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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A Pit and a Manger

Yossi plays a short selection from 'The Passion of Saint Matthew', part of a one and a half hour piece of music. 

Some scholars say Christ’s Passion started here in this dungeon where Jesus spent his last night before He died. Passion means suffering, and I think on how the word has changed over the years.
Yossi points out that Psalm 88 talks about going into the pit, on the brink of death. He says he feels Christ’s agony and distress here in this cold pit. He asks for silence so we may also feel the place speak to us. I shut my eyes. There's a light draft, a whisper of cold air. It’s hard for me to imagine the dank darkness, or the passion Christ would have experienced. 
The Holy Staircase, where Jesus walked to face his accusers
Our guide takes us to the Holy Staircase, behind the church and beside the fenced off ruins of Caiaphas’s house. We learn that a new church will be built here, destroying the ruins. Our archeologist guide is angered by such destruction, even though he has often told us that his profession is a destructive one. The stairs before us are fenced off. Too many pilgrims have chipped away at them for souvenirs. 

Caiaphas, who wanted Jesus dead, lived here.

The church and the ruins of Caiaphas's house

The Catholic church wants to build a church over these ruins.

We know Jesus came up these irregular stone steps to be tried that Thursday. I turn around, seeing beyond the City of David, to the potter’s field. This was where Judas would have hung himself after returning the thirty pieces of silver he’d been paid for Jesus’ life. For me, this place is as moving as the pit we've just exited.
We're given another homework question and I jokingly tell my husband I am sure to fail this course. 
Where in the Old Testament do we hear a prophesy of thirty pieces of silver? On the bus, using the wifi, I find Zechariah 11 predicts the life and death of Christ. Again, another prophesy of Jesus, written more than 500 years before His birth. One beyond His control, though some might argue otherwise. 
Shortly after, we’re off the Bethlehem, via a new tunnel. 

Manger Square

We’ve been blessed so far this trip with no line ups, thanks to Yossi's forethought, but here in Palestinian territory, we must line up to go into the cave where Jesus was born. The air is thick with incense. The Armenians are holding a service, delaying everyone, and a French-speaking woman behind us demands to be allowed to go in first because she says her bus is leaving. Someone in our group tells her it’s impossible and half an hour later, she is seen still wandering around the church.

We waited 20 minutes to enter the cave where Jesus was born.

The only bare spot of cave floor.

The rest of the cave

It’s warm down in this ornate cave, and tightly packed. Many pilgrims drape rosaries and crosses over the small round hole that exposes the cave floor. When we leave, I ask our new guide (for Yossi is not allowed in Palestine) if we can go into the Shrine of the Holy Innocent and he retrieves the key for us. I tell my friend about the bones we see in this extension of the nativity cave. They were exhumed in the fourth century by Constantine’s mother. They are the bones of the children Herod ordered to be murdered, and the mothers who tried to save their children. Only a few dozen, in reality.
My friend is unimpressed that we didn’t learn this from our new guide. One of the others in our group is skeptical of the authenticity of the bones, but I explain that this church (and the caves beneath it), were never destroyed by the Muslims because it has Persian wise men depicted on its walls. In fact, we saw several Muslim visitors here. But as I learn later, some of the bones are from a revolt in the 600s. Still, the tiny ones in a glass case are obviously children's. I have decided not to post the photos here. They are too sad. 

But it's interesting to note that these children are considered the first martyrs for Christ. 

The church is getting a facelift, and it's amazing to see the colours beneath the dark film of incense smoke. There seems to be hundreds of gilded censers hanging down in the apse and with candles and music, it's a sensory overload. 


bringing a column back to life.

Our tour isn't over yet. We're going to learn the connection to the Mafia, of all things.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The places we know for sure Jesus walked

We depart the Temple Mount and exit at the west, weaving through a dark and dank, narrow street that would see a market in a few days, finding ourselves at the Western (Wailing) Wall. 

