Rector’s Blog Nov. 19: The Way of the Cross, to Emmaus

It has been a very full and very rich day. Early this morning we left on foot for the Old City and the traditional route of the Via Dolorosa- the Way of the Cross. I did not grow up with the Stations of the Cross and have done it only a handful of times. But doing it here, in Jerusalem, at the end of this class, in this context and with this group of people, I really got it. It was meaningful to me in a way it never has been before.

The last four stations are actually meant to be done in Holy Sepulchre church, but no Protestants are among the groups allowed to do liturgy there (Armenian, Syrian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Greek Orthodox, Catholic, for those of you keeping track at home). Anyone can go there and pray there as an individual, but only those groups can do liturgy there. So we did the final stations on the roof. The day was beautiful and so was the experience.

We went to Emmaus afterwards to celebrate the resurrection and have our final Eucharist together. We also had opportunity for small group reflection. Using imagery from the story of loaves and fishes on the one hand, and recognizing Jesus on the Emmaus road on the other, Rodney posed two questions. One, what has multiplied for each of us over the course of this class – what do we have more of? And two, what have we recognized during this experience? It was so meaningful to sit with these friends and talk about the depth of our learnings over our time together. Then breaking bread and sharing wine in Holy Communion overlooking the valley of Emmaus was absolutely lovely.

It is hard to believe that it is over and that tomorrow I am heading home. I can’t wait to see Emma and Keelyn, but it is also sad to leave this place. I have so loved being in Jerusalem; I have felt a deep sense of peace, contentment and grounding walking the streets of this city, even though it is not a place of peace.

My reflections and learnings will continue to bear fruit, this I know. I am so grateful to have had this opportunity. Please pray for me as I enter into the long journey home tomorrow.

Rector’s Blog Nov. 18: Jesus Weeping

Today was a remarkably full day. We are marking Holy Week today and tomorrow, with some exception for geography. So off we went to the Mount of Olives early this morning. Our first stop was the Chapel of the Ascension, one of the exceptions to our Holy Week day. It was suggested that we could we look at this event of Jesus ascending into heaven after his resurrection is as a completion, a completion of the Incarnation. One thing we learned is that the early church marked the Ascension by going to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, then going to the place of the Ascension, where we were today.

Bethphage is the place Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem began, and that was also a place we were this morning. One thing that is kind of amusing about this site is the Crusader-era stone that purports to be the rock Jesus stood in to mount the donkey he rode into the city. The stone is huge. They apparently were thinking war horse rather than donkey, not surprising considering it was Crusaders. In our reflections our course director Rodney pointed out that this is the moment that Jesus still had choices, whether to go into Jerusalem or not. Of course, we know what Jesus chose, and how it turned out.

Our next stop was a church partway down the Mount of Olives called Dominus Flevit, or the Lord Wept. There are two passages from Luke we read, one the more familiar lament Jesus makes over Jerusalem. He talks about himself as a hen gathering her chicks under her wings. The second passage is one we never hear and I don’t recall studying. It is Luke 19:41-44 and comes immediately after the Luke Palm Sunday reading. It starts, “As Jesus came near and saw the city, he wept over it…”

We finished the morning by going to the Gethsemane church, where tradition puts Jesus praying in the garden while his disciples sleep on Thursday night after the Last Supper. We may think about this as a place apart, but geographically Jesus would have been praying right outside the walls of the city at the foot of the Temple- in the shadow of the power structure that was responsible for his arrest and put in motion the events of his death.

In the afternoon we both heard about the latest violence in Jerusalem and made our way to the place of the Upper Room, where tradition has the Last Supper take place. This area is up on the western hill outside of the city walls (it was inside the walls in Jesus’ time) and was the center of the New Testament church. The same place has been venerated from early on as the place Mary died (fell asleep??) and the place of Pentecost. The Upper Room site is now gothic 14th century decoration that was once a mosque, all built over the earlier site.

