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I’ve never been good at geometry or geography, but I know enough about both to know that Jerusalem is not technically the center of the world. However, long ago, in ancient times it was believed to have been indeed the center of the world, and geography and geometry aside, many people still refer to Jerusalem as the center of the (religious) world today.
And I can understand why.
The Wailing Wall
Today was very cold.
Very, very cold.
We began our day by heading into the gates of Old Jerusalem on the side of the Western Wall. For most Jews, who were not allowed to enter the site of where the Temple, the Holiest of Holies stood, the wailing wall represented the barrier at which they stopped.
With this being as close as they could get, they would stand up close to the wall and pray. And so it is to this day. 24 hours a day there are people praying at what is commonly referred to as the Wailing Wall.
There were people of all shapes, sizes and colors moving towards the wall. There was a sectioned off area for women, and another (much larger) one for the men. Trying not to judge a place and tradition so foreign to the one(s) I know, I tried to suppress the discomfort I felt with this requirement. It made being asked to wear a yarmulke as I approached the wall no big deal.
Inside the many cracks of the wall are thousands of letters stuffed tight as I’ve ever seen anything stuffed. I’m sure some of them are personal prayers and perhaps some of them are prayers of those unable to make the pilgrimage, carried to the wall by a pilgrim friend.
I certainly was very mindful of all those that asked me to pray for them or “drop them a line” as the case may be. I even learned that the state of Israel has people who watch the internet for those who type in their prayer requests so that they may go stuff their requests in the wall as well.
I thought to myself, what if I started every day as eager to pray for those I know well enough to share my trip to Israel with, but not well enough to have any other reason to pray for them daily. I may need to expand my prayer practice a bit. Even when I am not traveling half way across the world.
We then gathered and walk past a much more technical security check point with x-rays scanners and metal detectors. We were on our way to the Dome of the Rock, the third-most holy Muslim site, built on top of the ruins of the old Jewish temple.
Dome of the Rock
After Jerusalem was conquered by the Turks in the 7th century, the holy site atop the Temple Mount has been considered a Muslim territory. Since the Intifada in 2000, Christians and Jews have not been able to enter the Mosque or Dome and Bibles, Hymnals, Non-Islamic Prayer are not allowed on the grounds outside either. At 10am every morning, all non-Muslim visitors are instructed to leave so that the rituals of the Muslim day are not interfered with.
In many ways, it looked like a very holy site. The architecture, the people, the beauty.
As I looked around at all the beauty, I never had a few without several armed Israeli soldiers. Some of them were in uniform with guns hung around their chest. Some were in plain clothes with guns hung around their chest. And still even others were in plain clothes watching every move made on the premises.
There are places in the world where a scuffle could diffuse itself on its own without the world noticing. This as certainly not one of those places.
That all added to the tension that I felt, maybe that we all felt. What a shame that such a holy place for all three Abrahamic traditions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – thus meaning, we all agree on something – has to be surrounded with such animosity.
Generations, regimes, and centuries worth of wars over the site that we were standing on now. It was perhaps the most surreal moment of my trip. Only time would tell if this land had seen it’s last battle.
I would’ve never figured something so much rock and limestone could be so fragile?
It was hard to leave. But at 10:00 am, it was necessary to leave.
On we went, to the Via Dolorosa.
I was certainly looking forward to this. To what? Well, let’s let Casey Baggott summarize it for you.
Tradition has claimed as few and seven, and as many twenty places along the Via DOlorosa (the Way of Sorrow) to be authentic Stations of the Cross. Many Catholic Churches depict the last, painful walk of Jesus toward Calvary in fourteen paintings or sculptures adorning their sanctuaries, as a remembrance and a prompt to worshippers to reflect on their own walk with Christ. Today we will follow the traditional path of the Via Dolorosa. Let us consider how our life’s walk with Jesus Christ is influenced by his final walk.
What I didn’t realize about this walk, is that though almost every station is marked at a place of worship inside the Old City (the original, wall-surrounded, smaller, denser part of Jerusalem), this walk is not at all isolated. It leads us through the tiny, tiny streets lined with vendors on either side, clamoring, begging, and even insisting on our patronage.
