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On pilgrimage at the Sea of Galilee

Posted on June 1, 2017 in Articles

By Claire Burkel and Greg Friedman, OFM

Contemporary pilgrims are drawn to the Sea of Galilee. It is a setting for many of the stories of Jesus’ ministry with his disciples.

The pilgrim to the Holy Land responds to the message heard by the women at the tomb on the first Easter morning: “tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you (Mark 16:7). Although today modern agriculture has transformed the region, pilgrims can still meet Jesus in Galilee – especially in and around the Lake of Tiberias, also known as the Sea of Galilee.

Located in the Ghor (Jordan Valley), within the depression formed by the separation of two layers of the Earth’s crust – the Arabian and African plates, the lake lies almost 700 feet (212 meters below sea level).

It is ringed by hills: to the east is the Golan Heights; to the west, the rocky escarpment of the hills of Hattin; and to the north, the mountains of the Galilee which rise as high as 9, 225 feet (2,812 meters) at Mount Hermon (out of which descends the Jordan River). Only along the path of the river, to the south, does the land open onto a plain called Jezreel: a name that means “that which has been sowed.”

Stretching a little over 13 miles (21 kilometers) from north to south and not quite seven-and-a-half miles (12 kilometers) from east to west, the lake has a depth of only 164 feet (50 meters). In the time of Jesus, the lake was deeper and larger. The remains of ports and villages found under the water at Magdala and Kursi attest to this.

And today, its level continues to drop, since its principal source of water, the Jordan River, is syphoned by both Jordan and Israel. Streams trickling down from the surrounding mountains, and underground hot springs, replenish the lake’s water.

Throughout the pages of the Old and New Testaments, the lake has had different names:

  • “Kinneret” (Numbers 34:11; Joshua 13:27), since in ancient times – as seen from the hills which tower over the lake – the narrowed area to the south and the widening to the north form a kind of “kinnor,” the musical instrument known to us as the lyre.
  • “Gennessar” (1 Maccabees 11:67); or “Gennesaret” (Luke 5:1-11) – two names which are a deformation of “Kinneret.”
  • “Galilee,” found in the three Gospels (Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; and John 6:1).

On the waters of the lake
The scenes of fishing and abundance, the calling of the first disciples, the calming of the tempest, healing of bodies and spirits and the strengthening of the faith – all these center on the calm and blue waters of the lake, its grayish storms and its tempestuous waves.

It’s important for every pilgrim to venture out on its waters. When the shore recedes into haze or is shadowed by sunset, Gospel stories come alive. Here, the lake becomes a character in its own right, as in the story of the storm calmed by Jesus:

On that day, as evening drew on, he said to them, “Let us cross to the other side. Leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat just as he was. And other boats were with him. A violent squall came up and waves were breaking over the boat, so that it was already filling up. Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion. They woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Quiet! Be still!” The wind ceased and there was great calm. Then he asked them, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” They were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?” (Mark 4:35-41)

A little later, having disembarked in the country of the Gerasenes, he drives demons into the unclean swine, who rush headlong into the lake, drowning in one fell swoop the panic-stricken demons as well as the uncleanness itself (Mark 5:1-20). Kursi, at the base of the Golan Heights, is suggested by tradition as a location for this story.

It’s good to read such stories in the middle of the lake, and ask, with the disciples: “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?

The place of calling
The lake itself has a special place in the vocation of the Twelve. According to Mark’s Gospel, after his Baptism by John and tempting in the desert, Jesus came to Galilee (Mark 1:14-20) and called his first disciples:

As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Then they abandoned their nets and followed him. He walked along a little farther and saw James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They too were in a boat mending their nets. Then he called them. So they left their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed him.

This same event was retold differently by Luke since – in his account – Jesus and Peter already knew each other. After listening to the master speak to the crowds from his boat, and following Jesus’ command to cast their nets, his word confirmed by an astonishingly large catch of fish, Peter decided to follow Jesus (Luke 5:1-17).

“Fishers of men” may not have sounded strange to those familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. The prophet Jeremiah in the seventh century before Christ had used the image to express God’s desire that the people, dispersed at the time, be gathered together like fish in the same net. “I will lead them onto the land that I had given to their fathers. I am going to send them a large number of fishermen who will fish them” (Jeremiah 16:15-16).

The headquarters for Jesus’ ministry
Mark follows the account of the call of the disciples with a description of what might be a stylized “first day of ministry” in Capernaum. It was there, in the 1960s, that Franciscan archaeologists uncovered a first-century house beneath two early Christian churches.

The friars believe that Jesus made his “headquarters” here – “Jesus of Nazareth,” became “Jesus of Capernaum.” With his fisherman-disciples providing transportation, Jesus could “go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also” (Mark 1:38).

At Ginnosar, a kibbutz on the west side of the lake, a museum boasts a wooden boat of the first century made from cedar and cypress, 29 feet (nearly nine meters) long. Found underwater, not far from the present-day shoreline, it has been carefully restored and shows visitors the kind of boat used at the time of Jesus for fishing or transport.

Recognizing the Risen Lord
To compare Peter’s catch of fish at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke (chapter 5) with that at the end of John (chapter 21) is illuminating. It is always an abundance – but in different circumstances that allow the pilgrim to recognize Jesus as Lord. The Primacy of Peter is a beautiful Franciscan shrine, a fitting place to tell the post-Resurrection encounter with Jesus and his request to Peter, “Feed my sheep” (John 21).

When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” They answered him, “No.” So he said to them, “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.” So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish. So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, for they were not far from shore, only about a hundred yards, dragging the net with the fish… And none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they realized it was the Lord. (John 21:4-8, 12)

Our questions can only be answered by the fully recognized identity of the Risen One who appeared to the disciples on the shore (John 21), and comes to reestablish all things and make things new. We can then allow him to reveal to us on our own vocation and our mission as disciples. Let us not hesitate to attempt the experience. Let us climb into the boat, set out for the deep and allow ourselves to be allured by the Word of God, the voice of Jesus calling us out of the silence.

Editor’s note: Around the lake are many more well-known pilgrimage sites. Some are traditional places suggested by Gospel stories or chosen by tradition to commemorate them; others have been excavated by archaeologists. In future issues of The Holy Land Review, we will offer an “armchair” pilgrimage experience to such sites as Magdala and Tabgha.

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