Forty people are leaving the Ratisbonne Monastery in Jerusalem. The morning is already late and the day will last until the contemplation of the sunset in front of a monolith: we are the students of the Studium Theologicum Salesianum and today's excursion, under the guidance of prof. Yunus Demirci, will take us to the cities of Ramleh, Lod, Yavne and the archaeological city of Gezer. We don't know it yet, but this day that we will spend in the western part of Israel will begin with water and end with water.
The first destination to be reached is Ramleh: it is a historic city in Palestine founded by the Arabs in the 8th century, built in the early Islamic period by Suliman, son of Abd al-Malik and ruled in the medieval period by various powers, including the Crusaders, who established a Latin church in the city. It was the capital and largest city of Palestine for several centuries and has played an important role in the political, cultural and religious history of the region. One of Ramleh's most notable features are its extraordinary cisterns, which were built in the 8th century to collect and store rainwater, essential for the city's survival in Palestine's arid climate... but before that, let's look at the 'water underground we enter a (former) medieval Latin church built during the Crusader period, when Ramleh was under Christian rule and which, after the reconquest by the Muslims, was transformed into a mosque in 1187 by the will of Saladin and was called the Great Mosque of Ramleh . The mosque has retained some of the original architectural features of the Crusader churches, such as the imposing columns and the three-nave subdivision.
After visiting the Franciscan church of St. Joseph and Nicodemus we arrive at another mosque: the White Mosque (also known as the Al-Jafari Mosque, after the Arab tribe that inhabited the area during the Islamic period) which was built during the reign of the Abbasid Caliphate in the 8th century and which is one of the oldest mosques in Israel. One of its most admirable parts is the minaret which is a tall, slender tower located in a corner of the courtyard: it has a square base with several levels of balconies and a cylindrical shaft that tapers towards the top. To conclude the Ramleh stage, a boat ride could not be missing. But where? Precisely in the underground cisterns, after which Fr. Yunus spoke to us all morning, connected to the great problem that the city had regarding the conservation of water: their Arabic name is Birkat al-Anaziyya (the pool of the arches) and they take their name from the rows of arches that surround them, which were built during the Fatimid period in the 10th century and which served as the supporting structure for a covered market which stood next to the pool. We'll have to keep these tanks in mind… before the day is out we'll have to get back to talking about them.
The second stop is Lod: a city located in central Israel, about 15 kilometers southeast of Tel Aviv. The city has a long history dating back to ancient times, with evidence of human habitation in the area dating back over 8,000 years. It was an important city in Roman and Byzantine times and played a significant role in the early Christian and Islamic eras. Once we arrive we immediately enter the Mosaic Archaeological Center, dedicated to the conservation and exhibition of a large and impressive ancient mosaic floor discovered in 1996 during construction works: the mosaic dates back to the 3rd century AD. and it is believed that it was part of a large villa belonging to a wealthy Roman. It features intricate designs and depictions of scenes from ancient Greek mythology, as well as daily life in the Roman period.
After a well-deserved break we enter a church (today run by Orthodox Christians), built in the 12th century by the Crusaders on a previous church from the Byzantine era: the church is dedicated to St. George as, according to tradition, the saint was born in Lod at the end of the 3rd century AD. to Christian parents. The place is considered sacred by both Christians and Muslims, as it is believed to be the burial place of St. George, revered as a saint in Christianity and as a prophet al-Khidr, in Islam. Indeed, after the fall of the Crusader kingdom at the end of the 13th century, the church was transformed into a mosque by the Mamluk sultan Baybars.
The sun is already taking on the warm tones of a day that is drawing to a close, when on a hill we reach a historic tower located in the Israeli city of Yavne. The building is also known as the Al-Anwar Mosque Minaret and is believed to have been built during the Ottoman period, around the 16th century, and was part of a mosque. From this hill it is possible to have an overview of the city which is located a short distance from the Mediterranean Sea and which is of historical importance due to the role it played after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD: here, Gamaliel II, a Jewish rabbi who lived in and 2nd century AD, helped establish the Sanhedrin in the city of Yavne as the center of Jewish religious authority and lead the reform of Judaism.
Last stop: the sky has now taken on reddish hues when we arrive at Gezer, an ancient site located in the central coastal region of today's Israel: archaeological evidence suggests that Gezer was inhabited as early as the Chalcolithic period (4500-3200 BC), and was later colonized by the Canaanites in the Bronze Age (3200-1200 BC). One of the oldest known Hebrew inscriptions was found here: the Gezer calendar is believed to date back to the 10th century BC, during the Israelite period and with 12 lines of Hebrew text, which are divided into two columns, it lists agricultural activities that were typically performed during each month of the year and also includes references to various religious festivals and observances, such as the Feast of Tabernacles, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the Feast of the New Moon.
The archaeological city is very large and crossing it we find different types of buildings including a Canaanite tower, the Canaanite Gate and the so-called Solomon's Gate. We finally arrive at the Monolith Temple as the sun is setting and the day draws to a close: without realizing it we have returned to the beginning of the story. However, we have not yet talked about an element of this city, which is essential for keeping the places visited during this excursion together: water!
