Today was an amazing day. It was as if I needed to pinch myself to make sure I was not in some crazy dream as I visited some of the most holy sites in Christianity. After breakfast, we boarded the bus for a brief ride over to the top of the Mount of Olives, a mountain ridge situated across the Kidron Valley from the Old City of Jerusalem. After enjoying a wonderful panoramic view of the Old City, we began a walk down the Mount of Olives along the path that Jesus likely took when he entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey on Palm Sunday. Part way down the mountain, we paused briefly at the point where Christ stood when we wept over Jerusalem. A church, the Dominus Flevit Church, stands at the site. We continued down the mountain until we reached the Garden of Gethsemane which rests at the base of the Mount of Olives. Among other New Testament events which took place on the Mount of Olives are the Olivet discourse and Christ’s ascension into heaven.
Gethsemane is, of course, the place where Jesus prayed and the disciples slept the night before his crucifixion. Once at the foot of the mountain, we first entered into the Church of the Agony, a Roman Catholic Church which enshrines the rock upon which Jesus is claimed to have prayed with extreme anguish, shedding tears like great drops of blood as he pondered the Father’s plan. One of the most moving moments of our trip thus far was when we knelt with our hands upon this stone and feebly attempted to pray the same words Christ prayed that fateful night, “Not my will, but thine be done.” After shedding a few tears of our own, we continued across the street to another section of the garden where we stopped for a brief devotion and a few moments of silent reflection. What a blessed experience!
Then, we reboarded our bus and made a quick trip over to the site of The Garden Tomb. There are two competing claims as to the location of the crucifixion and burial of Christ. We will visit the other in a couple of days, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Garden Tomb is a rock-cut tomb discovered in 1867. It is located near a rocky escarpment which some have identified with Golgotha, the place of the skull, which was the location of the crucifixion. The Garden was lovely, and entering the rock-cut tomb was amazing. I wasn’t all that impressed with the site purported to be Golgotha. Apparently the rocky face used to resemble a skull, but the slope is crumbling and no longer bears much resemblance to a skull. It was very exciting to visit the site where he may have been buried (and subsequently resurrected)! I’ll probably speak more about this after a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
After visiting, the site of Christ’s empty tomb, we made our way by bus to the city of Bethlehem. Similar to my experience when entering Nazareth, entering into the town of Bethlehem was a little disappointing. Neither is a quiet, sleepy village, but a bustling town filled with bumper to bumper traffic, blaring horns, and hectic activity. We also had to lose our guide, once again, before entering into Bethlehem. The city is under the control of the Palestinian Authority, and Israeli citizens are not allowed within the city. It is unfortunate that travel is restricted for both Jews and Palestinians within the Holy Land. Again… It’s complicated. Upon entering into Bethlehem, however, we met up with a Palestinian Christian who would serve as our guide while within the city. We first enjoyed a delicious dinner of Shawarma before going next door for a little shopping. After dinner and shopping, we took the bus a little further to the site of Jesus’ birth, The Church of the Nativity. Wow, we were so excited to enter into the church! Unfortunately, our excitement was tempered a bit by the throng. At the moment we stooped to enter into the church (okay, maybe not Cindy) through the Door of Humility (the main entrance), we realized that an Orthodox Divine Liturgy was taking place. In order not to interfere with the procession of the priests, all lines were stopped. That is completely understandable, but as the service continued, our wait got longer and the crowds grew larger. Once the lines started moving again, we were herded along like cows into a pen as we made our way up one of the aisles into the side chapel and down the steps into the cave in which Jesus was born. Despite the crowd spoiling a bit of the sacredness of the site, it was still an unbelievable experience to kneel in the cave of the nativity as did the shepherds from the surrounding hillsides two thousand years ago! We also knelt and touched the silver star of Bethlehem which was mounted into the floor signifying his place of birth. The church itself, built in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian I, was quite beautiful. The iconostasis, a wall of icons which separates the nave from the sanctuary, was magnificent. Sadly, much of the church’s beauty was obscured by scaffolding which covered most of the church, placed there to repair the decaying ceiling.
Later than usual, we returned to our hotel to rest. There would not be much rest for Cindy and me, however. We were excited to meet up with a couple of friends in Israel, Yaniv and Avital. They were so kind to pick us up at our hotel and take us to dinner at a lovely kosher Italian restaurant nor very far from the Jaffa Gate called Gabriela Cucina. We enjoyed discussing, among other things, religion and politics, those two taboo subjects for friendly conversation. Friendly conversation it was, however. In addition to the warm dialogue, we enjoyed delicious Italian food and a bottle of Barkan shiraz wine (Israeli wine). We then walked through a section of town called Mamila, in which is located a beautiful new mall containing stores from around the world. After reaching the Jaffa Gate in the old city walls and the tower of David, which was beautifully illuminated in the night, we made our way back to the car and returned to our hotel.
It was another unforgettable day in Israel. Tomorrow… Church and rest (we hope).