When I made the decision to join the pilgrims from St. Martin’s, I had no idea what to expect. I had never been to the Middle East, I had never been part of a group tour, and I had never been on a pilgrimage. I began to learn more about Jerusalem. I read, I watched videos and I talked with others. Although helpful, nothing prepared me for the experience of the last several days.
This has been an incredible journey. I’ve visited places I’ve read about and familiar Bible stories have come to life. I have learned a lot and realize how much more I have to learn. There are things that I didn’t anticipate: my tears at the Temple steps and the Western Wall, the humility I felt seeing the Bedouin shepherd and his goats and sheep walking on the desert path, and the joy and serenity of new friends and Christian fellowship.
The journey is not only about where we have been or where we are going. It is an inner journey- carving away time to be still, unpacking the itinerary and allowing God to lead me. I am blessed!
Yesterday I did something that many people have on their bucket list. I don’t have a bucket list, but nevertheless I found myself floating around in the Dead Sea, considered to be one of nature’s wonders.
It wasn’t the floating that attracted me because I float naturally in almost any position in any type of water. For some reason God has made me very buoyant. It was the natural healing of the skin that takes place because of the high density of salt and minerals in the water that really intrigued me. I tend to have sensitive skin so I thought I would try it out and see what would happen. I waded into the water and sticky mud. I walked to the middle of the enclosed area and sat down to float. It was an interesting feeling. The water felt like syrup against my skin. I felt very smooth. I floated around for awhile talking to people. It was a very different than normal swimming but it was very peaceful.
As I pondered this experience, I found myself drawing some analogies between the Dead Sea and my faith. In the Dead Sea nothing can live, but the Sea lifts people up so that they can float. There is no struggle because the salt supports them and they cannot sink. When I was dead from sin, I could not not achieve eternal life on my own, but Christ lifted me up with him on the cross. I did not have to struggle because his love supported me.
When I get stuck in the mud of daily living, Jesus cleanses me with his blood and makes me whiter than snow. He smoothes out the rough patches in my life. When my desire to follow him loses it saltiness, my life seems meaningless but he restores my faith. He is the spice of my soul. Christ’s healing power is far greater than that of the Dead Sea. His love never recedes, but continues to roll over us forever. We cannot sink because he is there to lift us up in all circumstances. Glory be to God!
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.
Today our pilgrim group visited Ein Karem, a sweet small town neighborhood west of Jerusalem. The town is, by tradition, the hometown of John the Baptist and the site of Mary of Nazareth’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth.
This is a view of the countryside Mary (may have) traveled through.
The courtyard at the Church of the Visitation features mosaics of the Magnificat in dozens of languages, as well as one of the most delightful statues anywhere, depicting the pregnant Mary and the more-pregnant Elizabeth standing belly to belly. Lisa Green and I both love the statue.
Also in Ein Karem: an ancient spring as old as Mary’s visit, and named for her.
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.