JERUSALEM — On a mild October afternoon, I am sitting in the stone amphitheater in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Through the wildly twisted trunks and green canopies of ancient olive trees, I can see what is surely one of the great views of the world. It is the old city of Jerusalem and the late afternoon sun gives an extra glow to the golden dome of Temple Mount. Beyond the tall stone walls, I can see slender spires topped by crosses that reflect Christendom’s place here.
Jerusalem. At the age of 66, I finally got here. I have sailed on the Sea of Galilee in a boat like one used by the fishermen of Jesus’ day.
I have stood on the Mount of Beatitudes and listened to a friend read verses from Matthew 5. I have seen the place in Bethlehem where Jesus is said to have been born. And I have walked the streets of Jerusalem, encountered its bazaars, visited its places of worship and learned about the enduring conflict that kept me away for so many years.
In October, after a year of planning and dreaming, 41 of us – members and staff of Covenant Presbyterian Church – left Charlotte for a study tour of Israel and Palestine. We would visit all the places associated with Christ, from his birth in Bethlehem, marked by the Church of the Nativity, to his death in Jerusalem, marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
But this was not to be just a historical tour.
You cannot visit the Holy Land, and especially Jerusalem, without encountering the present as well. And a major expression of the present is the continuing conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
We met many people who work every day to try to bridge the deep gap between these opposing forces, and I can tell you they are an inspiring group. Unfortunately, some admitted frankly that the situation was not hopeful. But they said they would keep trying.
Our tour planners and leaders made sure there was plenty of both the past and the present for us to learn about and ponder. The tour cost about $3,500 a person, and covered almost everything.
When the present bumps into the past it is often quite obvious. A modern power plant stands adjacent to a national park containing the archaeological remnants of Caesarea, King Herod’s important harbor on the Mediterranean. Standing on Mount Carmel, we looked at the vast expanse of the Jezreel Valley, an important link between Egypt and Mesopotamia. One moment we were learning about chariots, the next, we were jolted by the sound of a jet fighter plane soaring through the clear blue sky.
An even more obvious expression of the present amid the past is the so-called Separation Wall, which winds for hundreds of miles around the West Bank. About 25 feet tall in places, it’s twice the height of the old Berlin Wall and forbidding.
The wall was put up to halt bombings in Jerusalem. While it apparently has reduced bombings, it has increased the tension for many reasons. (It’s far easier for tourists to pass through the checkpoints than it is for Palestinians.)
Our green and white tour bus had to make only a brief stop while traveling between Bethlehem, in the West Bank, to Jerusalem, a mere five miles. As we moved on, I could see two lanes of cars on my right at a dead stop. The brief pause, however, allowed us time to study the graffiti covering the wall on the Palestine side (the Israeli side was pristine). Among the graffiti, I saw the words, “U.S. Aid,” and it was not meant as a compliment.
Where Jesus walked
The leafy green region of Galilee in northern Israel is the place where Jesus spent most of his life. There, we found his hometown of Nazareth, now a Palestinian city, with its lovely Church of the Annunciation, a Catholic church finished in 1969 and said to be the largest Christian sanctuary in the Middle East. The art collection is wonderful, with a gallery of religious art contributed by nations around the world and a front door depicting events in the life of Christ.
Standing on the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, it is impossible not to be awed by the place where many of the guiding principles of Christian life were pronounced.
It was packed with pilgrims absorbing the meaning of this place, gathered in meditation and enjoying the pleasantness of its intense, colorful landscaping. We heard many languages, which gave the impression of a gathering of many nations united in common purpose. At the Jordan River, we swished our hands in the water. We also observed dozens of white-robed people being baptized as they stood in the shallow water.
Elvis on Galilee
Though called a sea, the Sea of Galilee is more like a large, oval lake, complete with sailboats, water skiers and windsurfers. Our trip at sea was aboard a modern replica of an ancient fishing boat of the first century. The crew welcomed us, sat us down, then raised the Stars and Stripes and played a recording of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I was surprised at this, but even more surprised when the sound of Elvis singing “Amazing Grace” came next.
Christians learn about the birth of Christ as taking place in a simple, humble place, but the Church of the Nativity is about as far removed from that as it could be. This large church in Bethlehem is lavishly decorated with mosaics, columns, gilded ornaments and an intricate set of lamps.
Just below is the Grotto of the Nativity, the place where tradition holds Christ was born. The spot is marked by a silver star on the marble floor within a fireplace-like enclosure. As we stood in respectful silence, I was amazed when a woman stretched herself onto the floor as if to embrace the star, speaking in a language I could not understand.
Though the Church of the Nativity seemed far removed from my vision of the simple life of Christ, another place did not let me down. Late on a Sunday afternoon, about the same time the Covenant congregation gathered for morning worship, we arrived at the Garden of Gethsemane overlooking Jerusalem.
For these moments, the place was ours alone. Quietly and privately, we participated in the sacrament of Holy Communion. It will remain one of the great moments of my life. Sublime. Spiritual. Unforgettable.
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