Day 8 (Wednesday) – Chapels of the ten lepers, Jacob’s well, and St George… and back to the Old City

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We left Nazareth at 7am and headed back through the West Bank. I started with a prayer for the stewardship of creation (see yesterday’s post to see why). It was ironic and yet not surprising that our trip back south would feature the single largest waste management failure I’ve ever witnessed. The garbage issue aside (and I will detail some of that below), today was an amazing day.

We first visited the Church of the Ten Lepers. This is where Jesus healed ten lepers. The church is built on a cave and cistern that is remembered as being a refuge for lepers in Jesus’ time. This Orthodox Church was a gem. We prayed prayers of healing for people in our lives. I won’t share my prayers with you all this post, but I felt the Holy Spirit moved in a powerful way in this place. After our brief service we were treated outside to coffee hour! Turkish Coffee and biscuits in a shady garden was a just what we all needed. It reminded me of home and the importance of simple hospitality.

We next drove through Nablus. We entered town through what was obviously a regional dump, garbage trucks and dump trucks were dumping trash as we drove by. Yet, the dump never really ended. On the side of the road there were piles of trash that had obviously been dumped by garbage trucks that dropped their loads before getting to the actual dump. Our lunch conversation revolved around how it was possible that none of us had ever heard a word about the garbage issues in Israel and the West Bank. This is the Holy Land, and yet the land is disrespected in a way that is hard to fathom.

After we had left the dump section of Nablus behind us we headed up Mt Gerizim (which is in Nablus). This part of Nablus was a pretty little city with one of the most amazing churches in the world.

The Greek Orthodox Church of the Samaritan Woman. The church has an amazing history. In the basement is Jacob’s Well, the same well that the Samaritan woman was at when Jesus entered this town. I haven’t had time to check the tradition with archaeological records, but the fact that the church has been built above this well since Byzantine times and that fact that the well is still functional lend credence to the tradition. We gathered at the well, drank from it, and met the bishop who lives in the church / cathedral. He is an icon maker of the highest level, and he wrote many of the icons in the church. He also oversaw the building of the church when it was destroyed. The church has been bombed in recent years (there is a remnant if that explosion on the steps to the well. The priest before him was murdered by a Settler with an Axe, who wanted control of the well. The current bishop tracked down the murderer, was stabbed twelve times, and finally captured him and handed him over to the authorities. The priest who was murdered was canonized as a martyr by the Greek Orthodox Church. His tomb and an icon remembering his death (written by the bishop) is in the church. The ancient and modern history here was astounding.

The Bishop blessed me while I was there. He also anointed my hands with oil, which is customarily done at the ordination of a priest but was not done to me when I was ordained (that practice fell out of favor in our diocese in the 2000s – I don’t know if it has been revived.). I was grateful and, literally, blessed to be in his presence and have my hands (finally!) anointed by a bishop.

Our next stop was Tybei which is a Christian city in the West Bank. There is a brewery there, and we stopped to tour the brewery and sample some beers. My kind of pilgrimage! The beer here was excellent. They make a great White Ale and a malty IPA. Their stock beer is a Golden Lager which is great too. Of course any purchases here help the local
Christians, so I bought a T-shirt.

Tybei has a ruined church dedicated to St George St George is a very big deal all over the Holy Land. The ruined church is the site of numerous local rituals celebrated by Christians that seemed to me a tad “out there”. There were hooks and splattered blood on the ground from a recent animal sacrifice. There were fire pits and charred areas. It was a place unlike anything I’d seen in the Holy Land.

We made our way back to Jerusalem and for the first time in our trip we had some actual free time. Bob, Eero, and I took the opportunity to return to the Old City. I had numerous gifts that I wanted to properly Annointing and Bless on the Annointing Stone at the Holy Sepulcher. Eero was in search of the ideal Jewish housewarming gift. Bob wanted to go back to the Wall. We did all three and metvfor a beer in the Jewish Quarter. It was a splendid few hours. Returning to the Holy Sepulcher and the Wall increased my love for each place. Prayer here is different and easy.

Our evening concluded with a Speaker who provided a perspective on Jewish issues. It, like all of the speaker events, was excellent and eye opening.

Photos are here. Please forgive my iPhone typos.

Day 7 (Tuesday) – The Sea of Galilee

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Today we visited the Sea of Galilee. The Sea of Galilee is about 40 KM from Nazareth and it took about an hour to get there (we left at 7am bright and early, but after a good night sleep). We passed through Cana on the way there, but did not stop; there were too many other sites that were on our list to make time for that – ironically we would spend a significant amount of time in Cana later in the day.

Our first stop was the Jordan River to renew our baptismal vows. The Jordan River feeds into the Sea of Galilee, and it is (at least from the Pilgrims I have heard from) notorious for being underwhelming as a pilgrimage site, dirty, and often crowded. The bank of the river that we visited was not crowded but otherwise it lived up to its reputation. There were several, weathered lazy boy style chairs on the embankment creating a strange outdoor living room, there was a lean-to tent set up that was falling over because it wasn’t leaning on anything, and there were several large objects mired in the slow, brown, muddy river water, including a skiff and a black couch with a white skull and crossbones spray painted on it sitting directly in the center of the river. The amount of litter in the Holy Land has been intense, and I could have said more in prior posts about noxious smoke from garbage being burned in Jericho, piles of tires in the desert, trash stuffed into walls at Gethsemene, even litter in the pool at Arafat’s tomb, but I’ve tried to spare my few readers this reality – though you can see all of this in the photos I’ve posted. The litter is just there – it is sad, and something needs to be done about it. There was a movement at General Convention this year to add more language about our duty as stewards of creation to our liturgies, including the Baptismal Covenant. Visiting the Jordan made me far more appreciative of that need.

