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The Church of the Beatitudes at Tabgha

J. Gil

Tags: History, Holy Land, In the footprints of our Faith
In the Footprints of our Faith
A portal offers protection from the glare and heat of the sunlight. Photo: Berthold Werner (Wikimedia Commons).
A portal offers protection from the glare and heat of the sunlight. Photo: Berthold Werner (Wikimedia Commons).

At the beginning of his public life, Jesus “went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan” (Mt 4:23-25).

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Our Lord had left Nazareth and was living in Capernaum (Mt 4:14), on the northwest shore of Lake Genesareth, where some of the twelve Apostles or their relatives had houses. The multitudes that the Gospel speaks of came to that small fishing village to find Jesus, but also went after him in other places in the surrounding district (cf. Mt 5:1 and 14:14; Mk 6:32-34; Lk 6:17-19; Jn 6:2-5). One of the most notable of these was Tabgha.
At Tabgha Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount, a collection of teachings that began with the Beatitudes.

As described in a previous article, this is a hilly area about three kilometers west of Capernaum, stretching from the shore of the lake inland. Because of the nature of the terrain it is not surprising that our Lord should sometimes have chosen to withdraw there, alone or with his disciples. It would also have been a good place for crowds of several thousands of people to gather around him: parts of it were unpopulated, perhaps because of the difficulty of cultivating the thin layer of soil which soon gave place to rock; at the same time, springs watered the ground, so that there was plenty of grass, with palm trees providing shade. That part of the lake was especially rich in fish, since some warm currents attracted them there; and the slopes of the surrounding mountains rose up almost from the lakeside itself, forming a natural amphitheatre.

The church stands 200 meters above Lake Genesareth. Photo: Glen Roberts (Flickr)
The church stands 200 meters above Lake Genesareth. Photo: Glen Roberts (Flickr)
The Sermon on the Mount
According to the traditions handed down by local Christians who lived in Tabgha from the times of Jesus, it was here that he gave the Sermon on the Mount, a collection of teachings that began with the Beatitudes:

“Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
The Beatitudes respond to the natural desire for happiness that God has placed in man’s heart.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you’ ” (Mt 5:1-12; cf. Lk 6:20-23).

A piece of writing attributed to the pilgrim Egeria or Etheria, quoted by Peter the Deacon in the Liber de Locis Sanctis, locates the place of the Beatitudes close to the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, on a nearby mountainside, where there was a hollow. About a hundred meters from that church, the remains of some buildings were excavated in 1935.

A well-tended garden around the church provides peace and invites the visitor to spend time in contemplation. Photo: Berthold Werner (Wikimedia Commons).
A well-tended garden around the church provides peace and invites the visitor to spend time in contemplation. Photo: Berthold Werner (Wikimedia Commons).
They belonged to a church or monastery dating from the fourth or fifth century. The chapel, seven meters long by four meters wide, had been built by enlarging a small cave, and took in a second natural cave, which had been shaped into a square with masonry. The plastered walls were covered with ancient graffiti, and the floor was paved with mosaics.

The present Church of the Beatitudes was built between 1937 and 1938 following this same tradition, but in order to give a wider view over Lake Genesareth, it was built on a site two hundred meters above the lake and about two kilometers from the remains of the former church.

It is an octagonal church surmounted by a round cupola, and surrounded by a broad colonnaded portal that offers protection from the heat and glare of the sun. The local black basalt, white stone from Nazareth, and Roman travertine marble, together form a harmonious pattern and make the building stand out among the surrounding vegetation. The interior of the church is designed with clean, simple lines: the altar stands in the center, under an alabaster arch, and behind it the tabernacle is raised on a pedestal of porphyry and decorated with scenes from the Passion of our Lord, in gilded bronze on a base of lapis lazuli. The eight windows under the dome are of stained glass bearing the words of the Beatitudes, and above them the dome reflects the light in tones of gold.

An atmosphere of peace
The altar and tabernacle are in the center of the church, beneath the dome. Photo: Jon Lai Yexian (Flickr).
The altar and tabernacle are in the center of the church, beneath the dome. Photo: Jon Lai Yexian (Flickr).
“The Beatitudes are at the heart of Jesus' preaching. They take up the promises made to the chosen people since Abraham. The Beatitudes fulfill the promises by ordering them no longer merely to the possession of a territory, but to the Kingdom of heaven” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1716). Reflecting on this fact, Benedict XVI underlined the difference between Moses and Jesus, between Sinai, the rocky mass in the desert, and the Mount of the Beatitudes: “Anyone who has been there and gazed with the eyes of his soul on the wide prospect of the waters of the lake, the sky and the sun, the trees and the meadows, the flowers and the sound of birdsong, can never forget the wonderful atmosphere of peace and the beauty of creation” (Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: from the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, p. 67).

