Thursday, February 27, 2014

Blogging from the Holy Land, Part 6

We got out of the hotel early so that we could be some of the first at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We entered the Old City through the Lion's Gate, or St. Stephen's Gate, and marveled at how much the Old City looks like one would expect an Old City to look.  Except for the scooters, cars, and other little trucks that haul things.  There are lots of stairs, lots of little alleyways, and lots of places to shop.

Our first stop was St. Ann's Church, the traditional home of Mary's family.  It's run by the White Fathers and they even had a small seminary there.  We stopped to listen to the liturgy.
Then we moved on to the Pool of Bethesda, where John says that an angel stirred up the water once per year.  The first person to jump in when the water was stirred would have been healed.  It's history is outlined here, but it's interesting to note that the pool was originally part of the Antonia Fortress, built by Herod for the Roman Guard. It was a pagan place, yet Jesus came there to heal those who needed mercy.
When we left St. Ann's we went to the first two stops on the Via Dolorosa.  The first was the Chapel of Flagellation, where Jesus may have been beaten.  The two stops, the Chapel and Flagellation and the Chapel of Condemnation were in the exact spot of the Antonia Fortress (mentioned above) built in 35 BC by Herod in honor of Marc Antony.  Here's the Chapel of Flagellation:
And the inside of the Chapel of Condemnation:

We finally made it to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but not before lots of other people got in line.  The church is jointly (but not always cooperatively) run by five different groups:  Franciscans, Coptics, and three flavors of Orthodox.  They have such a history of arguing about the joint use of the church that in the 1500s Sultan Suleiman ruled that the Muslims would keep the keys to the church, which they still do to this day.

Helen, mother of Constantine, made it her duty to find out where the holy places in Jerusalem were.  It was she that decided that this particular place was the place where Jesus was crucified, anointed, and buried.  Eventually a church was built on top of these three places to protect them.

We started at the small chapel that holds the rock that supposedly marked the spot where Jesus' head was laid in the tomb.  It's been covered over with a large slab of marble.

 Then we moved on to the Rock of Calvary.  As with the birthplace of Christ, there's a hole in which you can stick your hand to touch the rock.
Finally, the rock where Jesus was anointed.  There were people taking things that they had purchased elsewhere and rubbing them on the rock for a blessing.  Not my thing, but quite lovely anyway.

Blogging from The Holy Land, Part 5.2

After lunch we went for an olive wood shopping spree with the Nissan Brothers, who make their own olive wood carvings by hand.  Having spent far more than I should, we moved on to Shepherd's Field.  We didn't get to poke around much in the archaeological sites, although we peeked in on a few caves where the shepherds might have spent the night with their sheep if they couldn't make it back to the city in time.

Interesting fact:  When the shepherds remained in the caves with their sheep, they would have taken briars and sticks and put them at the front of the cave.  Then they would have positioned their own bodies at the entrance as well, literally making themselves the gate to the sheepfold.  When Jesus says, "I am the gate," that's exactly what he means.

Want to hear something else that will blow your mind?  After Shepherd's Field we went to the Herodium.  Here it is from far away:

The Herodium was Herod's wintering place.  It was over the top with decorations and luxuries, a pool, and a waterworks that would blow your mind.  We walked through those:
But see how it's flat on top?  That's not natural.  Herod actually had slaves to remove the top of the mountain so that he could build his fortress up there, on the highest spot in the Judean mountains.  So when Jesus says, "With faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains," don't you know what the people thought of?  Herod had nothing on them.

We ended our day with a service at St. George's and went to bed!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Blogging from the Holy Land, Part 5.1

I was a little disappointed at breakfast this morning because the spread wasn't as expansive as it had been at the other hotel, but one of the hosts explained that it was Shabbat breakfast: things that could be cooked ahead of time and easily reheated.

Our first stop this morning was the Church of all Nations, also known as the Basilica of the Agony of Christ. It is built next to the Garden of Gethsemane, which translates into "the place where the olives are pressed."  And this is where Jesus came when he was pressed and had no way to avoid what was ahead of him.  The olive trees were gorgeous, and the weather was perfect.  The altar of the church includes a huge stone which commemorates the place in Gethsemane where Jesus might have settled to pray the night before he met with death.

While we were all inside and sitting around the rock, each in our own moments of prayer and contemplation, our teacher, Bob, began reading to us from Luke.  He was standing outside of the church but was reading into our earpieces that became an integral part of our touring experience.

We left the Church of all Nations and went to Bethlehem to the Church of the Nativity.  We had to cross over a Palestinian checkpoint to get in.  We began our journey on the plaza of the church. We knew we would have to wait in line, but may not have been quite prepared for the wait.  The church is jointly owned by three different congregations, a Catholic congregation, an Armenian Orthodox congregation, and a Greek Orthodox congregation.  Each of them was having mass, so we had to wait for those to finish.

Then there was the line.  It funnels into a tiny descent into a grotto where Mary is said to have given birth to Jesus.  The stairs open up into a small room where you can crawl into a tiny space where a star indicates the birthplace.