Gezer's water system was built in the Middle Bronze Age, around 1800 BC, and served as the main source of water for the city for many centuries. The plant consists of a large underground tunnel, which can be traveled in the company of bats, which extends for over 70 meters, leading to a spring located outside the city walls. Only one detail is missing: a Roman-era canal that connects the water system to Birkat al-Anaziyya, the cisterns of the city of Ramleh.
The day ended: we began with water and we concluded with water and the water itself, flowing underground, accompanied us on this journey that connected ancient civilizations and more than 4,000 years of history: from the Chalcolithic to the Crusades, from Canaanite to Jewish civilization, from Christian rule to Muslim rule. This is the Holy Land.
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! -Ps 133
One need not quote scripture to emphasize one's point, but, there is no finer way to reiterate the words of the psalmist, as STS, participated in 'Jerusalem as a centre of culture and spirituality'; an evening spent in the sharing of new ideas and in building new relationships.
On the 1st of March, a joint meeting of seminarians from the major Theologates in and around Jerusalem, was organised at St Saviour’s Monastery - namely, the Franciscans, the Salesians of Don Bosco, the Missionaries of Africa and the Diocesans from Beit Gemal. The main theme was to stress the importance of interculturality, which, though misconstrued by many to be an agent of division, is actually a great asset for a community to possess.
At the start, the heads of each institute expounded on various aspects of inter-culturalism and its multi-faceted nature that influences human relations in community. The common idea to most of the presentations given was still the unique position that 'Jerusalem' plays in our life, with its colourful history and rich heritage. However, we cannot deny the fact that though each one of us is enriched by our experiences here, each one of us contributes to this reality for better or worse.
The programme then took on a more lively style form, with everyone breaking off into groups to prepare for a short 'cultural' presentation. These included short skits, dances and others which mostly highlighted some aspect of various regions of the world. These performances by the seminarians not only showed their own talents in acting, music and dance, but also showed the variety of regions from where they come. The very fact of the success of this event was the ability of the different groups to collaborate and even enjoy one another's company
Not forgetting to pray in all this, the gathering then moved to the Church. A well 'animated' adoration which focused on Don Bosco and Francis of Assisi, helped those present to raise their minds to God and give Him thanks for his wonderful works. As a fitting culmination to the event, the Franciscans, hosted a scrumptious dinner.
In the words of some of our brothers, "Today we got to meet the real persons behind those clerical collars and habits. Usually religious gatherings in Jerusalem end up being so engaging that we only have the time to shake a hand or exchange a hug. Today, we actually got a moment to share." Jerusalem is truly a phenomenon in itself. Living here is not only a privilege but also entails a task; a task to build a greater community. The potpourri of cultures and the many flavours of Christianity lived here, and have left an indelible mark on everyone who spends their time here at the confluence of three world religions, in Jerusalem, the city of Peace.
SACRED ART AND IMAGES IN CATHOLIC LITURGY AND WORSHIP
On 7th December 2022, Fr. Dr. Moses WANJALA, Sdb, a Professor of Liturgy at Salesian Pontifical University, Studium Theologicum Salesianum – Jerusalem Campus, delivered a conference to the INTER-FAITH GROUP of the Association of Jewish and Christian academics and religious leaders in Jerusalem – Israel, on the theme: Sacred Art and Images in Catholic Liturgy and Worship.
In the first place, he clarified what sacred art or images (icon) and worship entail; what we use these images for; what reverence or respect we pay to images and how, why or with what attitude (intention) we use images, signs, symbols, objects, words and actions that involve the human person’s faculties of the body, mind, heart and soul, precisely the use of senses in Catholic liturgical Worship. In our “liturgy of life” or in our relationship (encounter) with God and with each other, we should always be conscious of what sacred images are used for, and with what intention we use them!
He emphasized the fact that Christian images, unfold beliefs, principles, themes and realities that should basically be drawn from the Sacred Scriptures. These images are mediations, means or vehicles that facilitate our understanding and relationship with God-others-self, in a way that enables every human person to transcend from the visible, material human realities of art to the invisible spiritual-divine realities, with a transformation or shift from (through) the body to the spirit.
Sacred art unfolds, reveals, conserves or keeps the religious, biblical traditions alive, since sacred images make it easier for the human person to visualize or understand an event (expressed in art) that would otherwise be difficult to imagine, explain or to understand only with mere words, however many they may be. Moreover, sacred images expound and manifest or reveal Biblical-moral messages, for the image has a strong power that speaks so much that its impacts remain easily imprinted in people’s minds, hearts, lives and whole being, for instance, the sacred image of Creation (cf. Gen 1 and 2); God’s Covenant with Noah (cf. Gen 9:1-17); the Jewish Passover (cf. Ex 12); Crossing the Red Sea (cf. Ex 14:21-29); the Washing of the feet (cf. Mt 26: 14-39; Jn 13:2-17) within the context of the Last Supper before Jesus’ crucifixion (cf. Mt 26:17-30; Mk 14:12-25; Lk 22:7-38; 1 Cor 11:23-25) unfold many human and Christian virtues like fraternity, solidarity, charity, patience, generosity, sacrifice, humility, tenderness, love, hospitality, friendship, care, forgiveness, peace, justice, reconciliation, forgiveness, unity.