Our service at the river began with a stirring round of “Shall we gather at the river”. The opening line in this spiritual goes as follows. “Shall we gather at the river, the beautiful, beautiful river? Shall we gather at the river, that flows by the throne of God.” God has a sense of humor. The river was not beautiful, it barely flowed, and the “throne” in it is a monument to humanity’s disregard of the environment. If this place did not inspire our group to do more than “our part” in safeguarding creation, then nothing will.

After the hymn we renewed our vows and several of us waded knee deep into the water. We used olive branches to sprinkle the group with water. It was quite nice… as long as you blocked out the debris and flotsam.

We hopped back on the bus and drove up to the Mt of Beatitudes. On top of the Mt is a Monastery and Chapel. The view is wonderful, the chapel and gardens around it are pretty, and the gift shop is excellent… but there is zero archaeological evidence of anything to do with beatitudes in this place. Lower down the mountain was another story.

We walked down the mountain in silence (our direction was the pray for people as we walked). The view of the sea was spectacular. Near the bottom of the mountain we gathered at a spot that is remember as one of many places where Jesus taught his disciples and where he prayed on this own in silence. There are several carved rocks here. One has a cross, another has the beatitudes, a third has Jesus’ image. It was a lovely place and a perfect gathering point after a half hour of silent prayer walking down.

The group continued to the bottom of the mountain – maybe 300 feet down. I was given a special assignment by Iyad to demonstrate how one can speak from the hill (using a cave as a geological bullhorn) and be heard easily by a crowd below. One school of thought is that this is the place, or one of the places, or like the place, where the sermon on the mount might have been given.

From here we headed to the Sea of Galilee and the church built on the spot that is believed to be where Jesus grilled and ate fish with disciple after his resurrection. The Church was very beautiful and simple. It is built on a rock which is partially exposed under the altar. We were given a chance to wade in Sea of Galilee – more of a lake than a sea. The water was beautiful and clean, which was refreshing after our experience at the Jordan. I sat for a long time with my feet in the water, marveling that Jesus and his disciples had certainly spent much time on these waters and in the towns around the sea.

Our next stop on the sea was thevtown of Capernaum, where Peter’s house was and where Jesus healed a man who was lowered through the roof. There was also a synagogue in that town where Jesus taught and healed. The story of the man being lowered through the roof is one of my favorites in all the Bible and so I was looking forward to Capernaum more than almost anywhere. The ruins of Peter’s actual house (scholars and archaeologists are as certain as one can get in these things) are still there. A Church was built on it in the 4th century but that too is in ruins, and a more modern church has been built straddling the archaeological site. You can see the ruins through a window in the church floor and also from outside by looking under the church. Capernaum was perfect.

Next we went on a boat ride. We cruised out onto the Sea of Galilee for a pleasant sail. After an hour we came back to shore and saw the remains of a 2000 year old boat used in Galilee.

We hopped back on the bus and made our way back to Nazareth. The traffic in Cana was terrible, and so even though we never set foot in the town, we spent a good hour in the place where Jesus attended a wedding and turned water into wine.

Galilee was fantastic and is was really helpful to see the locations and topography, and get a sense of the distances. Jesus spent most of his three year Ministry in Galilee. It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

When we returned to Nazareth we were treated to an archaeological treasure and a surprise for our group. There are excavations under the Convent/Guesthouse of the Sisters of Nazareth. These excavations include the most perfect tomb from the time that Jesus lived (give or take a decade or two). We saw the exact type of stone that would have been rolled to block the tomb of Jesus and the same sort of tomb that Jesus was placed in. It is possible that this is St Joseph’s tomb – Nazareth was very small and tombs were reused again and again. Seeing this tomb was perhaps the single most eye opening archaeological site I had seen in the Holy Land. It was perfectly preserved, it dated from Jesus, time, it was in Nazareth, and it exactly matched the type of tomb described in the Gospels. A perfect was to end the day!

Photos are here. Please forgive typos – I’m on my iPhone.

Day 6 (Monday) – The Desert to Jericho to Nazareth

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Today we got up at 4am(!!), packed up our rooms, and departed for a long day to numerous locales at 5am on the bus. We drove into the desert (not a hard thing to do in Israel) and after an hour pulled off the road. Many in our group dressed in layers for this day – the desert is cold at night, right? Armed with my linen blazer, I stepped out of the bus into a sea of humidity and warmth. I immediately took the jacket off and returned it to the bus. Due to a weather shift and the reality of being at a much lower altitude, the humidity in the desert was oppressive from the start. It would get worse as the day went on.

We walked into the hills in the dark, as the light crept in I noted how precariously close we were to certain death if we wandered off the path or slipped. We sat in the silence of the desert and watched the sunrise, which was sublime, and yet as the light increased the immediate scenery revealed the reality and inhospitably of the desert: ants everywhere, hornets, dung (from goats and sheep), humidity, and scorching sun… I didn’t see one but all of the guidebooks warned about scorpions. If anyone every tries to tell you how wonderful the desert is, I – at least – beg to differ. It was not a place I long to return to.

We made our way to an overlook to celebrate the Eucharist. As we walked we saw Bedouin Shepherds watching their flocks (of goats)… Lo, there were Shepherds. When I turned the corner to the overlook, I noted that a Bedouin Shepherd and two small children were literally setting up shop for us with jewelry and trinkets… in the desert. The image of peaceful desert tranquility I had pictured in my head had been shattered by the reality of nature and humanity. I had been looking forward to getting “away” into the desert to “be one with God”, and I found everything from dung to hornets to shepherd selling trinkets less than five feet from our Holy Table (graciously provided I must add by the Bedouin shepherd setting up shop) a bit jarring at first.

