Imagine looking around you and seeing people in an endless stream down the slopes of a mountain from where you bask in the warm glow of the sun. The view of the creative lakeside setting is stunning. You’re on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee between Capernaum and Gennesaret. While the hilltop is 200 metres above the lake shore it is really still 25 meters below sea level. Welcome to Mount Eremos – or the Mount of the Beatitudes.
The eight Beatitudes given on Mount Eremos invoking blessing on the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, on those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, on the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted, are the new covenant equivalent of the Old Covenant sermon on Sinai. Both divine encounters occur on mountains and expound the expectations of the LORD who calls his people to life. Jesus had a perfect amphitheatre for his listeners.
Lounging in the shade of the olive trees atop this humble hillock and strolling through the gardens among the plaques listing the beatitudes is an invitation to peaceful meditation. If your tour schedule allows it. Groups huddle for prayer and instruction before being loosed to photograph the beauty and wonder of the location. Seven springs lie at the foot of this uncultivated hill. Jesus made good use of creation for his teaching. Others have tried to build on what he started by setting up monuments of memory.
While the architecture of Jesus in formulating his Sermon on the Mount is why we embrace this scenic place, it is impossible to visit Israel’s churches without hearing that you have come across another masterpiece designed by Antonio Barluzzi in a Byzantine style. The church of the Beatitudes is designed in an octagonal shape to represent the eight Beatitudes. The mosaic around the altar contains the seven virtues. The dome is supported by aesthetic arches. It was completed in 1938 and is run by the Franciscans. Known as the architect of the Holy Land, Barluzzi was commissioned with 24 works – including churches, hospitals and schools. Between 1912 and 1955 his work was uniquely designed at each place to consider historical context and the event commemorating that place. This included churches at Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives, Bethlehem, Mount Tabor and various sites in the Galilee.
Although Christ’s new covenant message was fiery it hasn’t been well received by some of the local residents. Fires seem to arise here every few years. The one on July 14, 2022 did significant damage to the structure. The intervention that saved it was said to have been miraculous by the Italian sisters who oversee the property. Strong winds spread the flames from tree to tree and extensive damage marks the roof of the church, the places of prayer, the worker’s residences and the olive trees. The director of the sanctuary acknowledges the brave work of firefighters using aircraft and firetrucks but says “we witnessed a miracle in the protection of our God.”
Overzealous young Jewish settlers have been detained over other fires in the area through the years. In 2015, arson targeted the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha. The site, where Jesus is believed to have fed at least 5,000 men plus their women and children, saw fires deliberately set in the monastery section which also consumed the roof of the structure. Red graffiti on the building announced that “idols will have their heads cut off.” Sixteen youth were detained and then released. The Benedictine monks worked hard to restore the edifice. The Basilica of Transfiguration, a Franciscan facility on Mt. Tabor, visited by hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, also saw fires rage nearby.
The Jesus Trail pilgrimage route links this site with the Sowers Cove (where Jesus is said to have shared the parable of the sower) and other holy sites along the lake shore. Most groups arrive via route 90 on the dozens of tour buses parked outside the facility on any given hour. Groups tend to gather around the large courtyard mosaic created by another Italian, Vasco Nasorri, in 1984. Themes of justice, faith, temperance, charity, fortitude and prudence can be detected in this work of art.
The three chapters dedicated by Matthew for the Sermon on the Mount are a detailed revelation of the life available through God’s kingdom. The learned disciple captures the core of truth to help the church carry out Christ’s instruction “to obey everything I have commanded you” (28:20). Even Mahatma Gandi found himself motivated by this message to establish freedom through nonviolent revolution. Likewise, Martin Luther used this template of teachings as the foundation for his political commitment to nonviolence and civil disobedience.
A believer doesn’t have to engage in pilgrimage to this site to encounter the kingdom of heaven Jesus is proclaiming. Jesus declares that the kingdom is here, now. Too often, our theology may consider this kingdom as something future that we are waiting for. Jesus puts his finger on our hearts as he focuses on the true essence of anger, marital breakdown, vows, relational integrity, generosity, prayer and true faith and salvation. He calls us to lay up our treasure in heaven rather than on earth. He calls us to forego anxiety and embrace the trust of the Father who cares for each of the birds flitting around us. The same God who cares for the flowers nodding in the same gentle breezes that cool us.
Jesus teaches on this hillside for one purpose. To draw us into closer relationship with our Father, through a life activated into obedience through faith. Wise children put his truth into action. True disciples not only listen but act. Crowds come and go without being changed. The religious filter what they hear through their own grid of possible, and sit in judgment over what they hear.
Whether you ever get to Mt. Eremos or not, Matthew has captured the essence of what you need to know right where you are.