It’s taken me a while to get my thoughts in order for this final blog post about my recent trip to the Holy Land. Maybe because it was at this point in the journey that I became much less of an observer and much more of a participant.
Our exploration of Jerusalem took the form of following Jesus through the events of the final week of his life beginning at the top of the Mount of Olives, at the place where he sat on the donkey and began his entry into the city. People threw their cloaks on the ground and waved palm branches believing that this young prophet may be the one to rescue them from the hated Romans.
When you are in Jerusalem it is not at all hard to be in the actual places (or at least very close by) in which these events took place. So the Garden of Gethsemane with its 2000 year old olive trees, regardless of the changed surroundings and the inevitable church (very beautiful), IS, to all intents and purposes the Garden of Gethsemane.
I will let the pictures take you through the main places but will just write about the two or three places that impacted me the most.
Some of these were very surprising for me. No doubt others were affected by different places.
I found Gethsemane a very moving place: the idea that Jesus had thrown himself down on the ground somewhere in this garden, in the desperate hope that may be the trauma of the cross could be avoided. Somewhere in this garden though Jesus took the decision for my sake, that “not my will but yours be done”. That Jesus should pray “let this cup pass away from me” and for that prayer to go unanswered never ceases to move me whenever I am tempted to think that Jesus, being the Son of God had it easy and had all his prayers answered.
The second place I found very moving was surprisingly, Dormition Abbey, a church on the site of the first church where Mary and the early disciples met and a church which is today dedicated to remembering Mary’s ‘falling asleep’. Upstairs there were images which you would expect of Mary holding the infant Jesus, but downstairs the beautiful artwork depicted Jesus as an adult holding the fragile body of his mother, returning to take her home to heaven. No doubt, in my mind, there was a whole pile of ‘mother/son’ stuff going on, but sitting quietly beside the sleeping Mary it felt as if I was saying goodbye to a dear friend at a funeral.
The church of Peter’s denial was the third place which affected me deeply. Constructed over the house of the high Priest Caiphas, it is the place where Jesus was brought for trial in the middle of the night having been arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is the courtyard where Peter denied any knowledge of Christ. Below the church we crammed into a pit and heard the words of Psalm 88,
“I am overwhelmed with troubles
and my life draws near to death.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am like one without strength.”
Knowing that this was the place where the harsh ill-treatment of Jesus began I’m sure that most of us were asking ourselves the same question as we walked up the stairs from that level into the church: “given the fearful treatment being meted out to Jesus, would I, like Peter, have also denied him?”
After service of Holy Communion in the chapel above the pit it was deeply heartening to see this message in many many languages around the door through which we left.
Finally, I was very much moved by the experience of visiting the Wailing Wall.
This is the ‘Holy of Holies’ for the Jewish people, the last remaining part of the second Temple which was destroyed 70 years after Jesus. I was moved by the freedom we had to approach and to pray. No one asked me if I was Jewish, no one was concerned that I might be a Christian or a muslim or an athiest. It was perfectly okay for me to join the other women at the wall, to lay my hands on its cool stones and to pray.
Observing my companions at the wall in fervent prayer was a moment of female solidarity that will stay with me: regardless of beliefs or creed, women when they pray bring their hopes and dreams, their loved ones, their griefs in exactly the same way. Their prayers could be ‘read’ on their faces.
We observed that many of the women chose to walk backwards away from the wall and wondered if this was because turning your back was considered disrespectful. I’m grateful for Hilary that she struck up a conversation and asked the question of one of the women there. “No” she said, “it’s not disrespectful, I just want to stay present to it for as long as I can” was the intriguing reply. Do I approach worship and being in the presence of God with that same attitude of reverence? Do I want to stay as present to God for as long as I can and keep the awareness of that presence with me throughout the day?
There were many other things which were strange. For example seeing a group of young people in ordinary garb, out for an evening, but all carrying their automatic weapons! If you are a conscript in the Israeli army you are required to recover your weapon even when you are off duty and not in uniform. Airport style checkpoints in the narrow Jerusalem streets as you moved from one quarter into another. And all the ways in which history has piled itself up, one event on top of the other.
On the final day we walked the Via Dolorosa ending in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, very well attested to be the site of the crucifixion and of the tomb. This church is also cared for by the Greek Orthodox so I personally found the ‘bling’ somewhat offputting and naturally it was the most crowded of all the churches we visited.
The tiny chapel on the Mount of Olives (above), marking the moment of Jesus pausing to weep over Jerusalem was much more to my taste and powerful in its simplicity.
But personal preferences about churches aside, my visit to Jerusalem left me with a lasting sense that we should all be weeping over the division in this country, the oppression of huge numbers of its inhabitants and praying fervently for the peace of Jerusalem.