Our Gospel reading for this service was the Good Samaritan. Deacon Limato served as Deacon for this Eucharist, Father Randy preached, and I celebrated. The Gospel was so fitting in many ways. It reminded me that I am never called to hurry on by or seek some sort of idealized personal space. The old Bedouin man and children who live in the desert herding goats, setting up a literal table in the wilderness, and occasionally selling items to traveling pilgrims are certainly among the poorer people we have encountered thus far. I have often tried to imagine myself in this parable, and this whole experience made it far more tangible.

We next took the bus to breakfast in Jericho, which is located in the Dead Sea valley about 700 feet below sea level. The humidity and heat increased to the point of near suffocating levels – and it would continue to get worse as the day went on.

After breakfast we headed to the Mt of Temptation which is next to Jericho. We took a gondola to the mid-top of the mountain (which is still about 200 feet below sea level). The gondola ride, packed with 8 riders in the blazing sun with what felt close to 100% humidity was without a doubt the single hottest and most uncomfortable environment I’ve ever been in. Sweltering!

When we got to the top, we were given the option of climbing up to a monastery which is built into the side of the mountain on the traditional spot that Jesus stayed, prayed, fasted, and was tempted for 40 days. Since it was 1000 degrees out and 120% humidty, the obvious choice was to make the climb up 160 steps to visit the cave in the direct midday sun. The climb was ludicrously arduous but the view was breathtaking (and terrifying if you remotely afraid of heights).

The monastery was a small and very Holy place. The rock/cave can be accessed above a chapel which housed some of the most beautiful icons I have ever seen. I prayed here that I could find holiness and beauty in times of solitude and trial. I prayer that I could see God as clearly as I could see those icons even when I am in extreme conditions and very uncomfortable.

We made our way down the mountain and took the gondola back to the bottom of the valley. Mercifully, and I think fittingly, a cool breeze accompanied us in every part of our descent. Breath of God, breathe on me!

Before we got back on the bus we got to ride a camel. The photo above shows that this is most excellent! We have a large group, and I’d say half of us rode Sammy the camel around. It was great!

We embarked up the West Bank by bus to Nazareth – nearly a two hour drive. At one point when we crossed from the Palestinian Territories to Israel, we were so close to Jordan than many of our cell phone greeted us with a “Welcome to Jordan” message and information about how much that would or would not cost to se the phone!

We ate a large and late lunch in Nazareth before visiting the Well of Mary where the Orthodox Churches believe that the Annunciation occurred. We arrived during Orthodox afternoon prayers. We stayed for about 30 minutes of prayer (the service was going before we arrived and it looked like it would continue on for some time). We stopped briefly at the grotto where Mary’s well is located – it is certain that this was the well Mary walked to from her home each day to get water from, and the Orthodox believe the Annunciation happened on such a visit. God sometimes meets us in the midst of our daily routine – do we say yes to what God has offered or do we let the routine allow us to ignore God? Mary said yes, and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Mary’s example in this place is an important reminder that God doesn’t wait for us to carve out sacred time; God calls us in the midst of life.

We next walked through the city streets to the Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation which is built on Mary’s house. Mary’s house is still there, built into the church. Mary’s house!

These two sites are absolute treasures where is was very easy to find God and settle in for prayer and reflection.

We arrived at the Guesthouse of the Sisters of Nazareth where we will be staying for the next two nights. We were greeted with orange juice (the perfect energy boost!) and sent to our rooms to freshen up.

The Sisters’ Guesthouse is located next to the Catholic Church of the Annunciation which is the largest church in the entire Holy Land.

It is also located next to Christ Church, the Anglican Church in Nazareth. Fr. Nael, the Rector at Christ Church, offered us a reflection on what his life is like as Ann Arab, Palestinian, Christian, Israeli citizen. He also gave us background on his parish. I don’t believe my own Christ Church in Pelham has a formal sister church with any other church, and I think it might be worth pursuing a relationship with Christ Church Nazareth. I have Fr. Nael’s card and am now friends with him on FB so I will pursue this when I get home. He is a good man and a good priest.

Our group gathered for dinner and many of us called it a day after that.

Looking back, it was a hard, hot, long, and difficult day, but any physical hardship was overshadowed by intense moments of prayer and community, being able to visit Jericho and Nazareth, and experiencing holiness in the Holy Land.

Nazareth is Jesus’ hometown and it a excellent to be here! Nazareth was a backwater village in Jesus’ day. It has become a thriving metropolis, and I am looking forward to exploring it a bit while we are here.

In the morning we will head to the Sea of Galilee and visit the places where Jesus was active for most of his ministry. I can’t wait!

Photos are available here. Typos will be corrected eventually; I am typing this up on my iPhone.

Day 5 (Sunday) – Gethsemene and Ramallah

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Our day began by going to Gethsemene – the place/garden where Jesus prayed after the Last Supper and where he was betrayed by Judas and arrested. This is one of many sites that is overrun by tourists and pilgrims, so we arrived at 7am – before our Sunday Eucharist.

The church is known as the Church of the Agony and also as the Church of All Nations. It is rebuilt in 1924 on the site of several churches built on the site dating back to 379. The current church is a stunning mix of modern (many nations helped fund it and there are mosaics referencing each of these nations) and ancient (the floor is a duplicate of the church that was built in the 11th century – the original floor stonework can be seen through a “window” in the floor). The main feature is exposed rock around the altar. The garden outside has a grove of olive trees that date back 800 years.

