Friday, April 24th, concluded two of the most remarkable weeks of our lives. It would be wonderful if every Christian could make this pilgrimage. It truly is an amazing adventure that will change forever the way you look at the biblical narrative.
Our morning on this last day started later than usual. We had to pack our bags for the airport prior to leaving the hotel in the morning. At 11 a.m., we boarded the bus to visit Ein Karem. You may recall, we attempted to visit the birthplace of John the Baptist earlier in the week, but it had closed just prior to our arrival. Today, we were able to visit the site southwest of Jerusalem. The Church of St. John the Baptist was built in the 19th century on top of prior Crusader and Byzantine churches. If you’ve read about our adventures in the Holy Land up to this point, you will notice that this is a recurring theme. Christians from the early centuries of Christianity recognized a site as being the location of some event with historical and spiritual significance, and then built a church over the site. These churches were then destroyed either by natural disaster, or more often, by conquering armies. Later Christians then rebuild churches on the foundations of the old. This church contains an ancient mosaic floor and a cave which has been recognized as the place of birth of John the Baptist. Across the valley from the Church of St. John the Baptist, and up another hillside lies the Church of the Visitation. Climbing the hill was an endurance test for many of us. This modern church built (can you guess?) on top of an ancient church is reputed to be the location of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth when they both were pregnant. It was fitting that we read the Benedictus (the song of Zechariah, father of John) at the Church of St. John the Baptist, and the Magnificat (the song of Mary) at the Church of the Visitation.
From Ein Karem, we returned to Mt. Herzl, which is the location of Yad Vashem. This time however we walked through the National Cemetery viewing the gravesites of Israel’s former prime ministers and then the gravesites of fallen soldiers.. As you may remember, this is the Israeli equivalent of Arlington National Cemetery in the U.S.
From there, we went to the Mahane Yehudi Market in Jerusalem. Walking through this open-air market that covers several blocks lying between Agripas St. and Jaffa St. is quite an experience. This is especially so on Friday afternoon, which is when we visited. The market is overcrowded with tourists and locals alike. Locals are getting in their last-minute, hurried shopping for Shabbat (Sabbath). It was zoo-like, requiring much effort and determination to fight through the crowds. Folks are shoving and bumping into each other, while the vendors are yelling out, trying to sell their goods. Aisles are filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, baked goods, fish, meat and cheeses, nuts, seeds, spices, wines and liquors, clothing and shoes, housewares and textiles. It was fun and interesting! I discovered later that this market has been the location of several suicide bombings over the past 20 years (being such a crowded site makes it a good target) in which at least 15 were killed and 182 were injured. Maybe it’s good we didn’t know that before we went!
After having lunch and doing a little shopping and gawking at the market, we took another quick trip by the Western Wall. Afterwards, we drove to a hilltop south of Jerusalem to take a group picture and take some final pictures of the city of Jerusalem and its surrounding countryside.
Our final treat of the trip was to participate in “The Shabbat of a Lifetime.” About fourteen of us were invited into the home of a local Orthodox Jewish family to join them for their Shabbat dinner. It was an absolute highlight of our trip. The family consisted of a young man and wife, his mother, and their three small children, aged five and under. Upon arrival, we greeted one another with “Shabbat Shalom,” a wish for a Shabbat of peace. The Shabbat candles, five in all, had been lit prior to our arrival. After being seated, our group (at least attempted to) join in and sing “Shalom Aleichem,” a song addressed to the accompanying angels of the feast. A particularly meaningful event then occurs: the husband shows his love and admiration for his wife by singing Eishet Chayil, “A Woman of Valor,” which is from Proverbs 31. Then, both the father and mother lay hands on the children individually and pronounce a blessing on each one – for boys, that God would make them like Ephraim and Manasseh, and for girls, that God would make them like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. There were a few other wonderfully symbolic rituals and group songs intermingled with four courses of delicious food. We felt so blessed that this family would share such an intimate and sacred part of their lives with us. (Pictures were not allowed.)
Unfortunately, our Shabbat dinner was cut too short as we had to leave for the Tel Aviv airport. Exhausted from the previous two weeks of hectic, action-packed touring, we dragged ourselves through all the checkpoints and security. Our plane lifted off the ground shortly after midnight for the twelve hour flight back to the states. Around 5 a.m., we landed at JFK in New York (of course there was a 7 hour time difference). Thankfully, many of us slept quite well on this flight (including Cindy and me). After a three hour layover, we returned to Tampa, landing at 11 a.m. Cindy and I picked up our rental car, had lunch, and now have an evening to relax in our hotel.
We won’t return to Beatitude until Monday. The next post will be from Titusville, where Beatitude is docked in her slip. While we’ve had an amazing time in the Holy Land, I am going to be so happy being back on the water!