Holy Land 2017
Day 6, May 6, 2017
After a full day of following in Jesus’ footsteps today, I don’t know how I can share this journey in any meaningful way. I only wish all of you reading this could feel what I’m feeling and experience what I’m experiencing. But let me try.
We headed out from Nazareth early this morning and came to Cana. Our guide told us the story of the Wedding Feast at Cana and, at the end of the day, Joseph had a little too much wine. When they got home, Mary asked Joseph if she could get him anything. He said perhaps some water ... but, please, don’t let Jesus touch it!
Still early in the morning, we arrived at the Jordan River where we renewed our Baptismal vows. (Pic 1). From wading in the river, I can tell you that it’s true: “River Jordan is chilly and cold, alleluia; chills the body but not the soul, alleluia.” We hiked down the hill called Mount Eremos where, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, we celebrated the Eucharist (Pic 2)
Yes, you see a woman presiding at the Service. This is normal in the Episcopal church and hopefully will one day be in the Roman Catholic Church. From there we walked down to where the crowd gathered for the Sermon on the Mount. One of our fellow pilgrims stood up on the hill and read the Beatitudes while the rest of us stood and listened below. Even without a microphone, had Jesus been standing up above, we found it easy to hear a voice coming down from the mount.
Our next stop is known as Peter's Primacy. It is the place where Jesus, standing on a rock from shore, told Peter where to cast his net; then, despite of an entire night of catching nothing, when they caught lots of fish, Jesus fixed breakfast for his disciples. The historical Jesus and the Jesus for pilgrims is not always one and the same. Even though this is not the place where Jesus said: “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church,” that is what is attributed to this site (Pic 3). As you see, the altar is built over the rock.
We walked down to the Sea of Galilee (Pic 4) and splashed in the water. I was not alone in feeling a sense of awe that Jesus had been on this very same body of water. After lunch of whole fried fish (not caught in the Sea of Galilee I must confess), we went to Capharnaum (also known here as Caperneum). The natural rock of the first century in this city was black and the city itself was made entirely of black rock. The contemporary Church here is built over what was discovered to be Peter’s home, a rather elaborate home that appears large enough to have housed his family, his mother-in-law, and perhaps his brother and his family. You can see Peter’s home through the glass floor below the Church (Pic 5). The temple was only a stone’s throw from Peter’s house but was made of limestone which had to have been carried in from far away (Pic 6). The implication is that the building of the temple was special and treated with the greatest dignity.
Our next stop was Tabgha where Jesus fed 5000 from only five loaves and two fish. I never noticed until today’s reading that the Gospel says there were about “5000 men besides the women and children.” Hmmm – sounds a little dismissive of the women and children as if they don’t count as significant. We noticed that only four loaves are shown in the mosaic in the Church. Why? Because the fifth loaf is on the altar.
We ended this part of our day’s excursion with a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee (Pic 7). The boat we were in was a larger version of the boat recently uncovered that dated back 2000 years ago. On the ride home, I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that we were walking where Jesus walked, renewing our baptismal vows where He was baptized by John, splashing on the Sea where He walked on the water. Being here, even for someone not religious, is a moving experience. But we’re fortunate to be here with a group with whom we share a common experience of faith and of deeply-held shared values.
If this day wasn’t full enough, in the evening we had another speaker. This time an Arab, Palestinian, Christian, Israeli. You may say to yourself as I did: huh? He was born in Israel; his parents are Palestinians because they were born prior to 1948; he is an Arab; and his family has been Christian since the time of Christ. He is also an Episcopal priest. If any of us think we understand the situation here between Palestine and Israel, how little most of us really know. I can only tell you that being here has dramatically altered my perspective on the situation.
Day 5, May 5, 2017
I’ve been to the mountaintop this morning and have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord! What a magnificent site overlooking the Judean Desert. Leaving Jerusalem, we arrived there in time for sunrise (Pic 1). You may remember that this is the desert where Jesus was tempted for the first time – tempted to turn the rocks into bread. We celebrated Mass there with local people on their donkeys and camels nearby. Afterwards, they wrapped a scarf around Julius’s head (Pic 2).
Heading on to Jericho, we took a cable car up the mountain (Pic 3) and visited the Jericho monastery where monks live in total silence (Pic 4). I had only one year of silence in my days with the Daughters of Charity and even then, we had breaks in our silence. I can’t imagine living one’s entire life this way.
This evening we are in Nazareth and stopped to visit the Church of the Annunciation which is located over the local well where it is believed that the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary. We are staying in a place that was once a convent (Pic 5) and are just a few steps to the Church over the site where Mary lived as a young girl (Pic 6).
