Rector’s Blog Nov 9: Holy Sepulchre Reprise

With the morning free for worship and other adventures of our choosing, Kate and I decided to return to Holy Sepulchre- the site of Jesus’ death as well as his resurrection. We left at 6 am to walk there through the Old City. It is probably not surprising to know that it was less crowded at 6:30 in the morning. I went up to see the site of Jesus’ crucifixion again, and this time got to see the tomb where his body was laid. It is a cave you have to stoop to get into, and despite the monk assigned to crowd control (getting people in and out as fast as possible) I have to say it was a really cool place to be. This site is very likely the actual site of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and it easier being there this second time to feel some of the awe and mystery of that.

The other site we visited today is the Pool of Bethesda, the place where Jesus healed a man who had been an invalid for thirty eight years. The pool was in disuse for about for almost eight hundred years, until it was rediscovered when the French were gifted the land by the Ottomans after the Crimean War. They eventually did excavations and rediscovered the pool.

On the same site, next to the pool, the White Fathers (French monastics) claim to be the place of the Virgin Mary ‘s birth; around the corner the Greek Orthodox Church makes the exact same claim. Go figure. It doesn’t really matter to me, because the best thing about the Crusader era stone church next to the pool is the perfect acoustics. Our Maori contingent sang the Lord’s prayer, which was beautiful, and then the whole group sang a couple of hymns. Because that is what pilgrims do in this church: gather in the center and sing, listening to the perfect resonance of those prayers in the air. It was glorious.

The pool area was also a highlight. It is ruins, and you can see the remains of a Crusader era church that was built over a Byzantine era church. You can also see the steps and platforms of the original pool and it is easy to picture Jesus’ encounter with invalid. “Do you want to be made well?” Jesus asks him. When he says yes, he is healed. Being there was a very powerful experience.

Tomorrow we will spend the day in Nazareth, about a two hour drive north into Galilee. I can’t wait.

Rector’s Blog Nov 8: Jericho and the Jordan

Today we were back in the West Bank, to Jericho. This is the place Rahab the prostitute saved Joshua’s spies (remember that, The Story alumns?), the prophet Elijah was taken to heaven, and perhaps most famously for Christians, Jesus set the parable of the Good Samaritan. On the way we made a quick stop at the sycamore tree of the Zaccheus story. It is one of the few remaining sycamore figs in the country. I thought of my colleague in ministry Terry Doyle, as Zaccheus is among his favorite stories. The tree is huge with plenty of branches to climb on for one to get a better view. I also learned that Jericho is eight thousand years old. It has more rainfall than other parts of the country and a natural spring, so it is very green, especially compared with the desert area around it.

We also went to the Judean wilderness- the desert place where the gospels report Jesus spent forty days and was tempted by the adversary. After seeing it and spending time there, my hope is that the gospel writers meant ‘for some length of time’ and not a literal forty days. It is a vast and even desolate place. Beautiful in its way though. For some reason I picture desert as flat, and this is a series of significant hills as far as the eye can see.

Our class reflections this morning before the trip also spoke of the wilderness as a place of solitude and searching, prayer and preparation, a place of losing and of finding, and a place of formation. I imagine how all of these apply to Jesus and the time he spent there after his baptism before he started his public ministry, and that the wilderness was a place that contributed to the formation of Jesus’ identity.

Another thing I learned today, this from my Maori classmates, is that in their tradition, instead of a last name, one gives the river, mountain or sea closest to where you live.

Which brings me to the first place we went today: the Jordan River. The place Jesus was baptized. I knew that it is muddy and not very wide in its current incarnation, but the picture in my head was not like this. First of all, the other side of the river is the country of Jordan. Which is a weak-armed stone’s throw away, though no one would throw any. The armed Jordanian soldiers on the other side would discourage even the thought. This is because the Jordan River is a border between Israel and Jordan, which never clicked with me before.

So we stood at the river and renewed our baptismal vows. Others at the site wore white robes and dunked in the water. Many of us in our group waded in the higher-than-knee-level water just to be in the water Jesus stood in. It was pleasantly cold. And the whole experience was incredibly meaningful; I couldn’t stop smiling. It was easy to picture John the Baptist and Jesus there.