Then you can see the altar to the Three Wise Men before being ushered back up the stairs into daylight.  Overall it was a bit underwhelming and somewhat aggravating.  But it's all part of the experience I guess.  My favorite part was probably watching a group of four teenagers take selfies, proving that teenagers are, in fact, the same everywhere!

Our next stop was the Church of St. Catherine, connected to the Church of the Nativity, and then to the Chapel of St. Jerome, an underground structure where St. Jerome translated the bible into Latin. There was a Korean congregation celebrating mass while we passed through, and on the way out we saw the tombs of the innocents killed by Herod.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Blogging from the Holy Land, Part 4

This morning we leave the Sea of Galilee.  Very few of us are interested in leaving, and though we believe that our fate in Jerusalem will be more positive than that of Jesus, we still understand why he wouldn't want to go.  Tiberias is a resort town, and we had perfect weather.  The landscape is breathtaking and it lends itself to quietness and a sense of escape.  None of us have actually been to Jerusalem, but we anticipate that it will be quite different.

We started this morning at the baptismal site of Jesus.  There's a kibbutz there that runs the site.  It's quite beautiful.  Many of us filled up water bottles with Jordan River water, and the bishop encouraged all of us to touch the water so that we might remember our baptisms.  We heard other groups cheering those among them who were being baptized, or rebaptized.  It was a happy place.

Our next stop was Jericho.  It hasn't been excavated well, so there's not much to see except the monastery built into the side of the hill nearby.  But Jericho was right next to the Temptation Shops (the wilderness of Jesus' temptation is thought to be nearby), and I bought everyone's Christmas presents with the help of my new best friend Mohammed, who may be the world's best flatterer.

From Old Testament Jericho we went to Herodian Jericho, which proved to be much more of an adventure than any of us bargained for.  While taking pictures on the excavation site, Bishop McAlilly took a pretty serious spill over the side of the ruin and broke two ribs.  More about that in a later reflection.  So that put a damper on the day. 

But it was almost completely redeemed by our visit to the Wadi Qelt, also known as the Jericho Road, upon which a certain man was traveling was he was set upon by thieves while going to Jerusalem.  It's also known as...get this... the Valley of the Shadow of Death.  Bedouins graze their goats and sheep here, and it's also home to St. George's Monastery, built into the side of the mountain.

After we passed through the Valley of the Shadow of Death (phew) we drove into Jerusalem.  Driving into Jerusalem the first time was breathtaking.  Our first stop was the Mount of Olives.  I always assumed that the Mount of Olives was a peak, but it clearly isn't.  We visited the Church of Dominus Flevit (The Lord Wept) which is built in the shape of a teardrop with tear cups on the four roof corners.  It commemorates Jesus' tears when he approached Jerusalem.

We made it to our new hotel!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Blogging from the Holy Land, Day 3

The morning of Day 3 took us to Caesarea Martime on the Mediterranean.  Not only was it sunny and warm with just the right amount of breeze, but we were standing pretty close to where Paul might have set sail for his journeys!

Caesarea Martime was one of Herod's palaces.  And because it wasn't luxurious and expansive enough, he wanted a freshwater pool at his house.  Thus the nine miles of aquaducts constructed for the sole purpose of transporting fresh water to Caesar's house for his pool.  There was also a theater and a hippodrome.

Our next stop was Tel Megiddo.  A tel is a city mound.  In ancient times, when one group would conquer another and damage their infrastructure, the damaged part would be knocked down and something new built on top.  Such is the case with Tel Megiddo.  Specifically, it's made up of 26 different layers of construction and reconstruction.  It's also the site from which we get the name Armageddon, where John tells us that the final battle for earth will take place.  

Why?  Tel Meggido is pretty significant.  It sits above the Jezreel Valley, the largest valley in Israel, and it's on the Via Maris, the route that connects Europe, Africa, and Asia.  So people want it, even though, honestly, it's not that impressively massive or high when compared with other high places around.

You want to hear something crazy?  Backstory:  we know that there were chariots and horses at some point at Tel Megiddo because there are horse troughs and stables.  This is what they've uncovered:
So baby Jesus in a nice wooden crib-esque manger?  Probably not.  In a stone horse trough?  More likely.  Wood wasn't plentiful but stone was.  They wouldn't have wasted their wood on feeding animals when stone was ubiquitous.  Look!  He'd fit just right!

We also walked through the waterworks.  The water supply was outside the city gates, so they needed a way to get water into the city when they were under siege.  Hence, water works!

After lunch we went to Nazareth to visit the Church of the Annunciation, commemorating Gabriel's visit to Mary to tell her that she would be mother to the Messiah.  It was a beautiful church and its eclectic style reminded me of Gaudi.  We entered on the first floor and were able to go down one half flight of stairs to a grotto connected to the caves upon which the church was built.  The grotto recalls Mary's visit from Gabriel.
On the top floor a mass was being held in English, so many of us stayed to hear the end of the priest's sermon.  We didn't catch much, but we did hear the priest say that Mary's response to the angel was not one of resignation, but one of "Bring it on!" (He didn't make that up.  He explained his word study that helped him reach that conclusion.  It was great! Then we went outside the church to see the caves over which the church was built.  And then snacks!
Here are the caves. Nazareth had a population of 150 people.  Small!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Blogging from The Holy Land, Day 2

Let's back up to the end of Day 1.

