the reader got to the part about looking at the birds and how God cares for them, we heard the chirping in the trees above our heads. “Consider the lilies of the field” makes perfect sense when you are gazing out on a field of flowers in bloom. I cannot imagine ever reading or hearing the Sermon on the Mount again without imagining the Galilean landscape.
We then traveled a mile or two behind the Mount of Beatitudes, away from the sea, to the ruins of Chorazin. These ruins were made of black volcanic stone, like those in Capernaum, but we were free to wander among them and enter reconstructed homes and synagogues. Chorazin was not one of Jesus’ favorite cities—the only mention made of it in the Gospels comes when Jesus cursed the town in Matthew 11:21. We saw another 5th century synagogue, but this time also saw a ritual bath. Chorazin was destroyed by earthquakes in the 4th century, but rebuilt and occupied until the 17th century.
From Chorazin, we traveled down into the valley and back up again, through the modern city of Tiberias, making our way to the Cliff of Arbel. This cliff plays no particular role in Jesus’ story (that we know of), but it is an amazing view of the Galilee region. Along the sides of the cliff are a series of caves, which have been popular hideouts for rebels across the centuries, including the Zealots in Jesus’ day. We hiked over rocks and through mud puddles from the parking lot to the top of the cliff. In spite of the overcast day, we could see for miles and miles—Mount Tabor (site of the Transfiguration), the Horns of Hittim (site of the defeat of the Crusaders by Saladin in 1187), Mount of the Beatitudes, Magdala, Tabgha, Capernaum, Tiberias and the Golan Heights. It was glorious, and these photos will never do it justice.
From the top of the cliff, we went all the way to the bottom of the valley—after a quick stop for lunch at a kebab shop in Tiberias. Several fellow pilgrims and I decided to take a “polar plunge” in the Sea of Galilee. Although the air temperature was 60 degrees, and the water temperature a mere 54, we were determined to take a swim. So, with much joy and laughter and a little bit of shrieking, we did! It was absolutely awesome.
Water has always been a source of spiritual healing for me. Growing up near the ocean, I would make a pilgrimage to the ocean almost daily as soon as I could drive a car. Sitting on the shore, I can always find God’s voice in the sloshing waves. As soon as we got to the Sea of Galilee yesterday, I had to put my feet in it. When someone suggested a full immersion, I immediately agreed. It was cold enough to take my breath away, but I felt a sense of overwhelming joy and renewal being in that water. I laughed harder and more freely than I have in a long time. Once I got in, I didn’t want to get out, even as cold as it was. The water was liberating, piercing, cleansing, like baptism.
Tonight during our evening reflections, our leader asked us for one word that spoke to our feelings and experiences of the day. One of my fellow “polar plunge” people replied, “breath-taking,” and we all broke out in uncontrollable giggles. We had enjoyed breath-taking views all morning, and an icy swim that took our breath away in the afternoon. As I laughed until tears rolled down, I shared that my word was “unfettered.” Running into that water today felt like washing away all the accumulated burdens of the world, and emerging unbound, open and ready for God anew. I may have spent the morning on the top of mountains, but my mountaintop experience came at the bottom of valley in the chilly Sea of Galilee. I can’t stop smiling when I think about it.
Oh, and after we’d all come in, enjoyed hot showers and warm clothing, we learned that another member of our group had wanted to participate, but didn’t get word it was today. So, she asked if anyone would do it again tomorrow. Every single one of us said yes. We can’t wait to do it all over again!