The Beatitudes respond to the natural desire for happiness that God has placed in man’s heart. They announce blessings and rewards, but they are at the same time paradoxical promises, especially the ones that talk about poverty, sufferings, injustice and persecutions (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1717-1718). “The standards of the world are turned upside down as soon as things are seen in the right perspective, which is to say, in terms of God’s values, so different from those of the world. It is precisely those who are poor in worldly terms, those thought of as lost souls, who are the truly fortunate ones, the blessed, who have every reason to rejoice and exult in the midst of their sufferings” (Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: from the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, p. 71).

The Beatitudes should not be understood as though the rejoicing they proclaim will be achieved only in the next world. St Josemaria taught this clearly, putting his readers on their guard against the dangers of developing a “victim complex”: “Sacrifice, sacrifice! It is true that to follow Jesus Christ is to carry the Cross – He has said so. But I don’t like to hear souls who love our Lord speak so much about crosses and renunciations, because where there is Love, it is a willing sacrifice – though it remains hard – and the cross is the Holy Cross.
The Beatitudes present a sort of veiled interior biography of Jesus, a kind of portrait of his figure.’
A soul which knows how to love and give itself in this way, is filled with peace and joy. Therefore, why insist on ‘sacrifice’, as if you were seeking consolation, if Christ’s Cross – which is your life – makes you happy?” (Furrow, no. 249).

The Beatitudes shine a light on the attitudes and actions that characterize Christian life, and express what it means to be a disciple of Christ, called to share in his Passion and Resurrection (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1717). “The Beatitudes (…) apply to the disciple because they were first paradigmatically lived by Christ himself (…) The Beatitudes present a sort of veiled interior biography of Jesus, a kind of portrait of his figure. He who has no place to lay his head (cf. Mt 8:20) is truly poor; he who can say, ‘Come to me (…) for I am meek and lowly in heart’ (cf. Mt 11:28-29) is truly meek; he is the one who is pure of heart and so unceasingly beholds God. He is the peacemaker, he is the one who suffers for God’s sake. The Beatitudes display the mystery of Christ himself, and they call us into communion with him” (Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: from the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, p. 74).

To respond to this call from God to share in his own blessedness, Jesus himself is the way we must follow. “We have to learn from him, from Jesus who is our only model. If you want to go forward without stumbling or wandering off the path, then all you have to do is walk the road he walked, placing your feet in his footprints and entering into his humble and patient Heart, there to drink from the wellsprings of his commandments and of his love. In a word, you must identify yourself with Jesus Christ and try to become really and truly another Christ among your fellow men (…) Reflect on the example that Christ gave us, from the crib in Bethlehem to his throne on Calvary. Think of his self-denial and of all he went through: hunger, thirst, weariness, heat, tiredness, ill-treatment, misunderstandings, tears... But at the same time think of his joy in being able to save the whole of mankind. And now I would like you to engrave deeply in your mind and upon your heart – so that you can meditate on it often and draw your own practical conclusions – the summary St Paul made to the Ephesians when he invited them to follow resolutely in our Lord’s footsteps: ‘Be imitators of God, as very dear children, and walk in love, as Christ has loved us and delivered himself up for us, a sacrifice breathing out fragrance as he offered it to God.’ Jesus gave himself up for us in a holocaust of love. What about you, who are a disciple of Christ? You, a favoured son of God; you, who have been ransomed at the price of the Cross; you too should be ready to deny yourself” (Friends of God, nos. 128-129).

The Church of the Beatitudes overlooks the whole of Lake Genesareth. Photo: Itamar Grinberg – Israel Tourism (Flickr).
The Church of the Beatitudes overlooks the whole of Lake Genesareth. Photo: Itamar Grinberg – Israel Tourism (Flickr).
The salt of the earth
In his Sermon on the Mount, after the Beatitudes, Jesus compares believers to the salt of the earth and the light of the world. St John Chrýsostom brings out the connection between the two passages as follows: “Those who are meek, modest, merciful and just, do not keep these virtues for their own profit alone, but pour them out like clear torrents for the benefit of others. In the same way, the clean of heart and the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted in the cause of truth, also give their lives as a gift to all” (St John Chrysostom, In Matthaeum homiliae 15, 7).

“The Master passes very close to us, again and again. He looks at us... And if you look at him, if you listen to him, if you don’t reject him, He will teach you how to give a supernatural meaning to everything you do... Then you too, wherever you may be, will sow consolation and peace and joy” (The Way of the Cross, Eighth Station, point 4).