First, the food.  I've already gained so much weight that my pants aren't going to fit anymore.  There are at least 15 vegetable salads at each meal, and that's before the warm food buffet, the desserts, and whatever special treat is available, like a falafel bar, dessert crepes, etc.

Next, the room.  I would have slept on a board if that was the only horizontal surface I could find.  But it was the cutest little room ever.  Think Pottery Barn meets Sea of Galilee.  Here it is:

Now, day 2...

We took a bus ride to a kibbutz on "the other side" of the Sea of Galilee and from there we took a boat ride on the Sea.  The bishop had asked me at breakfast to read Matthew 4:12-22 before he preached on that same passage.  Halfway through the reading I got a bit overwhelmed.  I was reading about Jesus calling the disciples. And I was on the Sea of Galilee.  The bishop had a wonderful time of teaching, and then we all simply enjoyed the ride.  It was warm and a bit breezy.  We couldn't have asked for better weather.

A funny aside:  As soon as the boat left the dock, the United States National Anthem came blaring over the loudspeaker and the American flag was raised.  We immediately stood because it's reflex, but then we looked around at each other, wondering if anyone else thought this odd.  Apparently this is something that the boat operator does, not something that would be expected or recommended at all.

After the boat ride we moved on to Tabgha.  The Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha is the traditional location of the Feeding of the 5000. This is the rock on which tradition states Jesus blessed the bread given by the young boy.

Then we moved to the Church of Peter's Primacy, just up the street.  Tradition states that this is the place where Jesus revealed himself to the disciples after his resurrection by breakfasting with them on the beach.  Another rock, another place where it is believed that Jesus fed his disciples.  It was here that he called them again to be his disciples.

This particular area of the Sea of Galilee contains warm springs that cause algae to grow, and that algae attracts fish.  The warm springs were not attracting fish, but the sea and the warm pebbles on the beach were inviting us to stay for a long, long time.  

Then we went to Capernaum.  Jesus left his hometown of Nazareth to do his business in Capernaum, which doesn't mean a whole lot to us out of context, but to Jesus' contemporaries it would have been quite significant.  Capernaum was home one of the oldest synagogues in the the world and was on the Via Maris, one of the most important trade routes in the Middle East.  Jesus would have gotten attention in Capernaum that he could have never received in Nazareth.

After that, the Mount of Beatitudes, commemorating Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.  This was a beautiful place to sit and reflect on the location, Jesus' teaching, and his ministry in Galilee.  

Then we hiked down to a place called eremos, which is sometimes translated "lonely place."  On the side of the hill, looking out on the sea, in the quiet, we wondered if that was the place to which Jesus retreated to teach, to pray, and to grieve.  Just below the place where we stopped was a cave that was just about the size that it could hold ten to twelve people.

We reflected on the importance of retreating to a lonely place, and how none of us do it often enough.  Even Jesus needed to get away, and somehow we think we can do it all ourselves.  Of course, I would probably take more time to get away if I had that view too!

Our last stop for the day was Mt. Arbel.  Mt. Arbel is also on the Via Maris, and bandits used to hide in the caves at the top of the mountain to rob the merchants as they came through the mountain pass.  The Roman government eventually stopped them by rappelling down the cliffs and throwing hot oil inside the caves.  

So then we went back to our hotel and had dinner before crashing.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Blogging from The Holy Land

Most of the time I prefer to fly as early in the morning as possible.  There are fewer opportunities for delayed flights, and I just like to be up and out of the house.  Our 2:30pm start to our journey on Monday, however, meant that we would get to Tiberias at dinnertime, with bedtime hot on its heals.  Our first leg was to Charlotte and the second was to JFK.  Both flights were easy and quick, but few of us were prepared for our experience transferring to El Al when we arrived at JFK.  Since we changed planes we had to claim our baggage and then recheck it.  We were let into the El Al ticketing area about ten at a time because there were so many of us, and as soon as the small group that I was traveling with was admitted into the ticketing area, we found out that getting to the actual plane was going to be quite an ordeal.

By the time I got to the ticketing area, at least one person ahead of me had been asked to point out the people in the line that he knew.  Soon enough, one of the people that I was walking with got pulled from the line.  After questioning her extensively, the security agent asked her to pull out everyone in the line that she knew.  Eventually seven of us were waiting in a corner.  This was ostensibly to expedite the process, but several in our group barely made it to the gate by the time boarding started.

Once aboard, all was fine.  I slept a bit, but woke up when many of the passengers got up to move to the back of the plane for prayers.  I was groggy, the cabin was barely lit, and watching the men move quietly back and forth was surreal.  The same thing happened several hours later, and after what seemed like an absolute lifetime, we were on the ground in Tel Aviv.  Baggage claim and Passport Control were a breeze, and soon we were on a bus to Tiberias!