The heart or centrality of our discussion on the question of images is based on the first commandment of the Decalogue which emphasizes that adoration should be given only to the one and unique God: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image (idol), or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Ex 20:4; cf. Deut 5:8).
On one hand, we could literally interpret the first commandment as an absolute commandment that completely forbids the making of any image or anything anywhere that represents human persons, animals, plants or any form of creation. In the same optic, God’s people are not only told not to adore and not to serve the images; they are commanded not to make any graven thing or even the likeness of anything at all in heaven above, on earth and under the earth! The fear is that if they try to represent anything or make any graven image like statues or pictures, just as it happened with the story of the “golden calf” in Exodus 32, they may end up adoring or worshipping it, and in this case, this is idolatry which is abominable, and yet the Law, instead, emphasizes that adoration should be totally addressed to the one unique and only God, and not to anything else or not to any strange gods.
On the other hand, however, the Old Testament exceptionally presents us with episodes, where some living things, according to the law, were used as ornaments or decorations of the Temple: with lions and bulls that supported the Temple basins (cf. 1 Kgs 7:25, 29); with garlands of fruits, flowers and trees (cf. Num 8:4; 1 Kgs 6:18; 7:36); with offering for the Tabernacle (cf. Ex 25-31; 35-40); with the Ark of the Covenant surrounded by “images of beasts” (cf. Ez 1:5;10-20) and with the lamp stand as described by the instructions given by God to Moses, generally in Exodus 25:1-40 (cf. 1 Kgs 6:23-8; 8:6-7), all these, were commanded to be made, without any intention to worship them.
Within this perspective, we, therefore, notice that the mysterious beings that cover and protect the place of divine revelation can be RE-PRESENTED by material realities, precisely to conceal, to express and to unfold the great Mystery of the powerful presence of God himself among His own people as the Author and Creator who gives life, even in our sinfulness, woundedness, helplessness, as noted in God’s healing intervention through the image of the blood on the door posts during the Exodus event (cf. Ex 12) and the image of the lifted fiery brazen serpent in the form of the Cross (cf. Num 21:5-9).
We also gradually realize that not only the ancient Jewish Synagogues but also the early Christian Churches in the first Centuries of persecution, precisely in the Catacombs and on sarcophagi, were painted with representations of scenes from the Old and New Testaments, with symbols of fish, loaves, vines, palms, candle lights, but most especially, with the images of the ministry or deeds of Christ, the Good Shepherd. These poor, persecuted first Christian communities of the early Centuries often used images to visibly express their inner-most, profound or deep joyful and sorrowful sentiments, beliefs or trust in God in every situation. With the many gifts, specifically the gifts of wisdom and (in) art, we could say that the Bible was not only written in Words but also expressed in art in order to facilitate the comprehension of God’s marvelous works right from Creation, through-with-in His Redemption in Jesus Christ to His second coming at the end of time, even to those who could not read and write. Sacred art was not regarded as mere images of the past events in history but rather, these sacred images were celebrated as a live narrative (haggadah or telling of God’s works) that commemorate, remember or re-call to mind God’s wonderful deeds of love, His providence and His interventions towards his people in the past, and how these deeds of the past are celebrated, re-enacted, re-lived, and made alive in thepresent moment hic et nunc (here and now) within the Liturgy, Sacraments and in people’s lives or ways of living today (culture), in view of the futurelife with God forever, all thanks to the mediation of the sacred Words and sacred images that are always derived from the events that are revealed and described from within the Sacred Scriptures. Basically, during these festive moments, every human person and every community participates in God’s action in time, and the Sacred images themselves, as remembrance in visible form, are involved in the re-presentation of these WONDERS (marvels) of God towards humanity.
Regarding the use, treatment, intention and reverence paid to the sacred images, we learn that it was very clear right from the first Christians that no art or images should be adored because adoration is reserved only for the One and unique Almighty God. But yet, the place of honour that the Christians gave to their sacred symbols, signs, pictures, images or icons and the care with which they decorated them, argue that they treated their most Sacred-Biblical images - with at least decent respect or reverence because these sacred images were seen as vehicles or signs that eventually led or pointed to the Divine. For instance, if it was seen as normal for people to revere, bow, kiss, incense the imperial eagles, images and empty throne of Caesar (without suspecting any form of idolatry), then the early Christians also found it, even more appropriate that more reverence should be given to what is real, fundamental and transcendental, that is: the Images of Christ our Saviour; the Word of God which is spirit and life for us; the Cross, symbol of our Salvation, pointing to the Passion, Death, Resurrection and new life with God through-with-in Christ; the Altar, place of Sacrifice where God Himself feeds His own people with His own Body and Blood, etc.