One discordant note was that the approach to this place is a demilitarized zone. So besides the armed soldiers, there are signs for land mines in either side of the (very safe) roadway. The mines are the product of the 1967 war. As they remind anyone who comes here, this country is a place of contradictions and paradox, all the time.

Rector’s Blog Nov 7 Part 2: The Wall

My reflections today are really about the reality of being in such a divided country. We were in Bethlehem today, which means crossing a checkpoint and entering the West Bank. We got our first look at the wall today- not the walls of the Old City, but the wall that Israel built to separate Israel from Palestine. Israel calls it a “security wall;” Palestinians call it the “apartheid wall” or “discrimination wall.” The word that came to me was abomination. I imagine this wall to be a heartbreak to God. And yet I don’t live here, and observing all of this as an outsider- a Christian outsider- is confusing at best. The book of prayers I am using while I am here is called Daily Prayers for All Seasons and the end of day service has St. Francis’ as its final prayer. I’ll end with this: “Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love. Where there is injury, let us sow pardon. Where there is despair, let us sow hope.”

Rector’s Blog Nov 7 Part 1: Christmas in November

People of St. George’s, I have a confession to make: I sang two Christmas hymns today. Yes, you read that right.

I better start at the beginning. This morning we went to Ein Kerem, the town that has the Church of the Visitation and the Church of John the Baptist. Visitation refers to the place commemorating Mary’s visit to Elizabeth in the Judean hill country, after Mary found out she was pregnant. On these big tiles outside the church the Magnificat is written in any number of different languages. We read it in English in the presence of other groups reading it in other languages.
The church of John the Baptist is the site that celebrates John’s birth. The Song of Zechariah is written on tiles outside of that one, again in many languages. My favorite part of that church was a very cool icon of John the Baptist. He’s frankly never been my favorite, but I loved this particular icon.
We couldn’t get to the Field of the Shepherds, which celebrates the angels appearing to the shepherds in the birth story from Luke. We did though get to Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It reports to be the cave Jesus was born in and the stone manger he was laid in. That place was a mob of people; our guide said there were 2-3 times as many people as he had ever seen at that site. We saw Byzantine mosaics, then waited in the very very long line to get down to the cave.
Like Holy Sepulchre, it is the Greek Orthodox, Franciscans, and Armenians who have the rights to the place. Practically what this means is that the roof hasn ‘t been repaired for 700 years. Apparently the groups can ‘t agree with each other about much of anything. Just six months ago – after 700 years- they finally started roof repairs. So we saw a lot of scaffolding.

After a ling wait and a very brief moment in the cave area as they were closing the church and shooing people out, our group gathered in the courtyard to read the scripture accounts of Jesus’ birth. This is when we sang O Little Town of Bethlehem and Silent Night. The best thing about that? The next time I sing them it will be Christmas Eve, and I will remember being in Bethlehem at the place of our Savior’s birth.

Rector’s Blog Nov 6 Part 2: Holy Sepulchre

After we left Beit Abraham on the bus, we were dropped off by Damascus gate and walked the Old City to the place of the crucifixion and resurrection. The main street has been around since 135 CE, built by the emperor Hadrian. The street is very narrow, covered, and lined with shops. But there was almost nobody on the street and most of the shops were closed, likely in protest/solidarity after yesterday’s violence.

Anyway, the church is one of the holiest sites in all of Christianity. The guidebook though said basically prepare to be disappointed. The place is wildly muddled architecturally. It was built in the 4th century, destroyed in 1099, and rebuilt by Crusaders. There are ladders everywhere because of restrictive rules about who can touch what, and six different Christian groups who have rights there, three of whom are in charge. We saw and heard chanting Franciscans and Ethiopian monks. My impression is that it’s a mess, not physically but in every other way. Let’s just say that it wasn’t spiritually moving. It’s clear that access to this holy site for regular people is not important, which is very different than it was in the 4th century. Not that I’m sorry we went there. It has been the tradition since the beginning for Christian pilgrims to go to the Sepulchre when they first get to Jerusalem, and it is cool to be in that same tradition. It has been a very interesting day, all part of the whole Jerusalem experience. And tomorrow we go to the place of the Visitation, and John the Baptist, and Bethlehem.