Prayer here this morning was easy, and that was a blessing. I put my hands on the rock in front of the altar for several minutes and prayed. For reasons that I cannot explain, my prayers here have been for my wife, my children, my sister, my mother, and my congregation. In particular, I have offered intense prayers for the women in my family. Our story starts with a woman, Mary, and I’ve been guided to pray for the women in my life while I am here. This morning was no exception. I was grateful for the extended time for prayer this morning, it jump started my day.

We hopped on the bus and headed toward Ramallah for the Eucharist. You may have heard of Ramallah. It’s the capital of the Palestinian Territories. It is often shown on American TV as a bit of a war zone. We passed the checkpoint and drove into a city that was clean (litter has been a significant issue everywhere, but downtown Ramallah was mostly litter and graffiti free) and full of growth and life. The traffic leaving Jerusalem was apparently quite light and so we had an extra half hour of free time before church… so we visited Yaser Arafat’s tomb. Arafat was the leader of the Palestinians for many years. Things I learned about him on this day. His wife was an Arab Christian. He wrote several laws that mandated that Palestinian towns that had a Christian presence (Bethlehem, Ramallah, Beth Sahour, etc.) must have Christian mayors to ensure that the Christian minority’s interested were represented and advocated for. The tomb was monumental – see the photos. He hope was that he could be buried in Jerusalem but that was not possible. I never, ever thought I’d visit Arafat’s tomb. But traffic was light and I learned something I didn’t know.

Our bus dropped us off downtown Ramallah. The weather was beautiful (again!) and so we stopped for ice cream before the 10:30 am Eucharist. A few people in our group took the opportunity to shop for necessary tech cables (Android and Apple chargers and adapters) at a neabby tech shop. I never expected to eat ice cream in Ramallah, nor did I expect one could find a tech shop that has everything our group had been searching for for five days in Jerusalem.

We headed down a hill to St Andrews Anglican
Church. We were invited in and informed our worship would be in English and Arabic (Arab Christians speak and worship in Arabic). The priest (Father Fadi Dia) came in a few minutes early and asked if I wanted to vest and participate as a priest. I jumped at the opportunity. He took to the Sacristy, loaned me an alb and stole, and quickly went over what I would do and what he would do. He then asked, “Do you want to preach?” Now, part of me thought that would be awesome! But I hadn’t even read the readings in advance and I hadn’t prepared a sermon… and I didn’t speak Arabic. Mostly though, I thought that I needed to hear his sermon. I was in his church and though I appreciated the offer very much, I think he and the congregation had already been more than hospitable by letting us read a lesson, letting me be involved in the service, providing English translations, and instructing our entire group to site up front while the regular parishioners sat behind. Preaching would have felt like we were taking over, and that didn’t feel right.

Serving as a priest at the altar at St Andrews in Ramallah will forever be a highlight of my priestly experience, and I will share only one story. During the Eucharistic Prayer (which we read in tandem) I was astounded (in the best way) when I prayed and gave thanks for Jesus who suffered HERE in Jerusalem. Here in Jerusalem. Here. Less than ten miles away from where I was celebrating the Eucharist, Jesus had died and risen from the dead, and the prayer casually noted that geographic reality because it was true. If you want to know why Christians visit the Holy Land, this Prayer summed everything up in one word: here.

After church concluded we had Turkish Coffee and Ice Cream. I’ve been to some great coffee hours in my day, and this was as good as any of them. The people of St Andrews were marvelous examples of Christian hospitality, and I will keep Fr. Fadi and his congregation in my prayers and forever remember the ways they blessed me that day.

After church we headed out of Ramallah to a neighboring town for the most over the top Middle Eastern lunch ever. Endless meat, endless salads, endless dips, endless veggies, and crazy hot peppers! I’m still stuffed. We had a single, gigantic table that we all sat together at. It was amazing.

Our day concluded back in Jerusalem with a walk down the Mt of Olives – mirroring the Palm Sunday walk. We passed numerous Jewish cemeteries, had a perfect view of the City, Temple Mt, Dome of the Rock from across the valley, and stopped at the Dominus Flavit Church (our Lord Wept over Jerusalem). The church has a great view of the city and is the traditional location where Jesus lamented over Jerusalem, as a hen over her brood. There is a great chicken icon on the altar.

Monday will bring an early departure to the desert and then a few days in Nazareth.

You can view Day 5 photos here. Please forgive the typos, I’m working on my iPhone.

Day 4 (Saturday) – Bethlehem

8B0E0C05-E36A-44C5-A83D-31605B5D5258Today (Saturday) we went to Bethlehem.

Bethlehem is in the West Bank. This was the second time we went into Palestinian Territories. This is no small thing. You cross a checkpoint. You pass into an area flanked by ominous red signs. There is a (quite new) 30 foot wall surrounding the area territories. Basic utilities services change. Even ATT recognizes a difference: my cell phone notes that I am in Palestine, rather than a “Partner” network and the rates change. Most of us get a text noting this switch. The photos (link at the end of this post) give you some idea of the wall and signs. For pop/social justice/art fans, Banksy graffiti is omnipresent. I’ll post more about this reality in a later post.

Bethlehem is 7 miles outside of Jerusalem. Basically a suburb today, but it is historically the hill country surrounding the city. Our first stop today (after the checkpoint) was Boaz’s Field/Shepherds’ Field. We exited the bus and were greeted by a herd of salesmen. Markets, outdoor salesmen, and such are a reality everywhere in the Holy Land. Bartering and haggling (and avoiding getting fleeced or pickpocketed) are part of the daily fun, and to be clear there is some great stuff to be had – as well as trifles and tidbits. Today’s sellers offered beautiful clothing and appropriate souvenirs.