Our final stop was down the hill a bit from the western ridge, at a church called St. Peter Gallicantu. That means something like “song of the rooster” and there are a lot of rooster icons, referencing Peter’s denial of Jesus before the cock crowed. Tradition also puts this place as the site of Caiphas’ palace, the chief priest who turned Jesus over to Pilate. About Peter, I think it would be hard to have this place commemorating what was clearly the worst moment of his life. There was some very moving imagery of Peter weeping in the courtyard.

This place is on the hillside and has stunning views of Jerusalem from the west, not far from the Old City walls. Six people died in the city today and there is a lot of tension here and the threat of more violence. All I could think of, looking at the city from where we were, is that it is another vantage point from which to weep over Jerusalem.

Rector’s Blog Nov. 17: Temple Mount and Lazarus

We had a little free time this morning before the lecture and a few of us made the trip to the Temple Mount, or as Muslims call it, the Noble Sanctuary. This is the holiest of holy places in both traditions, as it is where the Temple was until it was destroyed in 70 CE. It is now the place where the Dome of the Rock and Al-Asqa Mosque are. Unfortunately it is also the place of a lot of the current tension in Jerusalem.

Our class was supposed to go there last week, but there was an incident just as we arrived and we didn’t end up going as part of St. George’s. However, we could go on our own, so that is what a small group of us did. Security is tight to get up to the Temple Mount, and there were many heavily armed soldiers. When we finally got there…wow. It had so much meaning to me, knowing how important this place was to our spiritual ancestors, and knowing how central a role the Temple played in Jesus’ life and death. I found it very powerful to be there, to walk around, to picture Jesus there. Several parables that we have heard in the lectionary this fall are ones Jesus told at the Temple the last week of his life. Also, the Dome of the Rock is stunningly beautiful, and it was something to look out at the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, where we will be tomorrow.

The afternoon trip was to Bethany, or in the Arabic, Azarya (meaning Lazarus). The trip from Jerusalem to Bethany is two miles, just as the gospels say. But because of the wall of separation it is a 17 mile trip by a circuitous route, through the checkpoint, into the West Bank and finally to Bethany.

This is the place where an unnamed woman anointed Jesus (see Mark 14). It is also the town of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. There is no site or church that commemorates the anointing, but we read the scripture and remembered her as Jesus suggested. We also read the story of the raising of Lazarus. The church there is built over what is thought to be Lazarus’ tomb. You can go down steep stone steps and slither through a narrow opening in the rock (it feels birth canal-like) into the tomb area itself. It is pretty cool. And another “Jesus was here” moment, which I have appreciated throughout the course.

Big day tomorrow, as we immerse ourselves in the stories and places of Holy Week, starting first thing with Bethphage and Jesus’ entry in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

Rector’s Blog Nov. 16: The Galilee and Philippi

We started the day by going to the Mount of the Beatitudes, commemorating Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount. This of course is the heart of Jesus’ teaching. Rodney our course director suggested that we think about Jesus sharing these teachings not just this one time but throughout his ministry. This makes a lot of sense to me though it hadn’t occurred to me before. This was Jesus ‘ central teaching, and he would have wanted to share it with the people he encountered, not just in Capernaum but other places as well.

We then left the upper Galilee for the Golan Heights area and on to Caesarea Philippi, or as it is known today, Banias. This name is due to there being a temple to Pan there. When the name was translated to Arabic the p became a b. There is no p sound in Arabic. You can see the remains of the temple to Pan, including where the sacred goats danced. I am not making this up. There was also a goat columbarium where the remains of the sacred goats were buried. I guess this is what happens when your god is half goat.

More to the point, Caesarea Philippi is where Jesus asked the disciples,”Who do you say I am?” and where Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” It is also the place tradition says the woman with the hemorrhage whom Jesus healed was from. And it is the place where the springs of Hermon come together with two other springs to become the upper part of the Jordan River. In other words, there are a number of reasons for this area to have particular meaning for Christians.

