By Rev. Jaye White
Facebook has been reminding me that this time last year I had the privilege of going on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. My husband Mark and I decided that we would celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary by splurging on this trip. Several of my colleagues from work were planning to go so we took advantage of the opportunity to travel with our bishop.
Some of the highlights of the trip were walking along the shore and riding in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. We swam in the Dead Sea and dipped our hands in the Jordan River, where we remembered our baptisms. We visited Bethlehem, where we met Palestinian Christians who trace their ancestry back to the shepherds, who were the first to visit the infant Jesus. We went to Nazareth and Jericho, toured Masada and Capernum. We traveled to Jacob’s Well, and we climbed down into Lazarus’ Tomb.
And, of course, we spent time in Jerusalem, meandering around the Mount of Olives and visiting churches and landmarks. We walked the streets of the Old City, where one woman in our group sang the Via Dolorosa song while we waited out a rainstorm in a small coffee shop on Via Dolorosa, the path where Jesus journeyed toward his crucifixion. We prayed at the Western Wall and marveled at the beauty of the Dome of the Rock. The spice shops filled our senses with their fresh aroma and the souvenirs beckoned us to spend money.
We spent hours on the tour bus, going from one historical site to another. Some stops were confirmed as places where biblical miracles happened and some were approximate locations of historical events. It was humbling to walk those streets and imagine what it might have been like 2000 years ago. Every stop we made was enhanced by a devotional reflection offered up by a member of our group. It was meaningful to connect our lives with Bible stories from the very places we found ourselves standing.
One of the most memorable sites we visited was Magdala, near the municipality of Migdal, north of Tiberias in the Galilean region. Jesus was known to have spent much of his ministry preaching and teaching in this area. As we learned on our visit, a Catholic priest serving in Israel realized in about 2004 that there was not a memorial to Jesus’ ministry in the Migdal area, nor was there a marker to recognize the woman we know as Mary Magdalene (Mary from Magdala). She had been important to the priest’s mother, and he envisioned a retreat center for people to come and reflect on the life of Christ in this beautiful setting, facing the Sea of Galilee. As they began excavating the area before building, “archaeologists unearthed the only first-century synagogue on the Sea of Galilee – one of only seven synagogues from this period in the world – along with the archaeological remains of the 2,000-year-old city of Magdala,” according to Magdala.org. Additionally, they discovered the Magdala Stone, which is the earliest known artistic artifact depicting the second temple in Jerusalem.
Mark and I were amazed at the size of the excavation and the significance of the discovery, particularly because they continue to unearth fascinating details like fresco paintings and beautiful mosaics. Surely Jesus walked on these very floors. Certainly, he looked at these very walls, and sat on these benches. This person, whom we know to be the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, was part of the community of people who gathered in this place. He must have taught here. He most likely met Mary of Magdala here. We were in awe.
Another impressive component of this particular stop on our trip was that in addition to a beautiful new chapel, with an altar shaped like a fishing boat, positioned in front of a window facing the sea, there is an atrium dedicated to the women who followed Jesus. The atrium contains seven memorial pillars for women mentioned in the scriptures, and an eighth pillar for all the women who continue to follow Christ. There are small chapels off to the sides with large mosaic pictures portraying Bible stories of women meeting Jesus, and whose lives he transformed. Downstairs in another chapel there is a large mosaic of a woman’s hand, reaching out to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. It was that brave, significant act of faith that healed her. Some believe that woman to have been Mary Magdalene. All four gospels mention her as a faithful follower, who witnessed his death, and who was the first to experience his resurrection. We were so delightfully surprised to discover this treasure honoring her witness.
Over 2000 years ago women recognized the Messiah and followed him. They supported his ministry. They fed him, talked with him, and stayed by his side. He welcomed them, even when society shunned them. He spoke to them, even when the laws and social conventions went against them (Luke 13:15-17). Jesus broke down the dividing lines for women on the margins, just as he did for men. Many women’s lives continue to be transformed by this man of Galilee. I am thankful to be counted among them, especially during this most holy time of the year. May you, too, encounter the welcoming love of Jesus.
Rev. Jaye White is Director of Outreach Ministries for the N.C. Conference of the United Methodist Church