We made our way past the mini-market to a small church. There was a large group of Christian Pilgrims from Senegal who had arrived before us. We made our way past them and down the hill where we found the entrance to a cave. The history of this area predates Jesus. Bethlehem is David’s city and so we read about David’s grandmother Ruth and hiw she met Boaz. After the background our group 43 including our guides) entered the cave/dwelling. Many of the dwellings in the hill country 2000 years ago were actually underground caves, and it is believed that Jesus was born in such a place.

Forty people can actually fit pretty easily in such a tight place, but I think I was not alone in feeling a bit claustrophobic. The cave dwelling was less “in” and more “down” requiring our group to go a dozen steps down into an anti chamber and another half dozen steps into the sleeping and living area. When everyone was inside Iyad provided background in this type of dwelling or gather space. We then read the Nativity Story. I offered a prayer, and then we sang Christmas Carols, in the dark, in a cave (with no lyric sheets or accompaniment). O Little Town if Bethlehem and Away In A Manger (we actually sang both tunes all the way through). We then prayed for refugees and families and children, children (in particular our own), grandchildren, and peace. Christmas carols in a cave in Bethlehem in August will forever be part of my Christmas memories.

We exited the cave and climbed back up the hill to the church. This is NOT the Church of the Nativity, but rather it is the Church in the Shepherds Field. The church was built in honor of the Shepherds and the Angels who proclaimed the birth of Jesus to then by singing Gloria in excelsis. We went inside and sang… you guessed in “Angels we have heard in high”. We did have a lyric Sheets for this. Randy and Jeff and I felt, since we were Episcopalians we should (and could) also sing an actual Gloria, and so we sang the Mathias Gloria (without lyrics – we all knew it). There is video of both songs, and I’ll post it on FB.

We next went shopping. I find it funny that our trip to Bethlehem included an abundance of singing and shopping. Once our wallets were a bit lighter and our supply of gifts for loved ones was heavier, we toured the actual town and it’s recently added walls. I’ll post more about the walls later, but the photos and the graffiti on the walls tells a fair amount of the story.

Lunch in Bethlehem at Ruth’s was amazing. I could eat The local salads, spreads, and meats forever, but today featured the best falafel I’ve ever had.

After lunch we headed up the hill to the Church of the Nativity.

The church is another built by Helena on a spot that was formerly occupied by a Roman Temple over the site recalled by locals (with bitterness that a organ Temple was on that particular site) since at least the second century. The original church was was built in 339 and torn down in 529 and replaced with the current building (which has undergone significant renovation and expansion over the past 1500 years. Under the Church is the cave shrine which commemorates both the birth spot and the manger location – again recalled since at least the 2nd century which is about 50 years after the Apostolic age.

The church today is undergoing significant restoration and looks like a construction site. There is tons of ugly graffiti on the construction material (“Bill was here, 2017” – that sort of thing), which has unfortunately drifted into some of the architectural elements. There was a sign on a 1500 year old column with a sign on it which read “Please don’t write on the columns.”

The line to get to the birth and manger shrine was long and sauna-like. Our weather has been perfect this whole trip, but the interior of the Church of the Nativity was sweltering. We waited for nearly an hour to get to the shrine, which was downstairs, and even hotter.

This shrine, very much like the Holy Sepulcher tomb and Calvary was a mix of an intense, brief, holy blur mixed with a mass of humanity. I have found on this trip that that reality is as good an analogy of the mystery of the Incarnation. Jesus is fully God and fully human. We get humanity. It’s messy, intimate, loving, annoying, and everything in between. We struggle to perceive the divine. We have mountaintop moments (the Nativity is on a mountain) that we can’t hold on to and can never adequately describe or explain. We see and find God in strange places but can not control or confine those moments. St. Peter said at the Transfiguration: “Lord it is good that we are here”, and he wanted to buikd tents to maintain the mystical moment, but it ended. Jesus led them down the mountain and asked them not to tell anyone what they had seen… and even when they did their story of what happened barely does justice to what they must have witnessed. The same is true with some of these Holy Sites. In our group of 41 nobody has “gotten” the spark in every site, everyone has been walloped by the Spirit somewhere, and yet everyone has noted with some frustration how annoying “tourists” can be and also noted with joy the depth of faith seen in the thousands of pilgrims around us. So… the humanity is easy to see, and the divine is more of a challenge. I think if we really digested the Nicene Creed each week, we’d probably feel the same way about it as these holy sites.

The Church of the Nativity was a place that St Jerome found God. So much so that he lived there for many years, built a monastic community, translated the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate), and is buried there. His tomb and chapels in his living quarters are right next to the Nativity Shrines. I believe Jerome lived there for 36 years. Who knows how many times he has a mountain top moment on that mountain, but it is worth remembering that he – apparently more so than many of us – was grouchy and constantly bothered by the presence of most other people. I find that humerous considering the Church of the Nativity was a major pilgrim destination in his day too!

Our day concluded with a grand dinner at the guest house. Our group has officially bonded. Rather than sitting in groups of four or six, we ended up continually adding tables and chairs to an ever growing table. When the space would no longer permit such a table, we turned the corner and ended up eating together (all of us) in a single giant L shaped table. The presence of the Spirit was palpable – the before-meal-grace by my father received applause! So perhaps spending time with people and growing in relationship allows us to find God.

Photos are online here. Typos will get corrected eventually – I am afterall working on my iPhone.

Day 3: Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Upper Room, Armenian Vespers

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Today we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Our day began with Morning Prayer led by Randy Alexander who reminded us that Jerusalem is an earthly home for all Christians, even if we are visiting from far away, because our true home is the New Jerusalem, Eternal Paradise with God. Morning Prayer concluded with an unaccompanied hymn, Were You There When The Crucified My Lord. It was a stirring and spiritual start to a blessed day.