Our last stop of the day was back in Galilee. We went up to the top of Mount Tabor, which is thought to be the place of the Transfiguration. It is a long way up, and the views of Galilee from one side and the Jezreel Valley on the other were stunning. From this point on, the gospels report that Jesus “set his face towards Jerusalem.” He left Galilee and headed south towards the city. I found myself wondering whether it was hard for Jesus to leave this place- the beauty, the landscape, his home base- knowing that he might not return. I wonder what was going through his mind as he left.

As our class begins our last few days together we also shift our focus back towards Jerusalem. Tomorrow we start to think about Holy Week. We will be heading to Bethphage and Bethany, where the raising of Lazarus took place and where Jesus entered the city on Palm Sunday.

Rector’s Blog Nov. 15: Loaves, Fishes, and the Sea

This morning we had just left for Caesarea Philippi when we came upon a bike race that had closed the road. The college staff had told us the first day that being in Israel requires flexibility, as you never know when a road will be closed or a holy site will be inaccessible. We had to turn around and head back to the guesthouse for a bit of free time. Kate and I went swimming, mostly just to say that we have been swimming in the Sea of Galilee. I also got some time to sit on the rocks by the water and do some reflecting on being in this place where Jesus did most of his ministry. I am looking forward to reading the gospel with new eyes, having been to these places that were only names before.

We had lunch in Migdal, also known as Magdala (where Mary Magdalene was from). Fun fact: the town of Magdala means “tower of fish” and refers to the drying process used to preserve the fish caught there.

This afternoon we went on a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, which was lovely. The light in the cliffs on the shore was spectacular. Our scripture was the story of Jesus stilling the storm. I am still thinking about the last line, spoken by the disciples: “What sort of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

The day closed with Eucharist in a beautiful outdoor chapel space with the water in the background. Sharing bread and wine with my fellow pilgrims in this place had a particular resonance. It was one of those times when it is easy to feel close to God. I feel very blessed that there have been a number of those on this trip.

Rector’s Blog Nov 14: The Sea of Galilee

I have come down with a cold these past couple of days and am not feeling 100%. Which hasn’t completely stopped me from enjoying the day. This morning we left early for the Sea of Galilee, which is a couple hours from Jerusalem. Fun fact, it is really a fresh water lake. We have been to Capernaum and Bethsaida today, which are respectively the second and third most referenced places in the New Testament after Jerusalem.

Together with a place called Corozin, Capernaum and Bethsaida make up what is called the ‘gospel triangle.’ This was the heart of where Jesus did his ministry. It wasn’t to urban areas, but towns and villages, a number of which are in the area I am in now.

We spent some time in Capernaum, hearing scripture about healings such as Jairus’ daughter and the Centurion’s servant. They have discovered a first-century village there, which could be the place of Peter’s mother in law, who is also healed by Jesus. There are remains of a synagogue there as well, that was built on the site of a first century synagogue. This is a place would have been where Jesus did a lot of teaching.

We were also in Bethsaida, where Andrew, Philip and Peter were from. “Bethsaida” means “house of fish.” They were fishermen, so this makes sense. Bethsaida is where at least one of the tellings of the loaves and fishes story is set, so we read and remembered that story as we ate our lunch at a park overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

Finally, we went to Kursi, the site commemorating the story of Jesus healing a man with demons and sending them into a herd of swine. There are remains of a Byzantine monastery there. The views of the lake are absolutely beautiful from that spot. We did some reflecting on Jesus going from Capernaum to Kursi, literally the other side of the lake, and what it means for Jesus to encounter the other.

Then we got to the guesthouse we are staying in until Sunday, which is run by German Benedictines. Kate and I walked over to the church for Vespers, which was lovely. Chanting monks transcend language, so even though we couldn’t understand the words we could get the gist of the service.

Tomorrow we are going to Caesarea Philippi, which is where Peter names Jesus as the Christ.

Rector’s Blog Nov. 13: The Old City

This was a wonderful day. We had a free afternoon in the city and Kate and I, along with classmate Barry from Kansas, did the Ramparts Walk. The walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, which date back as far as 2,000 years ago, were built as a defensive wall. You can walk along the top of them around half of the city or so. That is what we did: got wonderful views of Jerusalem up close and far off, from seeing the laundry people hang to dry on their rooftops to seeing things from a distance like the Mount of Olives, where Jesus and the disciples went after the Last Supper. It was really something. We also got to walk through the Old City again, which is full of narrow streets surrounded by shops and is its own wonderful experience.

