A trip to Israel allows you to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. And since he spent most of his time in and around a relatively small area, basically around Jerusalem and the Sea of Galilee, you can get from one spot to another while staying in one hotel, avoiding having to pack and unpack, if you wish.
Even if you don’t know much about Bible history, Israeli guides are required to know the Jesus story to get licensed and are happy to help you learn why the various sites are important.
Jesus’ annunciation. The story starts in the city of Nazareth on the Sea of Galilee, where it is said that the angel Gabriel came to Mary to tell her that she would give birth to Jesus. Today, on this place, you find the Basilica of the Annunciation. Adjacent is where Jesus’ parents lived and raised baby Jesus.
Jesus’ birth. Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem to give birth to Jesus. You can visit the spot where Jesus was born inside the Church of the Nativity. Bethlehem is a mostly Arab town today. Its Christian population (1/2 of 1 percent) stays put largely to look after the church and shepherd the throngs of people through the church that come to see where Jesus was born. The church is shared among several Christian denominations, including Catholics, Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Orthodox who have a strict rotation of times that they get to pray there and a strict division of duties as to which group takes care of which aspect of this important site. The line to get in can take several hours, so it is always recommended to go after lunch and be prepared to be in Bethlehem all afternoon. Consider yourself lucky if you can get through quicker.
On the day of my visit, a church group thought it would be a great idea to stop in front of Jesus’ birthplace to hold a lengthy prayer service, inconsiderately holding up those waiting in line for hours, even though it is not officially permitted to stop. In Bethlehem, money speaks. Turns out this righteous church group had paid off the guards.
Jesus’ home. The St. Joseph Church in Nazareth is reputedly built over the spot where Joseph and Mary lived at the time of Jesus’ birth. It is a large space with its own mikveh, the traditional Jewish ritual bath, inside the house, an unusual extravagance today and then.
Jesus is baptized. John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. Today, at a favorite spot south of the Sea of Galilee on the Jordan River at Yardenit, tourists flock to baptize themselves in the Jordan River or simply swim in the river. Many weddings take place along the river banks at Yardenit as it has particularly nice gardens. The actual place where Jesus was baptized is in a spot on the Jordan River close to Jericho.
Jesus lives. Jesus spent most of his life in Capernaum. You’ll want to visit this old, little fishing town on the Sea of Galilee to see the synagogue where Jesus prayed and studied as he developed his disciples. A Franciscan order runs a modern church with a glass floor built over ruins of an ancient church in this quaint city with a lot of architectural interest.
Jesus’ death. The room of the last supper, the supposed route of the Via Dolorosa (now largely several layers underground) and the stations of the cross, and the site of the crucifixion are all in Jerusalem as is Jesus’ tomb. To see the Calvary and tomb, expect to wait on long lines at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, unless you get up for the 4 a.m. Mass, and even then, you are not guaranteed to get right in. There is, of course, no body in the tomb, but it is revered as the place where the remains once were and from which Jesus was resurrected. The tomb is enclosed in an elaborate shrine, which can be viewed from the outside without waiting on line. As, perhaps, the most holy of places in the Christian faith, the site is exceptionally crowded most of the time. The church building, iconology and paintings are beautiful in their own right.
Although a trip to Israel can be filled just tracing Jesus’ steps, don’t miss the many other must-see stops in this fascinating place where three of the world’s great religions converge.