Our travels have brought us to the most extreme northern portion of our pilgrimage. The day began with a visit to the headwaters of the Jordan river known as “Banyas,” an Arabic form of the original Greek name of Paneas. True to its name, this site was dedicated to the Greek nature god Pan, and a temple was erected in front of the cave from which the waters of the Jordan once sprang. In the decades prior to Jesus’ life, Herod’s son Philip rededicated the area to Caesar (and tacked on an honorific to himself in the process—hence, Caesarea Philippi was its Roman name). Scripture enthusiasts will recognize this name as the place where Jesus posed a remarkable question to his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Today, it is recognized as the place in which Peter made the first confession of Christ’s divinity, and in acknowledgment of which Jesus promised to build his Church upon the rock of Peter’s faith.
This event is all the more fascinating given the context of the conversation. Given that the city had long been a center of pagan worship of Pan (regarded as the son of Zeus), Jesus’ question is all the more meaningful. Against the backdrop of a deity resembling a bizarre mixture of man and goat, the God-man is revealed not as a monstrosity but as the ultimate harmonization of the Creator and the creature. In fact, it is in Christ that human beings most truly become what they are.
Continuing north into the occupied territory of the Golan Heights (taken from Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967), we lunched in a village peopled by a little-known population called the Druze. Their religion is quite peculiar to our Western minds—they subscribe to tenets of many different religions, but originally sprung from a Muslim context in the 10th-11th centuries. Most unusual is their belief in reincarnation—the current adherents of this faith are the same souls of the “enlightened” who first embraced it nearly a thousand years ago; consequently, one cannot join the Druze, but must be born into it. We enjoyed their traditional cuisine, partaking of sandwiches made from large, tortilla-like bread filled with yogurt, sesame, hyssop, and oil.
Situated on the border with Lebanon and Syria, the Golan Heights are a large sloping plain of volcanic rock overshadowed by the snow-capped Lebanese mountains. The most famous of these, of course, is Mount Hermon, or “the old white-haired man,” and we enjoyed a scenic view of these high-ridged mountains of Bashan so celebrated in Semitic song and lore.
Our accommodations at the Pilgerhaus have been outstanding, and in the evenings we’ve made the most of our opportunities here. Between swimming, beachcombing, hiking the nearby hills, and praying at the sites commemorating the primacy of Peter and the multiplication of loaves, our days are leisurely but rich. A number of us have made it a habit to watch the sun rise over the Sea of Galilee each morning, and we’ve been amply rewarded! Delicate clouds aglow with the most widely varied shades of ochre and gold float high above the lavender haze concealing the hills beyond the eastern shore.
While the waves lap with the rhythm of placid breathing, St. John’s narration of the resurrection appearance on the lakeshore presents itself to the recollected heart. It requires no stretch of the imagination to sit here among the apostles—John, Nathaniel, Thomas, James, and Peter, still dripping from his frantic swim to the beach once he realized that the man addressing them from the shore was Jesus, risen from the dead. The awe is palpable, and no one dares broach the question on everyone’s mind, for indeed “they knew it was the Lord” (John 21:12). Yet Jesus conducts himself as if there was nothing strange in his presence among them, tending to the fish cooking on the charcoal fire and the bread warming beside it. The calm that hangs over them as they sit on the dark basalt boulders eating the piping hot fish is first broken by Jesus: three times he asks Peter, “Do you love me?” In response to his threefold claim of devotion, Jesus almost nonchalantly reveals the way in which Peter was to die, for His sake, three decades later in Rome. Then, the foundations will at last have been laid, against which the gates of hell would not prevail.
Yet the reverie doesn’t last long. Obedient to the Lord’s invitation—“come, have breakfast”—we make our way back to the dining room, where hot coffee, European cheeses, and cold meats await us. We tuck in to our meal with the serene conscience of those who do whatever He tells them.