Rector’s Blog Nov 6 Part 1: Landscape

Today we went to Beit Abraham, which gives an amazing view of the city from the east. Standing on this rooftop we could see, from left to right: Jordan, out in the distance. The Mount of Olives, where Jesus went after the Last Supper, and also the place of the Ascension. Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed before his arrest. Then, the Old City. We got a great view of the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary, built on the site of the Second Temple that was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. North of that is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, traditional site of the crucifixion, the tomb Jesus was laid in, and the Resurrection. West of that, outside of the current walls (which have moved many times over hundreds of years) were the site of the Last Supper, the place Pilate condemned Jesus, and ancient Jerusalem, which is called City of David. West of there is Gehenna (early hell) which was likely the city dump of burning trash.

It was truly moving to gaze on these real places where the human Jesus lived and walked and died and rose. I can see why this city is called holy. It was also sad, because of the conflict and the reality of the divisions among Palestinians and Jews. It’s unlikely we will get to go to the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary because of the current violence.

Rector’s Blog Nov 6: Opening

Opening Eucharist was in the Cathedral yesterday. The Very Rev. Graham Smith, Dean of the College, preached. Two things in particular stayed with me. One is that pilgrimage, which is what we are doing, means unlearning what we thought we knew but really didn’t. Of course pilgrimage is about learning things also, but there is an aspect of letting go of some things.
The other thing the Dean said is that we must remember that being here for a couple of weeks doesn’t make any of us an expert on the conflict in this land and of its peoples. There is a joke that after being in Jerusalem two weeks, people think they can go home and write a book. After six weeks here, they go home and write an article. And after a year here, they don’t write anything because they realize they don’t know enough – they don’t know any more than they did when they arrived. Wise words, I thought.
Another thing that made an impression on me was a line from the Eucharistic prayer. There is a part that goes, “You sent Jesus to be born in Bethlehem, and here in Jerusalem he died on a cross.” Here in Jerusalem. I found myself very moved, just knowing that I am here, in Jerusalem, as Jesus was.

So the last of our group arrived yesterday, 12 people from St. James Episcopal Church in Richmond. We are now at our total of 31 students. As expected, it is a mix of lay people and clergy. We had our introductory group gathering, most notable for the New Zealanders standing up at the end and singing a blessing in Maori.

Today is a lot of class time, followed by a trip to the Tomb of the Holy Sepulchre. That is the church built on the spot Jesus’ body was laid after it was taken down from the cross. I look forward to sharing my impressions.

Rector’s Blog Nov 5: First Day

The opening ceremonies, which include Eucharist and reception, gathering followed by dinner and orientation all start shortly. There have been other class members arriving last night and today. So far I have met a guy from Kansas, a couple from Colorado, and a woman from Holy Trinity, Bowie. Go figure. Plus there are about a dozen people who are Maoris from New Zealand. It will be fun to meet the rest of my fellow students later.

Unfortunately there has been another incidence of violence in the city and more tension at the Temple Mount. The psalmists’ words “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” are sadly as relevant as they ever have been.

Rector’s Blog Nov 4: Arrival

I’m in Israel! It took a long time to get here, but my friend and colleague Kate Ekrem and I landed in Tel Aviv at about 6 pm local time and shortly thereafter were in a taxi hurtling towards Jerusalem. The taxi driver was playing a techno version of Madonna’s Like a Prayer. I appreciated the irony. We arrived at St. George’s, the Anglican Cathedral, to be welcomed by their staff. Kate and I ventured out to a local place for some really good fattoush, if that is how you spell it. The Cathedral is in East Jerusalem, north of Damascus Gate and Herod’s Gate in the wall of the Old City.
Tomorrow afternoon we have opening ceremonies, so to speak. We have a tip from Michael Billingsley, the chaplain, about where to get really good felafel for lunch tomorrow. Looking forward to venturing out into the city during daylight!
My wondering tonight: besides the Temple, where did Jesus spend time when he was in Jerusalem? Maybe we will be walking the same ground he did.