For me, one of the most surprising discoveries is how close the Judean Wilderness and Jerusalem are to each other. On Wednesday, our first full course day, we visited the Mount of Olives and looked east into the dry, hilly, but beautiful Judean Wilderness. Jesus spent 40 days in this wilderness after being baptized by John in the Jordan River.
We also looked west from the Mount of Olives and looked down on the present and ancient city of Jerusalem. It touched my heart to see wonderful symbols of Judaism, Islam and Christianity all present in one place.
Yesterday in the old city of Jerusalem I sat on the steps of the Temple Mount leading up to where the Jewish temple had been and where the “Holiest of Holies” had resided.
These are the same steps that Mary and Joseph climbed up when they took their 40-day-old son, Jesus, to be dedicated in the temple. The same steps that they walked on when they took him as a 12-year-old boy to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem. The place where they lost him, then found him talking to the priests and Pharisees, going about “his father’s business.” The same steps that Jesus ascended upon when he made his last visit to the Holy City before he was crucified. He taught his disciples on those steps and spoke gently to the citizens of Jerusalem.
I realized as I sat there just how truly human and how truly divine he was. He lead a fairly normal life as child, helping his father in his carpenter shop, learning the things that young Jewish boys needed to know, following Jewish traditions. Then in his early thirties, his divine nature began to be revealed and it would eventually lead him back to these steps and to his death on the cross. Here I was sitting in a place where so much had happened that would change the lives of people for many generations. People like me. My Lord and savior had walked on these very steps where I now was walking. He is still waking up these steps with me. I am truly walking in his footsteps and he is guiding me. Thanks be to God!
Intention is powerful. I hadn’t planned to focus particularly on Mary of Nazareth on this pilgrimage—though I am a longtime fan—but something about that small statue under the chapel altar caught my soul’s attention. Then May 1 we visited a church dedicated to St. Anne, Mary’s mother (and Jesus’ grandmother, earning it the nickname “Granny Annie’s”.) Our guide pointed out this icon of Mary, Anne, and Joachim (her father).
Yesterday at the Israel Museum, we saw these first-century water jars, the kind that would have held the 20-30 gallons of water apiece at that wedding in Cana, when Mary told her son, “They have no wine.”
And today sitting inside the beautiful sanctuary of the desert monastery of St. Gerasimos, I looked up and there she was again, in this icon of the flight to Egypt.
Tomorrow we head to Ein Kerem, the traditional hometown of John the Baptist (where Mary visited his mother Elizabeth), and Bethlehem, where, well, you know.
I found all the people being baptized in the Jordan River to be moving. On arrival, I saw a group of Africans being baptized. I decided this was a place to leave a prayer. I always seem to know when I come to a place where to leave a particular prayer.
We had chatted with an African-American woman in the Newark airport. When she told me about her 32-year-old son being killed by his own, I offered to carry a prayer for him to the Holy Land. She wrote his name on a scrap of paper. Today I folded it into a tiny square and put it in the fast-moving Jordon.
Curiously, I do not do people a favor by remembering their intentions in prayer, rather each person I pray for in a holy place makes my experience there special.
Jerusalem, my happy home, when shall I come to thee? When shall my sorrows have an end? Thy joys when shall I see?
Anyone who has spent time in church has heard hundreds of Bible stories, and sung as many hymns about the land where Jesus walked. We get the idea that the Bible and its people and its stories are metaphorical.
But here’s the thing. We do ourselves a disservice to reduce the earthiness, the substance, of the Bible to two dimensions. Jerusalem is a living, breathing city, not just William Blake’s vision of the heavenly England. The Judean wilderness, where we went today, is vast and dramatic and stunningly desolate. Bedouin shepherds still make a meager life as their clans have done for thousands of years. If a man were to, say, be attacked by robbers and be left for dead, as one of my companions said today, “he would be screwed.” Unless of course a good Samaritan came along.
It was to this very place that Jesus was driven by the Holy Spirit immediately after his baptism by John in the Jordan River. It is inconceivable that one could survive here for 40 days without food, even if you could find water.
Our group stood in the Jordan River just a few yards from the kingdom of Jordan, at the place where Jewish tradition says the Israelites first entered the Promised Land. We renewed our own baptismal vows, and prayed for each other, standing in the surprisingly cold, brown water.
Perhaps the single greatest gift of visiting the Holy Land is its assault on the senses. As our leader said, henceforth we will no longer read the Bible in black and white, but in color.
Just a few days into our pilgrimage, and I have to say… it’s kind of overwhelming. I was blessed to be raised in a Christian home, have regularly attended church my whole life, and read and heard so many Bible stories so many times. I am a believer, but being here has put incredible new texture on that belief.
Today, we sat on steps that most assuredly Jesus walked on and from which taught. Wow! Cathy reminded us of some of his words that were likely said from that very spot. So powerful! So real!
Jerusalem is arguably the most holy city in the world, since it is central to the traditions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. It’s an anxious and divided place, but also a place of great devotion. While the pilgrims from St. Martin’s (Williamsburg VA) are here in the holy city, several things are happening at once.
Today, May 2, we were honored to share in Holocaust Remembrance Day* with prayer at the Western Wall. Many of us prayed for friends and family, some of whom had delegated us with particular intentions.
In addition to today’s Jewish remembrance, Jerusalem is also preparing for the holy month of Ramadan, when hundreds of thousands of Muslims will converge in the city. Non-Muslims are not always allowed on the Temple Mount, the heavily guarded site of the al-Aqsa Mosque, but we were able to visit today. The Temple Mount is important as well to Christians and Jews since it is the site of the Jewish Temple destroyed in 70 CE. We saw the corner of the ancient Temple Mount built by Herod the Great, as well as rubble from the Temple’s destruction, the giant stones still laying where they fell.
To spend time in Jerusalem is to be overwhelmed by the sounds and the history and the noise. (For a wonderfully poignant story about Jerusalem check out this song by David Wilcox.)
*In 2007 the UN designated January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day to mark the liberation in 1945 of Auschwitz-Berkenau. Israel marks the day separately.
It is our custom on pilgrimage to carry prayers (special intentions) for people and leave the prayers in a holy place. Tuesday last I attended a wise women’s group and a Muslim woman asked for a special prayer for her husband. I said I’d try to leave it in the right place. She said to leave it at Nazareth or Bethlehem-anywhere, the whole place was holy. And then there was my hairdresser who sent along four prayers although she said God was everywhere.
Back in Jerusalem exactly three years later, some things are the same and some are different. I’m staying in the shadow of St. George’s Cathedral again, but this time in the College instead of the Pilgrim Guest House—which I didn’t even know were two different things last time! So I’ve been exploring and discovered a chapel on the second floor of the College with this lovely sculpture under the altar, a welcome bit of female iconography.
Our course officially begins tomorrow, May 1, which in my Roman Catholic girlhood was also a day associated with celebrating Mary—she really got the whole month. Later I learned that in the Celtic calendar, May 1 is the beginning of the season of Beltane, associated with growth and blossoming (whence May baskets and maypoles). So this feels like a particularly liminal threshold this year: saying goodbye to spring, welcoming summer (81 degrees today), and preparing to walk in “The Footsteps of Jesus” (our course title). I’ll be remembering Mary’s footsteps too.