As we began our walk, Bob hit the nail on the head. How true is that as we focus on the purpose and fulfillment of Jesus do we get distracted by consumerism, by greed, and by the clamoring all around us?
It was our task and try to focus. And it was not easy at all.
The streets were packed. Many others were tourists, but most were not. As we walked and reflected vendors would shout out prices and walk along side us telling us about their children and how hard it was to buy the milk that they needed.
It was all we could do to focus on the stations that Jesus passed on his way to fulfilling his purpose.
We walked along the streets, stopping as a group at each station as we took turns reading the prayer of reflection.
The Via Dolorosa Devotion Walk, written by Casey Baggott (parenthesis indicate the contemporary setting of what was the station some 2000 years ago):
1st: Jesus is Condemned to Death (near the Franciscan Biblical School)
Prayer for Reflection: Gentle One, forgive us, for we know not what we do. Foolish and stubborn, we are the sheep you came to save. Good shepherd, we follow in your steps this day, asking that you will lead us on your path, every day of our lives. Amen.
2nd: Jesus Take the Cross (near Ecco Homo Convent)
Prayer for Reflection: You picked up the burden we rightly should carry, Christ. Teach us to carry our own crosses, whatever they might be, with the same courage, stamina, and determination, as we follow you. Amen.
3rd: Jesus Falls for the First Time (near the courtyard of the Armenian Catholic Church
Prayer for Reflection: Weighed down by the great burden you carried, You stumbled and fell, Jesus. We can never take lightly the gift of Yourself, given at so great a cost. Lift us, with You, again and again. Amen.
4th: Jesus Meets His Mother, Mary (near the courtyard of the Armenian Catholic Church)
Prayer for Reflection: O Christ, your mother stood by you through your pain and your death. May we be as committed by our love to you as Mary was. Amen.
5th: Simon Helps Jesus Carry the Cross (on the road)
Prayer for Reflection: God, bleess all those who shoulder burdens not their own. Give your strength to those who give of themselves for others’ sake. Make us, like Simon of Cyrene, a willing helper of Your Son. Amen.
6th: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus (on the road, near the chapel of St. Veronica)
Prayer for Reflection: How many simply rushed past you, Jesus as you struggled with your heavy cross toward your death? How few were willing to stop to offer a cup of water, a towel to wash your tired face? Make us willing to stop on the busy paths of our lives to walk nearer you, Jesus. Let us offer what we can, to ease the way of those you came to love. Amen.
7th: Jesus Falls the Second Time (at a busy intersection in the old city)
Prayer for Reflection: We know our own struggles push us off balance and send us reeling. You have stumbled, too. Strengthen us when our legs give way, and we find we have no support. Help us remember you. Amen.
8th: Jesus Meets the Daughters of Jerusalem (near Aqabat el Khanga)
Prayer for Reflection: As you walked to your death Jesus, you turned to speak to the women who followed you in grief. You warned them of fire, of revolt, of violence and destruction. Teach us these lessons. As your disciples, may we work to bring only peace. Let your great kingdom come. Amen.
9th: Jesus Falls the Third Time (near the chapel of the Ethiopian monks)
Prayer for Reflection: Let us not remain mere spectators in this walk of faith. Let us, though we may be weighed down, step up to lift the load for another. May we share in this holy burden of bearing Christ’s gifts to the world. Amen.
10th: Jesus is Stripped of His Garments (The Chapel of the Divestiture, Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher)
Prayer for Reflection: How thoroughly you were stripped of your place in this world, Christ. How methodically all honor and respect was taken from you. Today may we re-clothe you in the richness of our songs of praise and in the beauty of the love we hold for you. Amen.
11th: Jesus is Nailed to the Cross (the Latin Altar, Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher)
Prayer for Reflection: Nails could not hold you at that cross, Jesus. God’s great love set you free. Let us see the marks in your hands and feet. Remind us that the love you bore for us overcomes everything that binds and constrains us. Amen.
12th: Jesus Dies Upon the Cross (at the Orthodox altar, Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher)
Prayer for Reflection: “It is finished” you said, Jesus, as you commended your spirit to God. A life of such grace and such holiness ended. And some who loved you stood near and watched. Are we willing to stand near you, even when admitting our love of you is tiresome, dangerous, or troublesome? Make us your loyal followers. Amen.