A narrow street leading to the Western Wall

The chanting and rocking the faithful Jews do gives them comfort, as it might for a stressed child; it doesn’t get you closer to God, the Bible tells us. 
It's relatively quiet at the Wailing Wall today.

The place is a beehive of activity, and yet not as crowded as it could be. In the restroom, I see women’s purses sitting outside of the cubicles and ask our team leader how they can be so trusting. 
No, the women inside are probably menstruating, I'm told. Each woman will cleanse her hands and retrieve her purse after. She must remain clean. With my friend, I visit the Wailing Wall, pray for my family and friends, and, like several Orthodox Jewish women, peek over the wall that separates the men from the women. 

I'm in the pink, praying for loved ones.

I see one older man, tall and stocky, Orthodox and praying loudly at his podium. His face is beet red and he stops his laments to drink a litre of water. Jesus warned us not to pray like those who do so in public. God wants our hearts, not fervent prayers meant to showcase your piety. 
Orthodox Jews believe the Western Wall is all that's left of the Second Temple, but the stones’ carving style indicates a much later period. Our time is short here, our guide says, but we will return. We hurry past the gate and head to the Davidson Center, weaving through the small museum until we come out at the corner of the wall.
We walk up to the Huldah’s Gate, a gate through which commoners entered the temple area, which is also near her (Huldah's) grave. She is mentioned in 2 Kings 22:14, a prophetess who warned of the destruction of the city. This is the one of the very few places we know and can prove archeologically where Jesus walked. He would have entered the Temple Mount at least three times through this gate. 
My friend, my husband and me a the Southern Gate

Kidron Valley and road to Jericho

The site of the Southern Gate at the Davidson Center

It faces south, and the brilliant sun beats down on us. Below are stark ruins, stones upon stones, softened by the occasional palm tree and patches of grass. Beyond is the City of David, the Kidron Valley, and the Jericho Road. We have to be careful where we walk, the steps are so irregular, but it’s hard not to gape around in awe at this place where Jesus would have stood, perhaps in line to enter. Did he pause and pray, for he’d already wept when he prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, that last week before his crucifixion. It’s a spiritually moving place.
From the Davidson Center, we're taken up to the Gallicantu Church. My meagre Latin is enough to tell me why the church was built. Galli-gallo-rooster and Cantu-canto-sing. The rooster’s crow. The site of Peter’s denial. This is a church built on the remains of Caiaphas’s house, where Jesus was illegally tried after being betrayed by Judas.
The back of the Gallicantu Church with the remains of Caiaphas's house in the foreground.

Here we head straight down to the small dungeon, a well-lit, spanking clean place that had served not only as a jail for Christ on Holy Thursday, but as a cistern as well. It wouldn’t have looked a innocuous as it does today. 

entering The Sacred Pit

But still, we pause.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Temple Mount: A powder keg

I left you yesterday with the news that Israel has bombed a compound in Syria. We don't yet have a lot of details as to why, nor may we ever know.
However, we soon learn some related news. The last night we stayed in the kibbutz, (which was, if you've been following my blog, two nights ago) there were four tour buses there, ours included, all from the same tour company. One driver was awoken at 3 am and dispatched to the Syrian border to pick up 20 wounded Syrian soldiers who had crossed (or been sent) over to Israel. They knew they would receive proper medical care, for Israel would not deny them that basic human right. The driver was to take them to a hospital in Tiberius. 

I expect that the Israeli government knows which bus company would be close to the Syrian border and the company would know which driver was best to awaken (the one who wasn't scheduled to do a lot of driving the next day). 

As disturbing as that may sound to Canadians, (Big Brother and all) I know, by virtue of being in the military, that governments know things we don't expect them to. And Israel, as it remains constantly perched upon the precipice of war, would know which buses are close to Syria, a country in the midst of not only a civil war, but fighting ISIS as well. 