The only reasonable standard measure in venerating any person, image or object by means of genuflections, bows, kisses, incense and any signs or gestures, is always the INTENTION or aim of any person that uses them, because sacred images are only a means for us to know, to love and to serve better the One and only God, but they are not at all an end in themselves. In other words, although it is clear that the sign of anyone or anything in itself, like the national flag, the statue of an outstanding or esteemed person or Saint, is not the prototype (original), it is equally clear that a respect, reverence or honour given to the sign of the image of someone or something represented by the image, is a respect to the person or the thing of which it is a sign, and similarly, a disrespect or insult to the same sign (image) of anyone or anything is a disrespect or insult to the person or thing signified in the image. Hence, we honour or respect the prototype (the original that we may not even physically see) by honouring the sign or symbol (that visibly represents or points to the prototype).
It is within this perspective of the intention and honour awarded to the image that Trent remarks:
Images of Christ, the Virgin Mother of God, and other saints are to be held and kept especially in churches, that due honour and reverence are to be paid to them, not that any divinity or power is thought to be in them for the sake of which they may be worshipped, or that anything can be asked of them, or that any trust may be put in images, as was done by the heathen who put their trust in their idols [Psalm 134:15], but because the honour shown to them is referred to the prototypes which they represent, so that by kissing, uncovering to, kneeling before images we adore Christ and honour the saints whose likeness they bear (Denzinger, no. 986).
Honouring any sacred image, thus, leads us to honor and adore “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:6) because “we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8). The Image of Jesus Christ and those of the Saints are not pictures, for they enable us to move from the material realm to the spiritual realm that enables us to perceive the Invisible through the visible realities.
During the liturgical celebrations, the deeds of God in the past are made present, thanks to the mediation of the sacred Words and sacred images that are always derived from the events that are revealed and described from within the Sacred Scriptures. In the liturgical celebration of life, every human person and every family and community participates fully consciously and actively in God’s action in time, and these Sacred images themselves, as remembrance in visible form, are involved in the re-presentation of the marvelous WONDERS that God our Father did in the past; that He continues to do now and that He will do in the future for his people, always out of love for His children.
One of the greatest Sacred Image is the Image of the GOOD SHEPHERD (Jn 10:11-18; cf. Ps 23) that sums up the entire History of our Salvation, when at the fullness of time (cf. Gal 4:4-7), God entered into the sensible world of our time and history, with the Incarnation of the “Word that became flesh and dwelt among us” in Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 1:14); recapitulating everything in Christ (cf. Eph 1:3-10); searched for the lostsheep (cf. Lk 15) and made a homeward path into the Church of the Jews and Gentiles, thereby reconciling and embracing every human person and the whole of creation, and orienting everything back to God, the Creator, Alpha and Omega of everything.
At this point, we emphasize the Supremacy of the Image (Icon) of the Invisible God, made visible in Jesus Christ, inviting us to journey from our Creation to our Deification; and from our being created in the image and likeness of God to our being united in the Trinitarian communion relationship:
The Son is the IMAGE of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the Cross (Col 1:15-20).
St. Paul presents Jesus Christ as the Image of the Invisible God (cf. Col 1:15-20) implying that by focusing our glance at Christ, we concretely experience, already now, the true nature of God and come to know, love and serve the Father whom we have not yet physically seen. It is worth highlighting the close, intrinsic relationship between the invisible Father and the visible Son Jesus Christ at the incarnation, through the Holy Spirit. It is impressive that even before Christ is explicitly described as the Image of God, right from Genesis, the first pages of the Scriptures, the human person is said to have been created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen 1:27).
It is important to note that Jesus Christ as the Visible Image of the Invisible God, is not like other finite images or objects or paintings of persons or things that are a means that lead or point to God, but rather the Person of Jesus Christ Himself is the INFINITE God Himself, the Beginning and END of everything; the Son of God that was present right from the beginning and that created the world with His own Word that incarnated or became visible in the flesh for our Salvation and now dwells among His own people and journeys with everyone at all times and in all circumstances, for He assures everyone: “surely, I am with you always, to the very end of time (age)” (Mt 28:20).
All in all, it is Christ who perfectly Images God and the image of the human person is mirrored, signified and fulfilled in the Image of Christ. There is no better or fuller way of seeing and finding the Image of God than to behold, gaze and be illumined, warmed and set aflame by the incarnate Person of Jesus Christ, for whoever has seen Christ, has seen the Father (cf. Jn 14:8-10), because Jesus, the Son and the Father are one (cf. Jn 10:30; Jn 17:21). We notice that God our Father gives us Jesus Christ as a Visual or Visible example of what or who the Image of God is. Through the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, every human person is invited to conform his/her life to the life, heart and Person of Jesus Christ (cf. Rom 8:29) in order to become true sons and daughters of God our Father, because in conforming our image to the Image of God in Christ, we actualize, realize, fulfill and find meaning in our human vocation or calling, for the goal, aim and purpose of the existence (lives) of every human person is our “Deification”, that is, to become Divine like Jesus who is God made flesh (human) for the Salvation of all.
