CHAPTER 10 – A JOURNEY TO JERUSALEM 1997
Israel is a country to stir the senses and inspire the very soul. It is many things to many people. It has snow-capped mountains, fertile valleys, arid deserts, and the lowest inhabited place on earth near the Dead Sea. It is probably the overseas country most read of in our early teachings through Sunday school and later through bible readings. Through these mediums, it always seemed so far away in distance and time, so to journey there was a dream come true.
The day trip was an inclusion on a Greek Island cruise, from the vessel “Stella Oceanis” which docked at the seaport of Ashdod, and from there coaches whisked the group through very fertile irrigated rural areas supporting prolific cotton crops and citrus fruits before nearing the rocky outcrops closer to Jerusalem. Getting thus far, was really a blessing as a few weeks before, the unfortunate political unrest which took some lives in a public market area and stopped tourists going in, also Bethlehem had been closed off to visitors because of skirmishes looked bleak, so “going in” was a real highlight. It would have been a terrible shame to have not been able to visit.
Because of the sanctity of such a visit to me, the night before was full of excited anticipation of what might be seen, and what might happen in this volatile political climate, in this most holy of places. I awoke to a very bright and shining star gleaming beckoning to me through the porthole. I had to go up on deck. The clear cold night revealed a moon in its last phase and sprinkling of stars which were same formation, but different angle from which we usually see in the southern skies. Intermittent lights appeared, revealing life along the Israeli coast-line. It was a very purifying element there, lying on the deck, looking up at the heavens, and one that I felt necessary to ready myself for what promised to be a highlight of one’s existence. There was a need for due reverence to enter this most holy of ho-lies. It is one of those one off’s in one’s lifetime.
Our local tour guide prefixed the tour to the holy city with “It is not what you see here, but what you feel” which captivated the momentum and is quite true. Because what you do actually see, is at times much different from what is anticipated. It is such a city of contrasts, the ancient and the modern, jeans clad tourists mingling with black garbed Jewish scholars, pilgrims with peddlers.
Even the Via Dolorosa, “The Way of the Cross”, commemorating the path that Jesus walked bearing his cross, to walk the fourteen stations of this most sacred path, is filled with merchants’ souvenir stands which is such a strange juxtaposition from that of 2,000 years ago. One wonders if Jesus were to pass that way again, if he would be accosted by vendors offering wooden crosses and religious paraphernalia. The very fact that the “Way”, is encumbered with the shrines of so many diverse faiths, constructed to exemplify the one and same principal and belief, is unfathomable. We were allowed to visit Bethlehem despite the recent bombings there, which was also a place of contrasts, too many shops with cheap mementos.
Because of logistics, our group of 38 were split up into three different groups to go by coach from Ashdod into Jerusalem, John leading one with 12 along with Linda from Globus, our friend Michelle then with Trafalgar Tours another, with 8, and myself with 18 ably assisted by David from TWA Tours. And so it was, that we headed into the Holy City, in a caravan of three, split logistically because of the very delicate political situation and recent upheavals.
Israel is a country to stir the senses and inspire the very soul. It is many things to many people. It has snow-capped mountains, fertile valleys, arid deserts and has the lowest inhabited place on earth. It is probably the overseas country most read of in our early teachings through Sunday school and later through bible readings. I recalled my days of teaching Sunday School and always heading for the sand tray, where laden with palm trees, camels, crook bearing shepherds, sheep, temples etc we would build an imaginary Jerusalem, moulding the sand to look like Judea dunes The real place always seemed so far away in distance and time, so to journey there was a dream come true.
Behold a star appeared, and led us, by three as it was written, to Bethlehem, the holiest of places to Christians, 6 km. south of Jerusalem. One must remove their headgear, and bend almost double to enter the lowered doorway through the Crusader arch to the Church of the Nativity built in 385 AD over the site of the manger. This small entrance was designed to prevent Muslims from entering the church riding their horses.
Whilst there when the group was asked to take their hats off to enter the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem one lady was heard to utter “I don’t take my hat off for anyone” to which I retorted “Sorry but you will have to take your hat off for Jesus Christ” which she duly did. Must say when she got back in the bus, and no-one could see over the big hat, she refused to remove it again.
Parts of the mosaic floors can still be seen in the Church. Beautiful light beams pierce like arrows, through the high arched windows, penetrating the incense, smoke-filled air from the burning candles lit by the faithful pouring through. It is a most stirring and humbling experience to stand before the the silver star of the Grotto designating the spot where Jesus was born. Then the sanctity of the moment is defiled by clambering Japanese tourists squatting to pose for the obligatory photograph on this very spot. There are three churches built over this area, Armenian, Catholic and Greek Orthodox.
From Bethlehem we travelled to the City of Jerusalem, entering through Zion Gate to walk through the Old City surrounded by walls constructed in 1536 during the time of Suleiman the Magnificent. Within these city walls are the four quarters – Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Armenian.