13th: The Body is Taken From the Cross (at the place of the red stone and the mosaic depiction, the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher)
Prayer for Reflection: Those who cared for you came to take you away, and laid you in a borrowed grave, Jesus. You had nothing to call your own, not even your own tomb. How dark it must have been when the tomb was sealed. But your light came into the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it! Help us perceive the brilliance of your love, lighting the paths before us, Amen.
14th: Jesus Rises to New Life (under the altar in the second chamber, Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher)
Prayer for Reflection: No tomb contains the Love of God. No pall shadows the Light of Life. He is risen! He is risen, indeed! Hallelujah! The whole earth is full of his glory! Amen.
We all met outside the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher at noon as the bells of the churches tolled loudly in the courtyard drowning out (perhaps intentionally?) the Islamic call to Prayer being played in this city. Never a dull moment in this place…
Garden of Gethsemane
After lunch, it began to rain. It was so bitter cold and windy by the time we reached the top of the Mount of Olives, we were certain we felt a little bit of sleet/snow/slush that was no longer just rain.
We descended down the mountain, looking out over the walk that takes the step of Jesus’ Palm Sunday Processional (it was way too slick and rainy for that!) and went to the Garden of Gethsemane.
“Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?” (Matthew 26:36-40)
At the foot of the Mount of Olives is the area known as the Garden of Gethsemane (from the Hebrew word for oil-press). Here Jesus, after eating the Last Supper with his disciples, is said to have experienced the agony of solitary, searching prayer, shortly before his arrest. Today the splendid Church of All Nations commemorates this lonely event with a building that draws people from across the globe. (Who Else? Casey Baggot)
The Church is very dark, very little lighting illuminates the building purposely acknowledging the darkness, literally and otherwise of the betrayal in this garden.
For the first time in Bob’s 23 trips to Israel, we were permitted on the altar to gather around the Stone of Agony to sing a hymn and pray. The church was empty.
Yet another part of our trip perfectly on cue, at our last verse, the church began to fill up again, and we were on our way back to the bus.
First, we walked through the garden of olive trees much bigger than any other we had seen. Some of these trees were dated to be at least 2,000 years old. Could they have provided the canopy for our savior as he searched above and within for answers and strength? Either way, they couldn’t have been too far away.
If I remember correctly about trees, perhaps the carbon dioxide, the breath of the man who changed the world helped develop and sustain these trees. Though their was wind and icy rain, I certainly felt renewed by the breath of the spirit as well.
To Hell and Back
We stopped near Mount Zion to look out over the city again. As we did so, Ronen explained alot about the city walls that we could see and what had been revealed in excavations.
After that, Casey pointed out to an area called Gehenna. Gehenna was the first word in the Bible to later be translated into the word “hell”. It was a valley just outside the Jerusalem walls where trash used to be dumped and there are even references to fire sweeping through to destroy anything in Gehenna. Thus, when it was threatened that someone would be thrown into the fires of Gehenna (now translated “the fires of hell” this valley was what they were referring to.
Many people have told me that I was going to go to hell…
Jokes on them. Cuz I’ve been. And I’m back, baby!
A Miracle in the Upper Room
“Down a narrow alley, past arched doorways, up a flight of steps we come to an open room with a magnificent heritage. Though this room was constructed by the Franciscans in the the 14th century, it is said to stand on the site of the original Upper Room where Jesus gathered his disciples for the Last Supper.” (CB)
It was almost too cold and rainy to get off the bus, but because our forecast for tomorrow looks about the same we pressed on.
This was what I always expected to be the highlight of my trip.
You see, Maundy Thursday is my favorite Christian Holiday. I enjoy Easter, I do, please don’t get me wrong.
But for me, Jesus’ fulfillment of his calling begins on Maundy Thursday when faced with one last opportunity to take the way that nobody could’ve blamed him for taking, Jesus gathers his friends and tells them, to their surprise, I’m sure, that he must complete the task he’d been sent to do.
It’s one thing to plan to leave, I’d imagine it’s much harder to leave when you see the devastated faces of your twelve best friends.