In our attempt to understand the significant impact of sacred images, the senses are not to be discarded, but they should be expanded to their widest capacity, so as to lead us from the visible reality of images to the INVISIBLE DIVINE reality – God Himself, because “in the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by His Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe (Heb 1:1-4).
Essentially, the images of beauty, in which the mystery of the Invisible God becomes visible (as described in the Sacred Scriptures), are an essential part of Christian worship. The real “action” in liturgy in which we are all supposed to participate is the action of God Himself who acts through His Spirit and works through-with-in us, thanks for the mediation of everything that is within us and around us, including the images.
In liturgy and life, sacred images do not merely illustrate the succession of past events of the history of Salvation, but they rather point to a presence as they reveal the inner unity of God’s continuous healing and salvific action in every reality of the human person today, here and now, as noted in the Sacraments, most especially, in Baptism, Eucharist and Penance (Reconciliation). In this way, these sacred images, signs, symbols and Sacraments are tangible or visible mediations that enable us to encounter the Divine and having been empowered by the Divine, they enable us to nourish and empower each other with the Divine life and love infused and operating in and through us. In other words, these images and Sacraments facilitate the dialogue and encounter with God, with the person himself and with every human and created realities.
We now evidence some basic characteristics of Sacred images. Christian sacred images are intended to be: Trinitarian, for the Holy Spirit gives us the gift to see, to know and to love Christ – the Image of God – that leads us to the Father; Christological, for they reveal the Paschal memorial and new life accomplished in Christ; Sacred, since they come from Scripture and prayer and lead us to the prayer of the Word of God; Sacramental and Anamnetical, for they make historical-Biblical events of God’s action in the past, present, in view of the future; Liturgical, because they draw us eastward to the celebration of the entire Mystery or life of Christ centered around His Paschal mystery, enabling us to encounter God through our brothers and sisters and in all creation; Incarnational, for they manifest how God became flesh, entering and purifying our human fragilities and realities – so material can now illustrate God, and how the material (flesh) draws us to experience and encounter the Divine; Eschatological, because they point towards the final destiny of every human person and the world to come where we shall experience happiness forever as we see God face to face (cf. 2 Cor 3:7-18).
As a psycho-somatic being, composed of body and soul, the human person participates in liturgy, or in his encounter with the Divine, not only through his soul but also through his body, thanks to the mediation of sacred art, images, signs, symbols, postures, gestures, voices, vestments, matter easily perceived by the body, that facilitate a full, conscious, active and effective participation in liturgical Worship and life, because Catholic liturgy is the liturgy of the Word made flesh (sacramental and concrete). In the liturgy of the Word made flesh, matter (like the image) is the vehicle towards the Divine.
On speaking about sacred art and sacred furnishings, the Second Vatican Council Document Sacrosanctum concilium (SC 122-130) promotes and emphasizes the importance of art in the Catholic Church because it promotes Christian spirituality and strengthens our way of believing (faith), our way of praying the Word of God and our way of living the Word of God (lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi). The Catholic Church promotes all forms of art and admits all styles from every period and peoples, as long as these forms of art help the human person to grow and strengthen his/her relationship with God and with each other. Sacrosanctum Concilium also reminds us that the Bishop has the responsibility of promoting the sobriety, modesty and noble beauty in all art works (architecture, pictures, statues, articles and vestments used for liturgical sacred actions) by getting help of trained artists, experts and craftsmen for art works, always drawing inspiration from the Holy Scriptures, with an aim of facilitating the encounter of the human with the Divine, ensuring that art inspires Faith, Morals and Christian Piety (love, peace, harmony, unity, solidarity, fraternity), and making sure that it does not offend the true religious sense. Providentially, even Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger reflects on the theme of art, images, body and liturgy in part three and four of his book: “The Spirit of the Liturgy,” San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000.
We may sum up the question of veneration of any form of sacred art and images in liturgy with some conclusive highlights: it is forbidden to give Divine Worship or adoration directed to anything or anyone because Supreme Adoration, Supplication and Worship belongs and should be always directed to One God alone; we should respect or honour the angels and Saints because they imitate Jesus Christ who, though He was in the form of God, He humbled Himself, emptied Himself, took the form of a slave – servant, became human as we are (cf. Phil 2:6-8); Jesus loved, sacrificed Himself for us and offered His whole life for the poor, least, last, lost, sinners, marginalized and broken hearted, reconciling, saving, healing and bringing everyone back to God; we should give a relative honour or respect to sacred images, relics, crucifixes and holy pictures, for they are linked to Christ and are memorials or commemorations of Him, bearing in mind that sacred images point to a real presence - God; it is clear for us that our one and primary intention is to pray to God alone and that we do not pray to any images, pictures or statues, since they can neither see nor hear nor help us, but we use these sacred images as one of the languages or means to pray to God alone; we Worship, adore, trust and glorify ONLY ONE GOD; Jesus Christ is the Visible Image (per excellence) of the Invisible God, not like other finite images that are a means that lead to God, but rather He Himself is the INFINITE God made Visible, in flesh for us. In a nutshell, sacred images are like a sign post pointing to the original Author of everything that exists; they are a vehicle or a means to an end, pointing to the DIVINE who receives and deserves ALL the honour, respect, adoration, glory and thanksgiving because our God is the beginning and end (Alpha and Omega) of everything that exists.
