israel heptapegonPHOTO: The town of Tabgha, or Seven Springs, is lush with a variety of trees, palms, and other growth, the result of seven nearby springs which provide a supply of water. A mosaic of two fish and loaves of bread points to the fact builders of the original church on the site believe this is where Christ fed the multitudes. Photo by Mick Burke

Visiting Israel to see the Christian sites must involve visiting the beautiful, serene, placid area around the Sea of Galilee where Christ began His three years of public ministry and performed many miracles. Visiting the sites with three priests made it possible to attend Mass and the historic churches and sites built and revered over the grounds that Christ walked more than 2,000 years ago.  

Our first mass was in Tabgha, in the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, a church built in 1930 by Benedictine brothers on the site of two earlier churches.  As with many churches and other buildings in Israel, the building has a long history of venerations and destructions by numerous nations and religions, the Byzantines, Persians, and many others over the centuries, in some cases, even before Christ’s time.   Today, at the Church of the Multiplication, the altar is constructed over a block of limestone found during an earlier excavation and venerated as the stone on which Christ served the meal to 5,000 or more from the two loaves and seven fishes of a youngster in the crowd listening to His message. As wonderful and meaningful as that is, the fifth century mosaics, Christian art, depicting birds and fish, and the mosaic in front of the altar of the two fish flanking a basket of bread are also striking and memorable.

An afternoon boat ride on the Sea itself was light-hearted, fun, and far more commercial than the church and monastery visits that were made throughout the tour. Sailing on the water when Christ recruited his first disciples was especially meaningful to the bayshore visitors who appreciate hardworking fishermen and watermen, and listening to live music from a friendly group, singing along, and joining  in dance made a delightful afternoon under glorious sunshine. The heart is picturesque, heart-shaped and fed by the Jordan River; today, with very little changing in appearance of either the lake or surrounding area from 2,00 years ago,  it serves as a reservoir for Israel.  The Israelis in charge of the entertaining on the little boat made it clear they love Americans and welcome them at every chance…..it’s something to hear the US national anthem while enjoying a mini-cruise on the Sea of Galilee in Israel!

We also visited St Peter’s Primacy, a modern church built in 1933 over the remains of a 4th century church; a projection of limestone rock in front of the altar, known as Mensa Christi, or table of Christ,  is regarded as the site where Christ prepared a meal for his apostles and named Peter to head His church.  The church is located in Capernaum, a town that archeologists have dated back 2,000 years before Christ, and where Christians believe brothers Peter and Andrew, brothers James and John and tax collector Matthew, all Apostles, lived.

This is the town where Jesus performed many miracles, including curing Peter’s mother-in-law, casting out demons, and curing an official’s son. The ruins of an ancient temple tell stories of their own about the rich and long history of this very unique country in the middle of a barren desert. The town is one of the few that is mentioned in the Gospels of all four Evangelists, and is known as the town of Jesus because of the time He spent there during the last three years of His life.

An absolute must for tourists in the area is a sampling of St. Peter’s Fish, though it’s up for discussion whether the fish actually lives in the Sea of Galilee.

The delicacy is mindful of the New Testament story about St. Peter, the fisherman, being asked if Christ paid the temple tax. In response, Christ told Peter to go fishing, and when Peter caught a fish, it had a silver coin in
its mouth, enough to pay the temple tax for both Jesus and Peter.

Today, however, there are about 20 different species of fish in the Sea, and of those, only about half could possibly be the kind Peter caught. Of those, popular belief is it’s a barbel that Peter caught, a bottom feeder that fishermen have for centuries, caught on a baited hook.

Regardless of the story or the specific type of fish, we all enjoyed a wonderful luncheon of  St. Peter’s fish, which in actuality tastes a lot like tilapia, served in the traditional style: deep fried, on the bone, with slices of lemon. We enjoyed the luncheon in a relaxed setting at long tables facing the water and captivated by the scores of sea gulls who came up to the open windows to feast on the remains waiters tossed out for them.

In the evening, back at the Restal Hotel in Tiberius, our buffet dinner included everything from fresh vegetables, served both hot and gold, tilapia, chicken, desserts and fruits...apples, tangerines, pears and oranges.  An evening stroll around the town below the hotel showed plenty of happy shoppers, lots of little eateries with arrays of fresh vegetables and condiments offered tapas style, and little coffee shops for lattes, wines, beer, and friendship.  Closing out the evening seated in comfortable chairs in front of the hotel and soaking up clean, refreshing warm air and soft breezes among friends gave us all time to appreciate everything Israel has to offer.