The timing was absolutely perfect.
Arriving at their Holy Land destination the first day of Lent was a fitting opener to an eight-day tour Feb. 21 through Feb. 28 involving 23 parishioners from a variety of parishes, led by Father Jim Meyer of Holy Cross Catholic Church, West Fargo.
Tour members included: Father Meyer's mother, Rita Meyer, St. Anthony Church, Fargo; Barb Sinner, Susan Bailey, Kathy Bishoff, Harvey and Rosemary Heise, Les and Cyrisse Wiestock, Margaret Keller, Brenda Mears, Brenda Aswege, Gerri Dyrdahl, all Holy Cross Church; Patty Neuharth and DeeAnn Krugler, St. Joseph Church, Moorhead; Elsie Keller, Blessed Sacrament Church, West Fargo; Ethel Weippert and Deb Miller, Sacred Heart Church, Carrington; Dwayne and Teresia Schell, Sts. Anne and Joachim Church, Fargo; Dixie Miller, Flame of Faith United Methodist Church, West Fargo; Virginia Goerger, St. John the Baptist Church, Wyndmere; and Antonio Sulcis joining the group in New York, where everyone spent three days prior to their departure, touring the "Big Apple."
During a recent interview, Holy Cross staff members Margaret Keller and Brenda Mears, said agreeing to be part of the tour was one of the best decisions they had ever made. Father Meyer had initially encouraged them, telling them he could guarantee if they went, their lives would be changed.
After returning, both say he was right on the mark, especially regarding the way they now perceive church ideology and doctrine, grasping it all in a whole new light.
"Arriving in the Holy Land on Ash Wednesday was a wonderful starting point, really putting us in the Lent mode," Margaret stated. "We held Mass on the bus, and it really was a good way to mark the beginning of Lent."
The group was welcomed by their enthusiastic Jewish tour guide, Danny, who quickly armed them with recommended reading, "The Holy Land of Jesus," a book filled with excerpts on what to expect at sites they would be visiting during their intense five-day whirlwind tour packed with rich theological history.
Day one was spent driving to Mt. Tabor with its spectacular view of the Upper Galilee, where Jesus transfigured in the presence of apostles Peter, James and John, and upon which stands the Church of the Transfiguration. Then it was on to Nazareth where they visited the Basilica of the Annunciation and viewed the Blessed Cave, where Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary. The group also visited Mary and Josephs' House and carpentry shop, where Jesus spent 30 years of his life, and Cana where Jesus performed his first miracle. At the Church of the wedding at Cana, the three couples in the group - Les and Cyrisse, Duane and Teresia, and Harvey and Rosemary - had the privilege of renewing their wedding vows in a highly meaningful ceremony.
The next morning the group traveled to Capernaum, visited the House of Peter and the ruins of the ancient synagogue where Jesus preached; stopped at Tabgha, taking in the Church of the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes and the Mt. of Beatitudes; concluding with a colorful boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, where Brenda said the shoreline "looked like little tiny shells and was just beautiful."
Day three was spent visiting the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized; traveling to Bethlehem and touring the church of the Nativity where Jesus was born; and celebrating Mass before enjoying dinner and an overnight stay.
The last two days of the trip were devoted to Jerusalem, starting out with a full day tour that included the Mount of Olives; walking down The Road of Palm Sunday to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus endured his agony; visiting the Chapel of the Ascension where Jesus returned to his father; before traveling to the old city of Jerusalem where they followed the Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa to the Holy Sepulcher, and visited the Wailing Wall, and the Upper Room where Jesus instituted the Eucharist and the Priesthood.
The final day in Jerusalem the group had the opportunity to slow down the pace, touring at their leisure, following the winding road through the Judean Desert to the Dead Sea, before continuing on to Masada. It was here they rode the cable car to the summit of this mountaintop fortress visiting Herod's Palaces, the baths and synagogues, and on their return to Jerusalem enjoying the experience of a "swim" in the muddy waters of the Dead Sea.
Margaret said that Jerusalem was astounding in that "once you got a little way out of the city it looked just like when Jesus was there. Women were literally carrying water in baskets on their shoulders, and everyone lived in huts."
The Dead Sea, which happens to be the lowest spot on earth, was also intriguing. The water in it continues to recede at a yearly rate, with many people engaged in doing whatever it takes to keep it from fading away entirely. "The edge of the shoreline is salt, not sand like the sea salt you would keep in your grinders," Brenda noted.
Margaret said that throughout their sojourn, every day managed to present a new adventure, filled to the max with activity. "We put on five to ten miles a day walking and it was not easy terrain - rocky and uneasy.
Brenda agreed. "We spent a lot of time walking and not much meditating. It really would have been nice to have more time to reflect. And it was so nice to have Father with us. If we didn't understand something, he answered our questions."
From a cultural standpoint, it was also a powerful learning experience. "I came back with a realization that we as Americans are really spoiled. We think we don't have a lot but we have so much compared to these people," Brenda added. "They build their houses upward so when their children marry they can live with them. They have no playgrounds, no yards."
Given the much publicized turmoil in the region, both said their group never once felt in harm's way. "They take care of Americans because they depend upon tourism for their economy," Margaret explained. "They didn't want us going home and saying anything negative."