The path of stone rising ahead in rugged perfection, the light playing over the grey stones of the desert, the silver lined clouds hovering over the Dead Sea, as if it were the finger of a pianist playing a melody for the day, all set the magical day out, as the students of STS visited the historical Qumran Caves and the magnificently standing Masada.
On 9th November, the students left for the third archaeological excursion at 7:30 am from STS reaching Qumran around 8:45 am. The trip was guided by Fr. Yunus, who made the trip productive and insightful with his extensive, yet beautiful explanations about the history of the places. Qumran sits at the vertical cliff of the Judean Desert, rising up from the shores of the Dead Sea. History tells us the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered here by the Bedouins in 1952. After spending approximately 2 hours, the students moved on to the next location – Masada.
After an early lunch, a large group of students decided to go up walking, while the rest ascended by the cable car. Energized and enthused, the students started the ascent with smiles on their faces and sense of wonder in their eyes. The snake trail, about 2.5 kilometers in length, never seemed to threaten as it offered a spectacular desert landscape along with the Dead Sea that kept our eyes glued. Upon reaching the summit, Fr. Yunus briefed us on the history of the event of the “Siege of Masada.” He stressed that the location is famously known for the fortification of Herod the Great and the 967 Jewish men and women who chose to end their own lives rather than suffer enslavement or death at the hands of the Romans. Masada kept all the students overwhelmed and awestruck as they started skimming through the historical lanes. After spending a considerable amount of time, the students headed back to Jerusalem, enjoying the sunset and rain, reaching STS around 5:45 pm.
The second archaeological excursion of the academic year 22/23 included a series of visits to the Judean Desert. The group left Jerusalem for the shores of the Dead Sea where, guided by the great expertise of Fr. Yunus, professor and archaeologist at STS, they visited Ein Gedi’s nature reserve.
Whilst hiking up, along the trail in the desert, the students were surrounded by the magnificence of the oasis and with its resonant sound of water. It’s remarkable to think that this very road had been used by the Romans at the time of the Second Revolt and that centuries before the great encounter between David and Saul (cfr. 1Sam 24) took place here. Not only that, most likely this site has inspired the writing of the book of the Song of Songs. Even though at David’s time the area was not inhabited, many traces of ancient people can be found here which attest to the importance of this location. The most impressive example is the Chalcolithic temple that must have served as a central sanctuary for the region. Tribes just emerging from the Stone Age came to this plateau above the waterfall to worship. From this temple a spectacular view over the oasis and the southern part of the Dead Sea can be enjoyed and a sharp observer will easily spot, near the springs, the presence of groups of Ibexes, a type of mountain goat, from which comes the name Ein Gedi (spring of the kid) .
Finally, the visit ended at the modern tent-shaped roof that protects the synagogue ruins. Established in the 3rd century AD, the synagogue remained in use, with various alterations, until the 6th century. This corresponds to the information provided by Eusebius of Caesarea, according to whom Ein Gedi was "a large Jewish village”. The synagogue faces north, towards Jerusalem and the interior is decorated with a large mosaic, very well preserved, depicting four marsh birds in the centre and a pair of peacocks in each corner. Inscriptions list Adam's descendants, then the Patriarchs and the three companions of the prophet Daniel (Dan 3), as well as the synagogue's benefactors.
‘My love is a cluster of henna flowers among the vines of Ein Gedi’ S.of S. 1:14; cf. Sir. 24: 14)
Now, after having visited Ein Gedi, the group fully understood why the author of the Song of Songs considers this place heavenly and wonderful. How couldn’t they be struck by the beauty of the date palms, the greenery of the oasis, and the gurgling of the springs that descend the valley to flow into the Dead Sea? Enjoying such beauty, the excursion ended at the Dead Sea shores where the group was able to benefit from the therapeutic effects of the water and enjoyed a couple of hours rest.
On 15th of October 2022, the Salesian Pontifical University Jerusalem Campus organized its annual Dies Academicus. The event commenced at 9.30 a.m. with a short prayer service. The Ratisbonne choir invoked the presence of God through their choral piece, ‘Amazing Grace.’ More than 70 participants graced this event through their active presence and participation. The entire event comprised two important phases of the academic life of the Institute. In the first segment Fr. Andrzej Toczyski, the Principle of the University reminded the students the importance and purpose of the academic gathering. Bro. Nathanael George then gave a powerful visual presentation looking back on the highlights of the past Academic Year 21-22.