After prayers our guide Iyad presented a detailed background of the geography and history of the Passion, Death, and Burial of Jesus. Jesus carried his cross outside the walls (walls that no longer exist) of the (then) city limits. As I noted in a prior blog post, the city limits and walls have changed significantly over the last 2000 years. Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified was an old quarry outside the city limits that has been abandoned due to poor quality rock. By Jesus’ day, the quarry had been converted to a public execution site and also a grave yard. The archeological evidence for that is indisputable. It did not take long for sites important in Jesus life to be venerated and those sites were passed down from generation to generation and eventually they became Holy Sites. Empress Helena oversaw the construction of churches (and archaeological work) on many of these sites about 300 years after Jesus death and resurrection. Other most famous Church was built over the entire Golgotha and grave site which included what scholars believe was almost certainly the actual site of Jesus crucifixion and burial. Over the centuries the city expanded beyond those old limits, new walks were built, churches were destroyed or damaged by natural disasters and enemies of the church, churches were rebuilt, but through it all the crucifixion and burial sites were preserved and continued to be venerated by Christians.

Today, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which still includes part of Helena’s original basilica, but the area which was once outside the city is deep within Jerusalem. The city has expanded constantly outward. In fact, the Holy Sepulcher is inside the “Old City” which is s designation for the area inside walls built in the 1500s. Control over this church has long been disputed and today it is overseen by six different denominations (Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, Coptic, Syrian, and Ethiopian) who all claim “turf” within the Church. The effect is that what appears on the outside as one building is in fact numerous chapels that sprawl farther out that one would imagine looking from the outside, and also far deeper underground than one would ever suspect.

Before entering we walked up to one of the roof areas and visited a chapel upstairs. A recent roof cave in means this small chapel is currently inaccessible from anywhere within the church. It is controlled by the Ethiopians, who are very poor. We prayed in the chapel for a few minutes and then left donations to support them.

Outside we encounter the first (of what would be many) groups praying the Stations of the Cross. We then headed back through the city to the main entrance of the church.

Upon Entering the Church of the Holy Sepulcher i was greeted by a sights and sounds that are amazing, chaotic, noisy, sacred, ancient, new, divine, and so very human all in one. In a word, it is the Church, or as one of our group aptly noted gazing upon a thick crowd filled with everything from tears to vocal prayers to storytellers to custodians to selfie takers… “Behold, the disciples.”

The first shrine or chapel that a pilgrim sees is the Annointing Stone, where tradition says the women brought their oils to anoint Jesus’ body. I’ll explain more about this later because it is actually the last shrine I stopped at both times I visited the church today.

To the right of the Stone is a staircase to the chapel marking the exact spot where the crucifixion is believed to have occurred. The rooms up here are dense with glorious ancient artwork if Eastern and Western styles: paintings, icons, and mosaics portraying every biblical and traditional aspect of the crucifix cover every wall and ceiling. The focal point is an altar directly above Calvary (a large stone over which this chapel is built. Below the altar is a hole and every pilgrim can crawl under the altar and reach down through the hole to touch the stone. The rooms were also dense with the faithful. We waited in a line/mob for over 30 minutes to get a chance to touch the stone. People jostled and bumped into each other, it was noisy, people prayed out loud, other marveled at the artwork, some wept. I touched the stone and said the Lord’s Prayer but quickly moved on, mindful that many were waiting behind me. I was moved, not as much by touching the stone, as I was by the mass of humanity that could find the sacred in the midst of such chaos. It reminded me of those moments in our parish Liturgy where the church is too crowded, too noisy, too much, and yet more sacred than when “everything is perfect”. Christianity isn’t about maintaining perfection. It is about moving from darkness to Light, seeking and restoring the lost, and finding the sacred in brokenness. I was right at home in the chaos of this sacred space. Our pilgrimage group is very large though, and that meant we spent far more time waiting around than a smaller group ever would. Our extended time at this shrine would mean less time in the rest of the church.

Once everyone had touched and venerated the stone, we headed downstairs. Directly below the chapel we had just been in is the Chapel of Adam which has openings (windows covering them) where you can view the entire stone of Calvary. The names of this chapel is attributed to a tradition the Adam (from Genesis) died in the same location that Jesus died, thus physically linking the old Adam and the new Adam (Jesus), the old creation and the new creation, in death. The rock you can see has a natural crack and discoloration that traditionally has been believed to be linked to the earthquake at Jesus’ death and the blood that ran from his side, respectively.

Around the corner is a long staircase covered in graffiti that dates from at least the 4th century – thousands and thousands of small crosses carved into the rock walls. It seems to me that the traditional Jerusalem Cross is derived from this graffiti.

The chapel at the bottom of the steps named for Helena the founder behind the original complex which includes her crypt. Another set of stairs moves deeper down into the original quarry where the chapel of the finding of the True Cross.

It’s worth nothing that there are a number of chapels and shrines in The Holy Sepulcher that are not accessible to the public without prior permission from the controlling denomination. One such chapel is in this area dedicated to St. Vartan (Armenian) which includes access to the quarry itself and an ancient ship drawing and graffiti which is one of the earliest markers the site was venerated by Christian Pilgrims traveling from foreign perhaps as early as the second century.

Back upstairs are numerous other chapels but the heart of the complex is the Edicule or “little building” which is the tomb monument. The current monument dates back to 1810 (the prior monument was destroyed by fire), but the lee is a long (and somewhat disturbing) series of destructions (natural and mannade) of the monuments that have covered the tomb. The current one is in some ways a replica of Solomon’s Temple which included a “Holy Place” and an interior “Most Holy Place”. In the Edicule Christ’s tomb I’m in the inner Most Holy Place. A marble tomb bed is there now which is venerated by Christians, but what is left of the actual tomb is underneath, and recent excavations during the renovation of the Edicule confirmed that the original complex over the tomb does date to Constantine’s (And Helena’s) era, which would mean at the very least that the site has never been moved despite the numerous destructions and rebuildings.