My mentor, Drew, and I have a tradition. Every Maundy Thursday we call each other and talk for sometimes hours about Jesus choice. The humility he showed in the face of those mocking him and spitting at him. The grace he showed in praying for their forgiveness. And the courage shown, choosing the path of most resistance, because love… had… to… win.
Drew has given me so much of who I am today. And I would give the world to him in return. When I told him I was coming to Israel, I told him I would go wherever to get whatever he wanted. “Just soak it in, brother.” he told me. “But there is one thing. Now, I don’t want you to deface anything, but if there is anything, ANYTHING – a rock, a stone, a pebble – in the Upper Room, I would cherish something that has been in that spot.”
I had one mission to fulfill my entire trip, and there was only one person on my heart as we entered the Upper Room.
There must’ve been about 50 people in the room with us, two or three other tour groups. The echo was so loud it was hard to make sense of anything. As my group sat down to read our devotions, I continued to scour the room.
There was nothing.
Though there who two cats in the room that had straggled in to save themselves from the cold, they seemed indifferent to my search.
That’s cats for ya, eh?
I ran my fingers over the floor. In the low light of the room, it was hard to differentiate between what could be pebbles and what actually were dust bunnies.
My heart began to race, I could NOT go home empty-handed. It’s the one thing he asked me for! I needed something. ANYTHING.
As the rest of the groups had cleared out, our group began to sing hymns from our devotion book. Not me, though. I kept searching. Having scoured the floor, I ran my fingers along the edge of the floor and the back wall, hoping for a miracle.
I kid you not, as I ran my finger no more than four feet, all of a sudden, a stone of the edging at the bottom rolled loose. I had used only my index finger (tip, not nail) to make sure that I would not scratch or scuff, this rock had been waiting to roll loose.
I felt such joy! “Wouldn’t it be cool to have one for both of us?” I wondered. I looked within the area I found my rock, and saw/felt nothing more. I reminded myself that the most important part was done, and put the rock in my pocket and headed back to our group. Would I call that a miracle? (Sigh)… Probably not.
As I joined our group, I proudly leaned back, and put my hands in my pocket. Apparently I put my hands in a little too roughly as the rock broke off into two pieces! How’d that happen? One for each of us! Too Cool!
Would I call that a miracle? (Sigh)… Prolly not.
We had the whole room to ourselves, and as long as that was the case, Bob was going to keep calling out hymns.
We wondered if he was pushing it a bit, going back to his Baptist roots with “Softly and Tenderly”:
Softly and Tenderly, Jesus is Calling
Calling for you, and for me.
See on the portals he’s waiting and watching
Watching for you, and for me.
Come home, Come home.
All who are weary, come home.
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling
Calling, “O, sinner, come home.”
Apparently, we had pushed it just a bit too far, as one verse into the song, a large group entered in.
Bob was determined, though, to finish the song, and so we sang the last two verses with him. When we finished, I could’ve sworn Casey had tears in her eyes. Apparently, she looked over and saw the group in the front of the room singing along with us.
I looked over at the group that I later learn would be mostly Indonesians. “Really?” I asked. “I think so.” she said. That’s what it looked like to me.
And then, all doubt was removed.
The crowd began making a noise. In the strong echo of the room, we struggled to make out their sounds. Their words were definitely not English words. Yet, the melody they sang rang in a universal key.
They too, were singing “Softly and Tenderly”, so we joined in with them to sing one final verse together, each in our own language.
We began the day in the cold, icy rain, and the cold icy reality of knowing that we were visitors in an unfamiliar land. We ended our day being reminded of how Great and Big our God really is. Not in the sense that he is only “ours”, but rather, in the sense that though the world is so big we may never see our choirmates again, God is not mine, or theirs, God is ours.
What a better cure for a frigid day than joining in song from others around the world, in the room where Christ called his disciples to continue on, each as if bread broken from his one body, basking in the warmth of God’s love
Would I call that a miracle?
Yeah, I would.
Perhaps it’s even just a relatively small one.
But when God reveals God’s face in a miracle, big or small, I don’t think it really matters.
Shalom until tommorow, friends.