They did detect a military presence traveling to Bethlehem resulting in a totally different experience from other locations visited. Their Jewish guide even had to be traded out for one who wasn't because they were entering a Palestine state. And, once they passed through the checkpoint at the Western (Wailing) Wall, up to a certain pray spot, only males were allowed to enter. "It was a boundary we couldn't cross," Brenda noted. "It really made us step back because it was something we were not used to."
All in all, they said their tour guide did an excellent job. "We had a really great time and he thought we were the funniest and most polite people he had ever met and one of the nicest groups he had ever worked with," Margaret stated. "Because of the large size of our group, we couldn't always hear what he was saying, but even when we couldn't, we were always absorbing everything with awe and wonderment. It was emotional, spiritual, there was laughter, and there were moments when everybody had tears in their eyes simply because of the raw emotion of whatever we encountered."
Among the most captivating sites was the breathtaking beauty of the region's buildings. "The architecture of King Harrod was spectacular," Brenda said. "We were amazed at the measures he went to keep his family safe. The mosaics and art work were really phenomenal along with the construction of their buildings."
Here she mentioned the original House of Mary, which had been cordoned off and a church built over the top. Many of the entryways to these locations were cave like, causing one to bend upon entrance, translating into a sign of reverence, hence the naming - 'Doors of Humility.' "It also helped keep the camels out," Brenda laughed.
"Everywhere we went we also saw beautiful churches, they were the absolutely most beautiful thing, and the really nice part was father was able to say Mass for our group every day," Brenda shared. "There was always a space available, and an altar with bread and wine."
Margaret said one of the most powerful moments occurred at the Holy Sepulcher when Father conducted Mass at the last Station of the Cross. "It was extremely emotional and obviously overcome by the Holy Spirit he started crying uncontrollably. His mom brought him a tissue. All of us at the moment just wanted to give him a big hug but you don't do that in the middle of Mass.
"It was at times like this that we realized we had become a little family. We all marched with each other every step of the way, and we were always looking out for each other."
Daily sustenance was another surprising reveal for the tour members and not always in a good way. Meals were mainly buffets and strictly Kosher, no mixing meat and cheese, and lots of Fillafel. So much that Margaret said many on the trip said they never wanted to see another one again. The fillafel is a deep fried chickpeas mixture served as a sandwich in pita bread filled with cabbage, hummus and many other things. On the flip side, Brenda said the desserts were wonderful and that a veggie and cheese pizza devoured on a side trip to a Pizza Hut in a small mall (also kosher) was fabulous and a very welcomed treat.
Brenda and Margaret both say they have been asked several questions since their return, many serious but some humor-laced.
"I was just asked 'are you more holy now?'" Brenda mused. Her quick-witted response: "Can't you see my halo?"
Margaret said she was forced to think when asked of her experience was more of a cultural or spiritual adventure. "My response was both, mainly because I had never traveled internationally before."
Margaret said the one thing that struck her in all the areas they visited was that it seemed like people just couldn't get enough and that they were relying on their encounter to make things different for them almost like a third relic that was going to make God's presence in their lives even greater and that resurgence was going to magically transform their lives. "What people have to remember is that Jesus is with us all the time, not just in the Holy Land."
She admitted that it was easier to get caught up in the significance of the moment actually being there. "Walking down the path where they do the Palm Sunday walk, you could just place yourself there praying with Jesus," Margaret stated. "And when you are doing Stations of the Cross and put our hands where Jesus put his hands that is so much more powerful," Brenda added.
Joining the conversation, Father Meyer said the biggest shock for him was demographics and geography. He was expecting more old-school kind of things but instead found a more commercial flavor. "To me it didn't speak in many instances as the most spiritual of opportunities."
However, he said "being there and just walking in the same areas (as Jesus did) was such a blessing for us, as it was to be able to know the history, the faith and where it came from. That was indeed a gift."
His true happiness lied in the fact his mother was able to be a part of the journey. "She has always wanted to travel there, so that made the trip all the more special and enjoyable. We were all such a wonderful family. Everyone bonded so nicely and that lead to a lot of newfound gifts through the spirit."
From a personal standpoint, Father said he felt "the Mass at the tomb was the crux of everything. The greatest gift he (Jesus) offered was his life and that was a true sacrifice. To be in that space and offer Eucharist truly meant a lot.
"As far as the homilies go now that we are home, it will be so much nicer to relate and reflect because we were there. Once you've actually seen these locations and now hear about them in script, they will just mean something different."
That process has already occurred with Margaret summing up as "awesome," one of Father's homily messages on a recent Sunday. "It was about the transfiguration and it all came alive. I was actually there at the Church of Transfiguration and I could feel it. I think all of us reacted that way in church. There will be no doubt be several other readings during the year where we will also all be there."
Now that everyone has settled into routine again, there will definitely be no shortage of memories. Margaret captured over 2,000 photos; the others took about a 1,000 each. As a physical reminder of the excursion, Father also acquired an icon of the Holy Trinity that will have a home in the new Holy Cross Church that is in the planning stages on property in West Fargo located south of the Interstate.
With Holy Week approaching, leading up to the most important day in the history of the church - the Easter Sunday celebration of Christ's resurrection - Brenda and Margaret say they will be marveling in the liturgy inspired by their once-in-a-lifetime experience visiting the Holy Land and witnessing first-hand the places where many events in Jesus' life actually took place. "He did all this, all for us, including carrying a cross and sacrificing his life for our sins. That is real love."