(I must reiterate that I have never felt unsafe there. It sounds fearful to us Canadians, but life goes on quite normally. Israel has a great air defense system.)

Our team leader muses out loud that CNN would never air this news. It puts Israel in a good light, and as such, doesn't make for increased TV ratings. That bothers me. There are so many people today who don't know the history behind Israel's fight for life and see countries like Palestine and Syria as victims. (it's the people who are, not the countries) To them, Israel, with its desire to fight for its own sovereignty, is more a Goliath than a David.  

After supper, Yossi takes us for a walk, and we end up at the American Colony where Horatio Stafford lived, where also hangs a copy of his hymn,  ‘It is well with my soul.’ (An appropriate hymn at this time) Yossi had wanted to take us into a nearby church to hear its wonderful acoustics, but we watched guards quickly block our entrance. Instead, we visit a jewelry store and see a first century shekel. The selling of artifacts is a big business here, for the black market is rife with the opportunities to purchase them.

Despite the seemingly bumpy start, our time in Jerusalem finds us up and gone early the next day, aiming to visit the Temple Mount before it's closed for the day. On our way, our devotional on the Lord's Prayer continues. ‘For Thine is the Kingdom…’ is easy to say when we feel we're in control. But only God is in control. 

I had cautioned several of us that we must dress modestly for the Temple Mount, but am concerned just the same, and even our guide warns us not to take I-Pads in, for they may contain a Bible app. I don't want us to be detained. This is one of the highlights of the trip.

Thankfully for us, a group of young women in front is stopped and ordered to wear long skirts, for their miniskirts and leggings are more than inappropriate. 

One woman in her borrowed skirt

Immediately, I think of the movie about Corrie ten Boom, and how she smuggled a Bible into a concentration camp when the woman ahead of her caused a disturbance. Like Corrie, we walk straight in, as the men on guard are busy with the young women.

Cats abound, encouraged to be here for their hunting skills and one young woman ignores the history to photograph one.
History around her and she photographs a cat. Like us at Mount Hermon

Yossi points out that while the Dome of the Rock is said to house the place where Abraham tried to sacrifice Isaac, there is evidence that points to a smaller rock, covered with a small dome to the north of the golden dome. That suggests that the site of the Holy of Holies is also different.

I think again about Abraham, so willing to sacrifice, without question, his son, Isaac. He'd lived among the Canaanites, those who sacrificed their babies. Abraham was used to this, I think, cringingly. Did he believe that sacrifice of one’s child was a way of worshiping one's own god? We are always taught a benign Abraham trusted that God would restore Isaac, should he die. But a more disturbing image is appearing. Abraham knew of child sacrifice and was willing to do it for God. 

Thankfully, in case you don't know the story, a ram appeared at the last minute on this mount all those millennia ago. Shed blood for his son’s life. A substitute, where in the Temple of Pan for instance, there was nothing that could be substituted. Thankfully, we have Jesus, the perfect substitute.

Could this be the site where Abraham tried to sacrifice Isaac?

I look down again at the small, exposed rock north of the dome. Could this be where Isaac had been tied up and prepared for death? Was it also the site of the Temple’s Holy of Holies? I reach down and run my fingers over the rough surface. I will probably never know which is which until I reach heaven. For now, I'm satisfied with the wait.

We learn that the Temple Mount is owned by the King of Jordan, and since the previous king was too proud to take money from Saudi Arabia, (and probably a bit wise for he would be owing to them) he had only the thinnest layer of gold possible applied on the dome. 

It's hard to see, but it needs some repair.

It's in desperate need of repair, we see as we close in on it.
Our friend and the Dome of the Rock

Yossi ignoring the cats

Here, our guide tells us that Israel has no constitution, that Orthodox Jews say the Torah (part of the Old Testament that contains the laws) is enough for them. He reiterates that Israel needs our prayers, that the Temple Mount is not sitting on ancient stones, but on a powder keg. 

I find those words disturbing.