Later, as part of the annual academic tradition, Fr. Eric John Wyckoff welcomed and introduced the first-year students through a creative PowerPoint presentation. This was followed by the presentation of all the Professors and Teaching Staff and the area of their expertise. Fr. Matthew Coutinho did the honour of introducing all the teaching faculty members of the University. After these presentations, the entire college gathered at the entrance to pose for the official annual picture of the ongoing year 2022-2023.
The second phase of the event began at 11.00 a.m. in the Don Bosco Hall. After a solo performance of 'Laudamus Te', sung by Deacon Florimond Kazadi Kabale. Fr. Stanislaus Swamikannu sdb, the Rector of the Ratisbonne Salesian Theologate, introduced the Speaker and the Guest of Honour of the day, Rev. Fr Andrea Bozzolo sdb, the Rector of the Salesian Pontifical University in Rome. In his Lectio Magistralis entitled “The Reciprocity between Faith and Sacraments”, he shed light on several relevant issues. His lecture was well prepared and well presented, followed by a question and answer session for further clarifications and interactions, moderated by Fr. Stan Stanislaus Swamikannu. The program came to an end with a vote of thanks proposed by the Principal, Fr. Andrzej. A solicitous fellowship meal was offered for all the participant.
Indeed, the Dies Academicus was a rich moment of learning and faith sharing for us all.
We are grateful to the Christian Media Center who covered the event. You may view a short video made on the occasion, that summarizes the event.
On 30th September, the Salesian Theological University’s first Archaeological Excursion of 2022-23, took place journeying to the ancient coastal cities of Tel Dor, Caesarea Maritima and Apollonia. A day before the excursion, Fr. Yunus gave a brief explanation about these sites with maps and it was a great help for us.
Firstly, we reached the beautiful ancient city (national park) of Tel Dor. It was the ancient city of the Phoenicians but was later taken over by Israelites during the unification of Northern and Southern Kingdoms. We could visit the ancient church remains, the amphitheater and human settlements. The longevity of modern investigation at Dor has meant that a body of evidence has been amassed, substantial enough to contribute productively to questions of both local and broader significance, among them the beginning and development of Phoenician culture, patterns of trade in the eastern Mediterranean and the impact of imperialism and changing foreign domination on the cities and cultures of the Levant. Evidence of human settlements, storage, boats, and potteries areas, all from the Iron Ages was visible. The Phoenicians’ purple dye pits are one of the main features of this site. They collected sea shells and boiled them in these pits, thus obtaining the purple dye which was used by the royalty.
Next we visited one of the most important cities during Jesus’ time, Caesarea. It was a small town including Straton’s Tower during the time of Phoenicians. In 25 B.C., Herod the Great built a splendid sea port, one of its kind during his time, in honour of Augustus Caesar. It turned out to be one of the greatest sea ports of the era. As a matter of fact, it was also the port from which Peter and Paul sets out for Rome. There are still remains of the port to be seen, and also, the amphitheater, hippodrome, Roman wall, Byzantine church, Aqueduct and many more historical wonders. We could see many other Roman remains of statues, granite columns Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, which embellished the roman buildings, adorned with mosaics and Greek inscriptions. It was amazing to see the mighty hippodrome, the walls of the crusaders which have stood for more than 1500 years. Both byzantine and crusaders walls which once protected the city, still stand today. One of the greatest discoveries of this site for Christianity is the inscription with mention of Pontius Pilate, which historically proves his existence. The warehouse complex (c. 75 by 40 m) built c. 500 CE, consists of six warehouses of three distinct types: courtyard warehouses, a corridor warehouse, and a complex warehouse. A marble head of Emperor Hadrian was discovered in one of those warehouses. In short, in the big city of Caesarea we saw a history of 500 years.
Apollonia-Arsuf is located in the north-western part of the modern city of Herzliya, on a kurkar (fossilized dune sandstone) ridge overlooking the Mediterranean shore. This is a place where beauty and history meet together. Also known as the ancient city and fortress of Arsuf, Apollonia was once home to the Persians, Romans and Crusaders. In 1994, excavations of the area revealed that Phoenicians settled there in the 5th or 6th century BC and it was officially part of the Persian Empire. In the Hellenistic period, the Greeks renamed the city Apollonia, after the Greek God Apollo. The area later fell to the Roman Empire during the occupation of the Holy Land. It was during this time that the city grew in size and importance and a harbour was constructed. Apollonia became the second largest city in the entire region with primarily Christian and Samaritan residents. Eventually, in the 12th century, the city became a Crusader stronghold where the Battle of Arsuf took place during the Third Crusade. Today, the ancient city, located on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, is part of the Herzliya Municipality and has been intensively excavated since 1994. Here we saw the weapons used during the crusaders war with the Muslims. We could actually see the three defence walls the Crusaders built to protect themselves, and also the stone shells with catapults which were used in war.
Again, I would like to repeat that Apollonia is a place where ‘beauty and history meets’.
