Rediscovering the Faith in the Holy Land

When I was young, I loved to read and listen to the Bible stories in my children’s Bible, some from the Old Testament and some from the New Testament. They captured my heart and imagination, helping me to see in my mind’s eye the “old days” and “new days” of my faith. There were Moses, David, Solomon, Ruth and Esther in the Old Testament. Herod, Mary, Joseph, Jesus, Pilate and the Apostles were in the New Testament. They all were important to me, but they all were completely separate.

I think many of us started out learning about our faith that way and then carried it into adulthood. I know I did. Until I traveled to the Holy Land, that is.

‘Meet in one place’

Last month I had the privilege to travel through Israel with the Catholic Press Association as part of Pope Francis’ visit there. Before I arrived, I knew I’d be visiting many of the places critical to our faith, but I wasn’t prepared to visit places of both Old and New Testament stories simultaneously. In my simplistic way of labeling my Catholic heritage, I’d mistakenly divided the testaments, as if the Old Testament took place “over there,” and the New Testament took place “over here.” I couldn’t have been further from the truth, and I’m grateful to God for the opportunity to be proven wrong.

Take, for example, Beit She’an, an ancient city from whose ramparts the bodies of King Saul and his sons were hung after the Israelites had been defeated by the Philistines. On a hillside, Beit She’an overlooks many of the places associated with Jesus’ life. We drove past it one day as we headed down the highway. When the guide mentioned it, it was matter of fact to him, but a revelation for me. Here are a few examples of other similar sites:

• Mount Tabor, which we probably think first as the place of the Transfiguration, is also the mountain at whose foot Deborah and Barak defeated the forces of Sisera.

• Nazareth is on a mountain ridge on the northern edge of the Jezreel Valley. We find the Jezreel Valley mentioned a number of times in the Books of Joshua, Judges, and 1 Samuel.

• Just more than six miles to the west of Jerusalem is Abu Gosh, the ancient town in which the Ark of the Covenant rested until King David brought it to Jerusalem.

• And, of course, Bethlehem is Jesus’ birthplace, but also the birthplace of King David and the site of his anointing by Saul. Just southwest of Bethlehem are the pools of Solomon, mentioned in the Song of Songs.

• Jaffa (also known as Joppa) is believed to have been founded by Noah’s son, Japheth, and is the place from which the Cedars of Lebanon sent by King Hiram of Tyre for the building of King Solomon’s Temple came, and from where Jonah set sail for Tarshish. It’s also the place where Peter stayed in the home of Simon the Tanner, where he had the vision of the pure and impure animals and where he brought Tabitha back from the dead.

Stories from Jerusalem

Nowhere in the Holy Land do the Old Testament and New Testament converge in the way they do in Jerusalem. Let’s take a look at the city itself. Jerusalem was conquered by King David in 1000 B.C. and is where Solomon built the first temple in 950 B.C. It was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C. and rebuilt by Nehemiah in 445 B.C. In about 40 B.C., Herod expanded and beautified the Second Temple.

Jordan River
Overlooking the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. Photo by Marge Fenelon

The first temple on this spot is the place where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac, where Isaiah and Ezekiel experienced visions and where the Book of the Law was found. The second temple on this site is the temple where Zechariah was foretold the birth of John the Baptist and to which Joseph and Mary brought their infant son in order to consecrate him to God, and for Mary to undergo the ritual purification required of all women who have given birth. It’s the same temple in which the holy couple found their 12-year-old son after he’d gone missing for three days, the temple on whose pinnacle Jesus was tempted by Satan and from which Jesus drove out the money changers.

Within proximity of the Temple Mount is the Mount of Olives, King David’s escape route during the rebellion of his son Absalom, then later visited by the prophets, and finally a favorite location for Jesus’ teaching and the place at which he wept for Jerusalem. Also close by is the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus suffered his agony after the Last Supper. The Upper Room, located within the Old City, is the site of the Last Supper and Pentecost, but also is the location of King David’s tomb. Around the corner is the Church of the Dormition, honored as the place of Mary’s Assumption. The Via Dolorosa, Golgotha and tomb of Jesus are all within minutes of each other, compounding the impact of the blending of Old Testament and New Testament.

Outside of Jerusalem lies Ein Karem, the sight of the Visitation and birth of John the Baptist. Within range of Ein Karem is Rachel’s tomb, the town of Bethany which was home to Martha and Mary, and the Inn of the Good Samaritan. To the south, one finds Ein Gedi, where David hid from Saul; Eilat, where the children of Israel camped after the Exodus; the Negev desert through which they wandered; and Qasr el Yahud, where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.

Layers of the faith

These are a mere handful of the places in which the Old and New Testaments converge; there are many, many more. As our group explored each of the sites, I began to think of my Catholic faith in a totally new way. This became most apparent on the day we sailed on the Sea of Galilee. From the boat, I looked back to the shore and could spot — at least approximately — where the various places of the Old and New Testaments were, walking mentally from one to the other. As I did so, the layers of my faith — Old Testament, New Testament and present day — collapsed into a single, cohesive layer. It no longer was the Old Testament and then the New Testament, but rather the Old and New Testaments, bound together as one.

Seeing the biblical sites with my own eyes and treading over them with my own feet led me to a new understanding and appreciation of my Catholic heritage. It’s a gift, I hope, that will continue to mature in me and that I’ll be able to pass on to others in the future.

Marge Fenelon writes from Wisconsin.