Yesterday, back in Jerusalem, I was standing alone in the dining room when a man walked in whom I recognized as the Archbishop of Canterbury. For those of you who don’t know, he is the head of the worldwide Anglican Church. We exchanged a few words and he asked if I was with the Rochester pilgrims. I told him we were from Nevada, that my husband was a retired Episcopal priest at Trinity Cathedral in Reno, Nevada under Bishop Dan Edwards. Today, we ran into him again in the streets of Nazareth and he acknowledged our group. This is not quite like running into Pope Francis but, for an Episcopalian, it is right up there.
Day 4, May 4, 2017
We rose early this morning to get to two places that, by 9:00 AM, have endless lines. The first was the Western Wall, known by many of as the Wailing Wall. Usually there are people lined up halfway back. But as you can see (Pic 1), I was able to stand close to the wall and touch it I stayed for about 20 minutes and asked for guidance for our Catholic Church Reform movement and prayed for my family and friends one by one. I don’t mean to sound like a mystic but I felt an aura around me – a Presence there that was unmistakable.
A little history: When Rome destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E, only one outer wall remained standing. The Romans probably would have destroyed that wall as well but it must have seemed too insignificant to them; it was not even part of the Temple itself, just an outer wall surrounding the Temple Mount. For the Jews, however, this remnant of what was the most sacred building in the Jewish world quickly became the holiest spot in Jewish life. Throughout the centuries, Jews from throughout the world made the difficult pilgrimage here and immediately headed for the Kotel ha-Ma’aravi (the Western Wall) to thank God. The prayers offered at the Kotel were so heartfelt that gentiles began to call it the “Wailing Wall” but this never won a following by traditional Jews. I did see the Jewish women around me bowing, rocking their bodies, and placing their head on the wall while reading prayers in Hebrew. Of course, men and women are segregated at the Wall so I was only with women. (History taken from the Jewish Virtual Library)
From there we walked to the Dome of the Rock which is very close by (Pic 2). It has been difficult for me to get my head around how so many religions consider Jerusalem their sacred place. Jesus was born, died, and resurrected here. Doesn’t that trump everything else? I ask. But not to them. Christians hold sacred their spots, Jews the Wall, and Muslims the Dome. And, after many centuries of warring, they’ve resolved the matter by granting each religious group possession and control of what is most sacred to them. I’ve learned how important it is to respect the traditions of each. To a Jew, we say Shalom. To a Muslim, we say Salaam. To a Christian, we say Peace. All mean the same thing but it is disrespectful to intermix the words. Out of respect, I dressed for the occasion of visiting the Dome on the Rock (Pic 3). It was essential that my head and my body be well-covered. We were allowed to walk around the Dome but not to enter inside. At the risk of sounding airy fairy, I felt the same Presence at the Dome that I felt at the Wall. There is no question in my mind that these are very sacred places.
A little history: The Dome of the Rock (Qubbat as-Sakhrah) is the most famous Islamic site in Jerusalem. An impressive and beautiful edifice, it can be seen from all over Jerusalem (Pic 4). It is the crowning glory of the Haram es-Sharif ("Noble Sanctuary"), or Temple Mount. The Dome of the Rock is not a mosque, but a Muslim shrine. Like the Ka'ba in Mecca, it is built over a sacred stone. This stone is believed to be the place from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven during his Night Journey to heaven. It boasts the oldest surviving mihrab (niche indicating the direction of Mecca) in the world.
Day 3, May 3, 2017
The entire day today has been dedicated to learning about and visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, also known as the Church of the Resurrection. It is reasonably well documented that this is the place where Jesus died and was buried. Nothing represents the divisiveness within Christianity more than this Church. One would expect the central shrine of Christendom to stand out in majestic isolation but anonymous buildings cling to it like barnacles. Outside in the courtyard (Pic 1), it is light. But inside, where one would look for numerous light, it is dark and cramped. One would hope for peace but the ear is assailed by a cacophony of warring chants. One would desire holiness only to encounter a jealous possessiveness. There are six groups who occupy the Church – Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Syrians, Copts, and Ethiopians. If this isn’t enough, yet a representative of another religion is the keeper of the keys to the Church and proudly open the doors each morning and locks them each night. Would you believe this honor is held by a Muslim? They all watch one another suspiciously for any infringement of rights. The frailty of humanity is nowhere more apparent than here. My experience in being in this Church today was unsettling – kind of what it must have been like for Jesus to see the money changers in the temple.