But the real pilgrim part of the day came this morning. We went down to the southern steps of the Temple site. It is a place where there have been a lot of excavations, so you can see things like the stones left when the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE, on the way that was the old market . It was not hard to picture the money changers there or the place to buy your animals for sacrifice. As our group gathered for scripture and reflection, I got to read Psalm 122. It is called a ‘psalm of ascent,’ meaning ascent to the Temple- which used to be up the steps where I stood today.

“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’ Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.” Today I got to stand within Jerusalem’s gates and experience God’s presence there. It was incredibly powerful. I will never read this psalm the same way again. Not to mention that we know Jesus stood on these very steps, which continues to move me enormously.

When we left the southern steps we went to the Western Wall. It is also known as the Wailing Wall, traditionally the place Jews went to lament the destruction of the Temple. Today there was a lot of singing and dancing, as it was a bar mitzvah day. I saw a number of thirteen year old boys being celebrated. No girls though, and the wall separating the men from the women and all of the implications of such separation are worthy of their own commentary.

But the reason most people go to the Western Wall is to pray. I did not expect to be as moved as I was to stand at this place, the Western Wall of what used to be the Temple. The tradition is that you write prayers and put them in the indentations of the Wall. I prayed for my dad especially. Putting my hands (and my prayer beads) on this rock that millions of hands have touched was a remarkable experience.

We have had such full days that it is hard to believe that there is more. But there is- tomorrow we leave for Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee. This is where the heart of Jesus’ ministry took place. We will be there for a couple of days and I will have lots to report.

Rector’s Blog Nov 12: The Dead Sea Trip

So today was less about being a pilgrim than it was about seeing the sights one shouldn ‘t miss on a trip to Israel. These were Masada, Qumran, and the Dead Sea.

First stop and where we spent our morning was Masada. This is the second most visited place in Israel, after Jerusalem. King Herod the great had one of his dozen palaces there, and you can see the remains. It was a lavish place, with various pools, remarkable water system , places for soldiers’ quarters, luxurious living space for Herod and his nine wives, and a lot more.

It is on the top of a huge rock that rises out of the desert and was a strategic place because it was easy to defend. You can see anyone coming from far away and be prepared to keep them from entering.

But the real reason Masada has a place in the national lore is that it was the place Jewish rebels fled to in the time of the destruction of the Temple. The Romans were crushing the uprising by hunting down and killing the rebels, who stayed in Masada in hopes of surviving. Long story short, the Romans brought 10,000 troops and 10,000 slaves to build a ramp and battering ram up to the top and eventually overtook the 1,000 Jewish revolutionaries. The story goes that when the Romans got in to the fortress, everyone was dead- choosing death over slavery to the Romans. They are looked on as heroes and inspiration in Israel’s quest for freedom.

Next up we went to Qumran and saw the site of the community of the Essenes who lived there. This was a male, likely celibate group of religious fanatics who were preparing for the end time by living an ascetic religious life in community. It is theorized that John the Baptist might have been part of the Essene community before he started foretelling the Messiah. At any rate, the Essenes were around for about 200 years, up until 68 in the first century. We know of them because the are the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in 1947. Eleven caves have turned up every book of the bible except Esther, some multiple times. There are scrolls and fragments of scrolls now in the Israel museum. We saw one of the caves they were discovered in.

We ended our day by going to the Dead Sea and having a float. Not a swim, a float. The water is so salty and full of minerals that you go out a little ways, basically sit down on the water … and darn if it doesn ‘t completely hold you up. It was very cool. I was in the water thinking, here I am in the Dead Sea, looking across it to the country of Jordan in the background. Just another day and another adventure in the Holy Land!

Tomorrow we head to the Western/Wailing wall and some more time in Jerusalem. It should be quite an experience.