Yesterday brought into view a different way of seeing the distant hills (some 12 kilometres across the water) as I journeyed in the car with my travelling companions right around the water’s circumference. Journeying south from Tiberias we swung round the bottom of the Lake and made our way north on the other side. The hills on this side are covered with what seemed a very different kind of foliage and fauna and appeared much less rocky to view – covered in green more densely that the eastern shore. How lovely to view the hills and mountains I love to gaze upon so much more closely. The love I feel for this place, and the sense of both gift and grace to be able to visit, pray and ‘be’ here, continue to grow. On previous visits, as we have made our way up the Jordan Valley, my mind and heart have always turned to Psalm 121, and so they have done so again during these past days.
On looking at the map, there was a small site on the eastern shore called Kursi. Discovered quite by accident when the road that we were driving on was being constructed, there are the remains the Byzantine era ‘Church of the Gadarenes’. The Church gives testimony to the miracle of the casting out of the demon (called Legion) into the pigs who then ran down the hill and cast themselves into the Lake. As it is on the far side of the Sea of Galilee, it is rarely visited by Pilgrim groups and this was to our advantage as we only saw two other people there the whole of our visit.
The remains of the church are more than in some places, and the mosaics that remain on the floor of the Church are quite beautiful. Bizarrely, there is an olive press in what would have been the North Aisle which, I imagine would not have been there when the Church was in use! (I couldn’t help thinking though, what an interesting on-the-side business it would be to be able to produce your own olive oil on-site or, even better, to have a wine press and produce wine!)
Up on the side of the hill there is a Chapel which is on the site of where the pigs were gathered (of which the miracle tells us there were two thousand) and this gives wonderful views across to the western shores of the Lake – albeit in the haze of the morning today.
This visit was a lovely way to begin our day of exploration of the ‘Lakeside Churches’, reading and recalling the miracles and words of Jesus as he carried out his ministry in this place. It is always so moving to be in the place where Jesus walked, taught, healed, listened, loved and revealed God’s compassion.
As we continued our drive around the northern shore of the Lake to visit Capernaum, Tabgha, the Mount of the Beatitudes and the place of Peter’s Primacy – in addition to the Orthodox Church of the Twelve Apostles (which I had never been to before) we remarked several times that we were close to the border with Syria. The hotel we are staying in and the places were visiting today are closer to Damascus than they are to Jerusalem and, whilst all is calm and safe here, we were conscious that for people not so far away across the borders live lives that are, sadly, a far cry from being safe and calm. It is, in some ways, sadly ironic that we visited the Church of the Beatitudes where we saw the words of the Beatitudes rendered in various written forms. Of course, one of the Beatitudes is Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. As I read this, I was so conscious of the people who are not peacemakers. On a small and local scale, these people are those who seek to argue or act as ‘devil’s advocate’ when it is completely unnecessary – thus creating anxiety and tension where there need be none. On a larger scale, it is groups who seek to gain power and/or regime change at the expense of the lives and freedom of others – be that through hostage-taking, human trafficking, sex trafficking, drugs, illegal arms trading. And then there are the nations who ‘rage so furiously’ as they strive to gain supremacy, authority, financial gain, military might, oil, business… in all of these situations – local, national, international, global – there are, sadly, very few peacemakers – real peacemakers for whom it is not ‘peace at all costs’ but rather, peace simply for the sake of peace. For this peace gives liberty and freedom, not freedom to ‘do as you like’ but a greater freedom – the freedom to live a life that is free from anxiety, tension, fear and oppression.
For those not so far away from us here who have been captured or tortured, forced to renounce their faith, flee their homes or even murdered, the prayer for peace cannot be long enough or deep enough. It is a prayer that needs the will of people to bring it to pass though – and for this we need peacemakers. May the peoples of the world seek and find those who can seek peace, those who can speak peace and those who can keep peace.