In my new understanding of all of this, I learned that it was Queen Helena, the mother of Constantine, who first made the discovery of the cross on which Jesus died. Not far from there the tomb was discovered – all of this in the 4th century. As I mentioned earlier, the new Jerusalem is built in top of the ancient Jerusalem. The Church, built over the actual place where Jesus died, is mammoth in size. The atrium is over the place where the cross was discovered. The basilica is over what was then Golgatha. And the Rotunda is over the tomb where Jesus was buried. The line to get to the tomb of Jesus was endless midday. Tomorrow we’re leaving here at 5:30 to walk the way of the Cross and cover the fourteen stations. Then we’ll go back to the Church and, at that early hour, visit Jesus’ tomb where he was buried and from where he was resurrected. As the day is dawning, I hope to experience more serenity in the Church that represents the deepest aspect of our faith. Many have tried to take a piece of Calvary home with them by chiseling off a piece of the rock. So now, the rock is encased in glass (Pic 2) At the vigil service on the eve of Easter, Christians gather with torches lit to honor the resurrection of Jesus. We pilgrims reenacted this among ourselves. (Pic 3)
In the afternoon, we visited the Armenian Church of St. Mark which is built over what we know as the “Upper Room” where Jesus had the last supper with his disciples. We listened to an Armenian woman share stories of the miracles that she claims to have personally experienced or witnessed in this setting. Remember that the Jerusalem that Jesus walked was underneath the new Jerusalem, so we walked downstairs to get to the Upper Room (Pic 4). It would have been meaningful if we could have had our meal there but we walked a block away for our midday breaking of bread.
This evening our speaker was an Arab Palestinian Muslim. He identified himself in that order: first an Arab, secondly a Palestinian, and lastly a Muslim. He spoke of many of the issues facing his people today. He discussed the concern about Muslims in the world and pointed out the obvious: extremism in any religion is a bad thing and needs to be curtailed. He felt Muslims in America are more assimilated into society than those in Europe. In Europe far more than America, if you’re not “pure bread European,” you’re treated as an outsider. In America, we’re all immigrants. He referred to the brainwashing of the young Saudi Arabian Muslims who were recruited to fly the planes into the Twin Towers. Regarding the Palestinian Israeli situation, he said that he has never been in favor of a two-state solution. I was stunned to hear a Palestinian say this. But he said there was little hope in the world if the Palestinian people and the Jewish people could not learn to get along. He suggested that each of us raise this million-dollar question to our Congressional leaders: What would happen to non-Jews residing in an all Jewish state? Would they need passports to get into their own country? Or is it possible for both Jews and non-Jews to share equal rights in their own home country? He closed his talk by saying: “Israel is my home and always will be. I have no reason to want to leave my own country.”
May 2, 2017
My fellow pilgrims met outside in the courtyard this morning. (Pic 1). We met our guide, Iyad, who is a local Christian Palestinian. Our morning and evening lectures and our day’s excursions were all in and about Palestine. I am only beginning to understand the political environment here between Israel and Palestine. Situated at a strategic location between Egypt, Syria and Arabia, from their perspective, Jerusalem is the center of the world with Europe and Asia surrounding it on either side to the north and Africa to the south. While the West Bank is a kidney-shaped section carved out as Palestine and the East Bank is Jordan, Israel is the territory in-between. All of this comprises only about 8000 square-feet of land – a very small territory over which to be fighting. Hearing the presentations today from the Palestinian point-of-view was an eye-opener for me. Israelis, with such strong U.S. support and financing, have all the power and Palestinians are forced to live by Israeli rule. As a result of the Israeli-Palestinian long-time feud, Christians are being squeezed out of the Holy Land and have been reduced to a mere 2% of the population. All the rest is either Jewish or Muslim.
We visited Herod’s tomb and palace. Herod, as you may remember, reigned from 37 BC to the time Christ was born (although it is noted as 4 BC). The tomb is currently under archeological exploration. (Pic 2). This is a model of the palace as it was originally built. (Pic 3). Herod truly had a great self-image as is evident from what he built as a tribute to himself.
As we left there and drove to the home of a Palestinian family who were serving us lunch, we passed this sign. (Pic 4) If you can’t read the small print, it says: “This road leads to Area “A” under the Palestinian Authority. The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden. Dangerous to your lives and is against the Israeli law.” The powerful control of the Israelis became more evident to me as we headed up the highway. Our driver, Omar, is a Muslim Palestinian bus driver who has to go into Israel for work on a regular basis. He cannot go to work without his passport and getting approval from Israeli guards.
Our lunch of chicken and potatoes was cooked over an outdoor charcoal oven and the appetizers were humus of various types. The family - mother, father, and children – waited on us hand and foot. They have chosen to leave the area and seek refuge in Houston, Texas.
In the evening, our speaker was Dr. Bernard Sabella, also an Arab Christian Palestinian. He shared with us his personal experience of being a Christian. He said most people can’t conceive of someone from an Arab country being a lifelong Christian. He described a time when an evangelical called on him and asked if he believed in Jesus. Of course, he said yes. “When did you convert?” the man probed. Bernard explained that he had always been a Christian and that his heritage of Christianity goes back 2000 years.. This boggled the man’s mind. So he continued to press him. Finally, to get the man off his back, Bernard said: “Look! Jesus and I are really tight. We grew up in the same neighborhood!”