Behind the tomb is the chapel of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. It is traditionally held to be the tomb of these saints, and it is certainly a wonderful example of what tombs in the area looked like – we were able to crawl into the tomb and see what it was like (very tomblike). The graffiti in this chapel dates from the early 21st century and displays a jarring thoughtlessness of modern tourists – can you imagine writing your name in a Sharpie on the walls of the Holy Sepulcher?

The line to the Edicule was too long for us to wait in so the group left, but six of us came back later in the day. Our later visit featured a 40 minutes wait in line and three separate (and competing) liturgical processions in English/Spanish, Greek, and Latin, respectively. At one point we’re were trapped by dueling chanting processions. It was incredible and a sign of the holiness and diversity of faithfulness of the disciples.

Going into the tomb was a holy blur – if I had been there 2000 years ago I’m sure it would have felt similarly blurry and holy. Being in the most holy place in the Christian world for a few seconds and then coming out was inspiring but a reminder that every mountain top moment is but a brief respite from our calling to spread the Gospel to the world. “Do not hold onto me, but go and tell them what you have seen.”

The Annointing Stone is on the way out or the way in, depending on your perspective. The stone is a red marble slab that is soaked in oil (at night? By Pilgrims? I have no clue). Pilgrims rub garments or bless crosses on the stone and the smell of the oil, a smell which so permeates the Church that it is the official smell of the church. Anything that touches the stone takes the smell with it. I placed my hand on the stone and I had the Holy Sepulcher with me all day.

After our full group left the Holy Sepulcher we went to the Upper Room which is actually in the basement. This room below Saint Mark’s is the traditional Upper Room of Marks’s mother’s home. It is traditionally the same Upper Room where Peter came after being released from jail, where Pentecost happened, where Jesus appeared Easter Sunday to the Apostles, and the location of the Last Supper. Whether or not this tradition is accurate is impossible to confirm but two things stood out to me. First, the Upper Room makes numerous appearances in the Scripture and was essentially the home base of the Apostles. Second, the fact that it is in the basement of a current church makes sense when you actually walk the ruins of the city. Around the corner from the Upper Room is an excavation of the Old Roman road (Carda) that is literally 20-30 feet under the current base of the city. The city has risen several stories over the last 2000 years as buildings have been torn down and rebuilt again and again.

We ate lunch at the Lutheran Guest House – great view, great food.

Our day concluded with Armenian Vespers which was beautiful, long, and utterly confusing. The 45 minute service was chanted in Armenian. Priests and acolytes were wandering all over the place, including climbing up ladders and disappearing for long segments of time. Furniture was brought out during service but not used. Midway through the service we were directed to stand as the entire group of singers 30-40 cantors, deacons, Priests, etc) processed into another room and continued singing (in another room!!) for 20 minutes. Apparently it concluded and they casually walked out and we went home.

Half of our group went back to the Guesthouse. I went with the other half to the Sisters of Veronica who make/write icons. Mother Sullivan led us in prayer in their chapel and then looked at the icons for sale. Six of us broke off and revisited the Holy Sepulcher as noted above.

It was a marvelous day and I cannot wait to get back to the Old City. I’m a day behind on my blog now. Today we went to Bethlehem, and I will blog about that tonight or tomorrow.

Photos are here. Typo corrections will appear soon enough (I am after all working on my iPhone).

Day 2 – The Old City, Western Wall, Gabbatha, Bethesda, and Dead Sea Scrolls

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Today we entered the Old City. The map above should give some idea of how the walls enclosing the Old City have shifted over time. If you see a scenic photo of Jerusalem the odds are good you will notice a big wall. This is either the wall built a few years before Jesus was born by Herod the Great surrounding the Temple Mount, or it is the much larger wall built in 1535–1542 by the Turkish sultan Suleiman the Magnificent surrounding what is now called the Old City. As you can see there were other walls throughout history that were built as the city was expanding, but for the most part those walls are gone.

The Old City does not equate to the city limits that Jesus knew, it’s just a designation for the area inside Suleiman’s wall, and it includes the Temple Mount and a significant part of ancient Jerusalem.

Anyway, to get into the Old City you need to go through one of the 8 gates that are built in the wall. There’s a longer history of the gates, but today there are 8 open gates and at least three closed gates (closed meaning sealed up). We entered through the Dung Gate (you can imagine what the gate may have been used for) which is right near the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.

The Temple Mount has a long history and much but not all of it is narrated in the Bible or by an historian named Josephus. I’ll summarize. When Moses led the people out of Israel he was directed by God to build the Ark of the Covenant (see this Wikipedia article for more info – Indiana Jones’ Raiders of the List Ark got the look and power narrated in the Bible pretty right on). The Ark eventually held the Tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written, a jar of manna, and Aaron’s staff, but those items were not really the point. The main feature of the Ark was the Mercy Seat on top which was where God could sit – it’s really important that the seat is empty because the Israelites didn’t worship an idol or the Ark itself, just God who had chosen his people Israel and would be present with them on the seat. The Israelites took the Ark with them throughout their wilderness wandering, keeping it in a tent that was called the Tabernacle and carrying it before them whenever they marched to a new place. The exact dimensions of the Ark and Tabernacle are all in Exodus so do yourself a favor and read that if this is all new to you. The tent Tabernacle had a holy place in the imiduare entrance area, and a most holy place further in called the Holy of Holies and that is where the Ark was kept. Moses, Aaron, and the priests would offer sacrifices at the Ark inside the Tabernacle and consult with God by visiting the Ark.

