As many of you know, one of the fun things about traveling is not only what you get to see but who you get to meet. Not surprisingly, with the Episcopal Church being such a small denomination, I have already run into people in Jerusalem who know people I know, and the connections continue. I’m staying at St. George’s College, a well-known Anglican college in the east part of Jerusalem and situated within an easy walk to the old part of the city where Scripture comes alive for Christians.
On the first day (sounds like a line from Genesis, doesn’t it?!) we got in our bus and drove to the Mount of Olives, from where we looked all the way across to Ammon, in Jordan, and then, in the other direction, across the Kidron Valley to the old city, featuring the Dome of the Rock and other historical highlights.
What was memorable for me about going to the Mount of Olives was the view of Bethany, now of course a bustling, modern city that is close to Jerusalem. Just saying the name Bethany conjures up images for me of Jesus going there to raise up Lazarus and then returning to dine with him and his sisters, Mary and Martha. The other thing that struck me was the sight of a shepherd moving his sheep up a rather steep hill. It was as if a two thousand year-old clock had suddenly stood still and we were transported back in time for a moment.
Jerusalem is a busy city that often appears to be overwhelmed by traffic and people. The narrow streets in the old city were not built with cars in mind, and the crush of vendors and customers moving through the markets and cafes — and pilgrims walking en masse to holy sites — frequently creates gigantic bottlenecks in close quarters that require patience and good humor on everyone’s part to resolve.
One of the highlights for me of visiting the old city was to see the ruins of the Pools of Bethesda, where Jesus healed a paralyzed man who had been waiting for years for the waters to be stirred up and for someone to put him into the water so that he might be healed. The two pools were huge and very deep, so I can imagine the man’s fear at going under the water and perhaps drowning. Significantly, after telling the man to take up his bed and walk, Jesus tells him to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam, which was a fair distance away and also necessitated a laborious climb back up to the city afterward. Jesus did not let this man get off lightly! After visiting the ruins of the pools, we held a healing service in a nearby chapel that was moving for many in our group.
One of the fun games to play in the old city is to guess the age of the huge stones that are embedded in walls or in buildings. Many of them were formerly part of Herod’s spectacular Temple that was razed by the Romans in 70 AD in retaliation for a Jewish uprising. The Roman burned the Temple to the ground and the huge stones found their way into many another architectural project.
We also spent time today touring the ruins of the Temple, which stands on the same site as Haram Al Sharif. At ten o’clock, sirens began wailing to signal a two minute silence in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. Because the Haram Al Sharif is under Arab control and is a sacred site to Muslims around the world, we were instructed not to pray but to simply stand silently until the sirens finished.
It is an extraordinary experience to walk around a city like Jerusalem, where history — especially religious history — is baked into the fabric of almost everything you see. While I am not obsessively trying to imagine that wherever Jesus was at any given moment, there I am as well, it is a fact that some 2000 years ago he walked the streets of this city, and so it is likely that our paths will cross a few times (metaphorically speaking, of course.)
Tomorrow we visit the Judean wilderness where Jesus was tempted, and then the Jordan River, where John baptized his cousin. We are invited to renew our own baptismal vows as we stand in the river. After lunch in Jericho we will visit the continued excavations at Qumran and then float in the Dead Sea. Sounds like a full day…
Thanks for following along with me on my sabbatical journey. Please pray for me and my fellow travelers as we move deeper into our pilgrimage. I’ll write again soon.