By Dave Peters
Editor’s note: Dave Peters, son of Deacon Joe Peters of St. Stanislaus Basilica Parish in Chicopee, is journeying with five others to the Holy Land. A graduate of the Elms College, Dave is offering his insights and reflections about this trip for our readers.
It is misleading that English speakers grow up naming the location where Jesus did most of his public ministry as a sea. This leads us to think that what Peter, James, and John spent their lives fishing on was some large body of salty water. This image exaggerates the grandness of stories like Jesus calming the stormy waters. But when the sun rose upon Galilee and I finally peered down from the Mount of the Beatitudes onto the Sea of Galilee, I was struck with a funny feeling. The biblical world of my imagination finally confronted reality. In that moment, the great Jesus, tsunami tamer, became yet another traveler who spent a lot of time “chillin” by a mid-sized fresh water lake. Add to this what I learned later, that Jesus didn’t speak of the blessed meek on a mountain surrounded by thousands who just wanted a glimpse of him. He spoke at the corner of two hills, as did many other preachers of the day, so that the scattered people who did show up could hear him better. Why hadn’t anyone bothered to mention this tidbit to me when I was younger?
I spent most of my morning in a fog of disillusionment, with the theme song from a New Testament-based cartoon my sixth grade teacher showed my class droning on in my consciousness: “Jesus is a star! Fa-la-lo-la-la!” It repeated endlessly as I recalled Jesus zooming by on clouds with fireworks streaming from his raised fist.
This true-God-true-man must have spent a lot of time just like the rest of us, I thought as we walked through a cloud of stagnant sewer-stench which was streaming from the basement lavatories behind the Sea of Galilee Museum. Sunk a foot deep in mud, plastic lawn chairs were scattered along the beach alongside the docked S.S. Saint Francis, a mid-sized power boat which would take us on a brief jaunt out to the sea.
The tour included a loudspeaker rendition of the American National Anthem and a modern Israeli line dance lesson, before the crew captained by a Jew named Peter (coincidence?) tried to sell us Sea of Galilee souvenirs. Please don’t misunderstand me, there was nothing wrong with Galilee, but when the foundation of your understanding is the coloring page of the children’s bulletin in which Jesus is depicted as Harry Potter, it is safe to say that reality is disturbingly average. But then again, maybe it isn’t.
As Jesus had performed most of his ministry and miracles along the shore, in towns all mutually visible to one another, churches were built along the edge of the lake, like beachfront vacation homes. While several were set up by the Byzantines several centuries following the Resurrection, a few more were built by Crusaders who invaded on doomed missions of reestablishing a Christian presence which was never a real presence. It is important to realize that much of what exists here in commemoration of Jesus’s life is funded by far away communities like our diocese in Springfield, Massachusetts, in order that travelers like us might find something familiar when we arrive on pilgrimage. This is largely because Christians have always been a small minority of the population in Palestine; currently, a mere two percent. To prove this, one need not look further than the Paul Newman face on the statue of Saint Peter beside the ruins of his home in the fishing town of Capernaum, or the donor plaque which boasts of Scotch-Irish surnames belonging to a Pennsylvania parish. At what may have been the pit of my depression, I turned to a local, someone whose family had inhabited the region for eons, Deeb, our guide, hoping for some sort of consolation for this obvious historical blunder.
“No,” he said to me flatly. “It is that strange.”
Added to the clash of cultures were the twelve tour buses blocking the gate. Each was filled Chinese pilgrims who crowded underneath the flags carried by their priest/tour guide who ushered them in various directions. One young girl from Beijing, clarified for me later that they were 800 pilgrims in total just wrapping up a ten-day pilgrimage. This made surviving our puny six-man, seven-day Holy Land trip look like a cake walk.
But it also did something else too; it made me look around at the beach where some small groups were gathered together in communion, each celebrating Mass or bowing their heads in prayer. After our group had finished its own prayer, we took some time to walk between the different groups: Indonesian, Spanish, French, Polish, Russian, Chinese, Greek, and Arabic were just some of the languages I heard being spoken.
Later that afternoon, we took the van up the windy road which lead to Mount Tabor, the site of Jesus’s Transfiguration with Moses and Elijah. The vastness of the world lay out before our feet as we gathered once again in prayer. The clouds were pink and spliced with rays of golden sunlight which streamed onto the green agricultural fields and into the rough natural landscape of thorny trees and shrubs on the slope. I took a moment by myself to wonder how even the best teacher might manage to establish a new commandment based on social justice which flipped the values of the world upside down. How had this new way come to unite such different kinds of people from all over the world each with their own set of vocabulary, unique cultures, and conflicting traditions? From this perspective, it is not shocking to see the Jesus’s nature as divine, but from my time in Galilee I know for sure how much of a dude chillin by a lake Jesus of Nazareth really was.