We began our walk through this awe inspiring city, along the cobble-stoned pathways toward the Via Dolorosa “The Way of the Cross” commemorating the path where Jesus walked bearing the cross from the place of Judgement to Calvary, Golgotha rock. Every Friday pilgrims retrace these steps through the fourteen ‘stations of the cross’ ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Our trusty bunch, made it along this way, climbing the very steep steps to this holiest of shrines where it is believed Jesus was crucified, and indeed where the tomb of Jesus was, the rock of Golgotha. Many temples, basilicas, shrines and churches have been built over these symbolic sites, constructed by many denominations, to attest their faith. Hark, did I hear a cock crow, couldn’t be? Must have been my imagination,
The long walk brought us out to a vista towards the Mount of Olives which although covered with many grave sites, is still as it was, when Jesus taught his disciples, and where he was made prisoner and wept for Jerusalem. Also the golden Dome of the Rock glistens to show this most holy spot covering the Temple Mount revered by the three monotheistic religions., Judaism, Christianity and Islamic. TheJews as the place where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. Solomon built the First and Second Temples here, Jesus preached here, and Muslims accept it as the place where Mohamed ascended to heaven.
The vista out to Mount Zion, where stands one of the most sacred sights, that of the Cenhacle, the hall of the Last Supper. What other event in history, has been emulated daily by believers around the world, for 2,000 years a living testimonial of adoration, and thanksgiving. It is a truly remarkable phenomenon, the mystical breaking of bread and sharing all, as one family of Christ, as happened all that time ago.
We then descended the steps towards the Western Wall all that remains of the Second Temple. Pilgrims gather here from all over the world to pray and place messages in the cracks and crevices between the great Herodian stones. It is very difficult to find a spot in which to place a written message, as every crack is filled with supplications. One of our group’s messages came true, as she wished a book be returned to its rightful owner! One wonders, over the centuries how many prayers have been answered, one in particular must have been in 1967 when access was regained from the Jordanians once again after a 19 year control where access was forbidden.
One of the most moving stories I have read pertaining to the Wailing Wall is an excerpt from “Small Miracles” about extraordinary coincidences from every day life by Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal about a Jewish family. The father a Holocaust survivor whose entire family was murdered by the Nazis had vowed that the religion his family had died for would continue throughout his lifetime and his family. So it was with great pain that he saw his son Joey at the age of 19 after a rigid Hebrew upbringing with teachings from the synagogue leave the fold, renouncing his religion. Whilst travelling in India Joey heard of his father’s death and was full of remorse and felt responsible for his heart attack knowing how his deviation from ‘the faith’ had upset his father. Joey had a great urge to visit the West Wall, to go to petition forgiveness from his father. Joey donned a borrowed yarmulke and clutching a prayer book beseeched his father’s forgiveness and wrote on a scrap piece of paper “Dear Father, I beg you to forgive me, for the pain I caused you. I loved you very much and I will never forget you. And please know that nothing you taught me was in vain. I will not betray your family’s deaths. I promise” When Joey had finished his note he searched for a crevice in which to place the note, it took an hour for him to find an empty space, but in so doing he accidentally dislodged another.. Before trying to replace it, he was overcome by an undeniable curiosity to read its contents, which revealed “My dear son Joey, if every you should come to Israel and somehow find this note, I want you to know that I have always loved you, even when you hurt me, and will always go on loving you, I forgive you for everything….. please forgive a foolish old man” signed Adam his father. Joey is now a Rabbinical student.
We exited the Old City through the Dung Gate and then passed by the Church of All Nations beautifully and ornately decorated, in the Garden of Gethsemane in the grove of ancient olive trees which is still fairly untouched and pristine. One would think that if shrines were not built to cover the authenticity of the places of Christian significance it would be, all that more the real.
One of the most poignant moments of the day, was from a panoramic point, a vista over the wilderness of the Judea desert, pristine and just as Jesus would have seen it 2,000 years ago, in all its starkness, and grains of sand.
This was followed by a visit to an example of anachronistic exhibitionism, in a display of Elvis Presley memorabilia, totally ‘kitsch’ and out of order.
To have witnessed this truly remarkable place, Israel, where we were told “all nations shall come into”, has been something never to be forgotten in this life-time. It is the spirit that moves and is alive and vibrant here more so than all the temples and shrines along the way. That spirit has spread to every nation around the world.
Is where we now are walking,
Where Jesus trod one day?
Are these the stations of the cross,
At the twelfth, where he did lay?
Has time and man built monument,
To obliterate all original content?
Would not uncloistered mount
To the faithful follower, more to count?
God’s spirit moves in wondrous ways,
Transcending many thousand days.
Now for mortals to come and trace
Jesus footsteps, and gaze at this reverent place.
Was that the cock that crowed?
Was the seed of Christianity sowed?
Was that the pathway, leading deep,
Into my heart, my soul to keep?
C.Woodward ©. 1997
If I love thee this much in this scattered life-time?
How much the more, must I, in the past?
And Oh! the glory to wonder at what is yet to come.