“Better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times” is a truth which validated the STS 1st year students’ recent Study Trip to Galilee. For three days they visited the revered sites connected with Jesus's hidden as well as public life in Galilee. Thirteen students with the STS Principal, Fr. Andrzej Toczyski SDB, and expert guide, Fr. Yunus Demirci, OFM Cap., pilgrimaged by bus, starting early in the morning from Jerusalem on Friday 16th September 2022.
The Students, and at the same time pilgrims, first stopped at the Mount of Beatitudes where they received a profound explanation about the traditions and evolution of the site. During the Holy Mass, they contemplated the eight Beatitudes mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew. The next steps led them to Tabgha (from the name Hepta Pegon - seven sources), the site devoted to the miracle of multiplication of bread and fish and to the Church of Primacy of St. Peter. At the Capernaum archeological site it was possible in a concrete and tangible way to remember foremost the healing of Simon-Peter's mother-in-law in his own house, the expulsion of the unclean spirit of a man, and the healing of a centurion's servant. Fortified by the fish of St. Peter in a restaurant, the students enjoyed a half-hour boat trip on the Sea of Galilee and the beautiful sceneries to be seen from the boat. Then they travelled to Nazareth, to the Betharram guest house.
Saturday 17th September was also a very tight day. The morning was devoted to the Basilica of Annunciation, the nearby museum, Church of St. Joseph, the Grave of a Just man, Mary’s two wells and the Synagogue of Nazareth. After lunch the pilgrims ascended Mount Tabor by bus and during the Holy Eucharist contemplated the Transfiguration of Lord Jesus Christ. In the evening, most of the pilgrims and students took part in a solemn procession at the Basilica of Annunciation, accompanied by a rosary prayer in several languages.
On Sunday 18th September it was planned to visit Cana in the Galilee, but both, the Latin and Orthodox churches were not open on Sundays for visits. However the morning prayers on the site gave opportunity to reflect on Jesus’ first miracle. A special visit to the archeological site of the ancient city of Sepphoris (Tzipori) followed. This has, according to some traditions, connections to the parental house of the Virgin Mary and hidden life of St. Joseph.
The way back to Ratisbonne led the group via Haifa with its beautiful Stella Maris church at Mount Carmel. After Holy Mass and refreshments, the group stopped to take some photos at the Bahá’í gardens in Haifa with its wonderful view on the city bay.
It was an exceptional opportunity for the students to stand on the same places as Jesus stood, to touch, smell, taste, feel, imagine, perceive not just intellectually but by the whole person, all dimensions including the spiritual one. Especially at the beginning of their studies, may this experience help them to deepen and broaden their horizons of faith.
If Jordan is as beautiful as they say, I mean at least as beautiful as its queen, then visiting it in all its splendor becomes a must: one can even give up the desire to travel through the same lands where St. Paul travelled, and which for long centuries were home to the Ottoman Empire, to enjoy its wonders. That the Jordanian option was driven more by a scruple of conscience – wars, near duplication of prices, etc. – than by an actual biblical-historical-archaeological-aesthetic balance, is of secondary importance at this point.
Plan the days. Book the visits. Hire a bus, two buses. Choosing a guide who could offer actual knowledge and not just entertainment. Fill out online forms for entering and leaving the country, the countries. Remind students about the PCR test anti-Covid. Being informed that on the bus will be not only students, Professors and a guide, but we will be accompanied throughout our Jordanian stay by a uniformed tourist police officer – whether his presence was really necessary remains to be seen, but you know how these things go: when in Rome, do as the Romans do. In short, the labours of organization, took their toll, but the game was worth the effort.
Beginning of first day: Jerash, the place in the Gospel where Jesus healed a possessed man: an architectural and urban gem on the borders of the Roman Empire; Rabbath-Ammon, present-day Amman, capital of Jordan, and one of the Hellenistic cities of the Decapolis in Jesus' time - End of first day. Start of second day: Umm Ar-Rasas, otherwise called by the archaeologist who discovered it, a fellow named Piccirrillo: u' marr' sass, the sea of stones; unfailing pause in the mosaic store, kofiahs, and other eventualities, owned by some distant or close relative of the guide – when in Rome, do as the Romans do, we've already said that, haven't we? – and then on to the top of Mount Nebo, where Moses died – the burial site is still unknown to most (Nabi Musa? who knows), and back down to Madaba. End of second day. Start of third day: Petra. No need to comment, the Nabataeans did wonders, and what appears in the Indiana Jones movie is only a tenth of what the site offers to the contemplation of tourists – the Bedouins, of course, and their characteristic way of approaching you and doing business are an integral part of the experience: like it or not, you can't help yourself. End of third day. Night in the desert. Start of fourth day: Wadi Rum, Red Desert: for those who have seen the movies Dune, Aladdin, The Martian, several scenes were shot there; passage through the land of Israel; bathing in the Red Sea; and return home.
Balance of the experience: given the premise, ten out of ten. We feel sorry for the fortress of Macheron; Herod will forgive us: it will be for next time.