The Israelites took the Ark with them into the Promised Land, and it was carried into battle as they conquered various towns and peoples (This is all in Joshua). After a convoluted history (read Judges and First Samuel) King David brought the Ark to Jerusalem and set up the Tabernacle on Mt Zion.

Around 957 BC David’s son Solomon built the first Temple to house the Ark. The Temple basically copied the style of the tent by having a Holy Place and a Holy of Holies (you can read all about this in 1 Kings and 1 Chronicles. This Temple was destroyed in 586 BC (or 425BC depending on who you ask) by the Assyrians. There is no record in the Old Testament of what happened to the Ark. There is a rabbinic story that King Josiah hid the Ark somewhere on the Temple Mount. Other rabbis suggest it may have taken to Babylon. 2 Maccabees 2 (Deuterocanonical Scripture and part of what we call the Apocrypha) states:

The Prophet Jeremiah “having received an oracle, ordered that the tent and the ark should follow with him, and that he went out to the mountain where Moses had gone up and had seen the inheritance of God. Jeremiah came and found a cave-dwelling, and he brought there the tent and the ark and the altar of incense; then he sealed up the entrance. Some of those who followed him came up intending to mark the way, but could not find it. When Jeremiah learned of it, he rebuked them and declared: “The place shall remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy. Then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord and the cloud will appear, as they were shown in the case of Moses, and as Solomon asked that the place should be specially consecrated.””

A Second Temple was built (read Ezra-Nehemiah) in 515BC on the same spot and featured the same design (though apparently not as grand as the Firsr Temple) of a Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. The Ark was never restored to the Second Temple and it isn’t clear (at least to me) what (if anything) happened in the Holy of Holies at the Second Temple.

Herod the Great (who was renowned for his building programs) renovated the Temple and expanded the Temple Mount by building a massive wall around it around 20BC. The wall made possible several courtyards and areas for money changers, etc.

The Second Temple was destroyed in 70AD by the Romans after a Jewish Revolt. The Romans built a temple to Jupiter on the Temple Mount. The Emporir Julian (the Apostate) allowed the Jews to rebuild the Temple but an earthquake in 363AD and the death of Julian in the same year meant plans to build a Third Temple never got going.

In 691 AD Muslims built the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount to commemorate the traditional location Mohammed’s ascension into heaven with the Angel Gabriel (part of Muslim tradition but not the Koran). The Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque which was built around the same time are on the Temple Mount today.

Parts of the walls of Herod’s expansion of the Temple Mount are still visible and have been excavated so that Southern Wall and a part of the Western Wall are accessible. The Western Wall, as it is called, is only a segment of the whole unexcavated Western Wall. Wikipedia notes: “The term Western Wall and its variations are mostly used in a narrow sense for the section traditionally used by Jews for prayer; it has also been called the “Wailing Wall”, referring to the practice of Jews weeping at the site over the destruction of the Temples. During the period of Christian Roman rule over Jerusalem (ca. 324–638), Jews were completely barred from Jerusalem except to attend Tisha be-Av, the day of national mourning for the Temples, and on this day the Jews would weep at their holy places. The term “Wailing Wall” was thus almost exclusively used by Christians, and was revived in the period of non-Jewish control between the establishment of British Rule in 1920 and the Six-Day War in 1967. The term “Wailing Wall” is not used by Jews, and increasingly not by many others who consider it derogatory.”

The Western Wa is important as a prayer location because it is the closest possible place one can be to where the Holy of Holies is. People (mostly Jews) bring there prayers (usually written on small scraps of paper) and leave them in the Wa as close as possible to where God dwelt in the Holy of Holies.

I should admit that though the Temple is an essential part of the Gospel narrative and I was not unenthusiastic about visiting the Western Wall, still I was far more enthusiastic about visiting specific Christian sites like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I really didn’t know what to make of this transition of the importance of praying near the place where Holy of Holies had been 2000 years ago.

When we arrived at the Wall we encountered a jubilant atmosphere. There were numerous bar mitzvahs going on with drums, trumpets, and singing. I wonder now if that was the spirit and feeling of Palm Sunday. We made our way to security with a great throng and once through, the atmosphere changed dramatically. I felt what I can only describe as a holy somberness. We were given instructions about proper etiquette: men on one side, women on the other, wear a hat or covering, back away from the Wall, and take as much time as you wish at the Wall in prayer.

I approached the Wall, placed my hand on it and got walloped by the presence of God in a way that I have rarely if ever felt. I began to weep as I offered my prayers (I prayed for my wife and children, my sister and her family, my parents, my church, and parishioners who asked to be remembered at the Wall) and placed my written prayers in the Wall. Tears are flowing as I write this and I rarely get emotional like this. The experience in those few moments was so intense and overwealming that I had to draw back and move away from the Wall. After about ten minutes I approached the wall again and offered the same prayers, but the overwealming awesomeness and “Fear of the Lord” that I had had before was replaced with a knowledge that God was present in that place in a way that I cannot explain other than to note that thousands of people are drawn each day there to pray. The experience puts the entire narrative about the Ark, Tabernacle, Temple, and the Wall into a new light. “Holy and awesome is this place.” I understand now why people fell flat on their faces before God throughout the Scriptures. I left the Wall feeling shattered by the presence of God and made whole at the same time.

We headed into the winding streets of the Old City, and my main memory from the walk was feeling incredibly thirsty. I bought a liter and a half of water and drank it immediately. At one point we stopped to get out of the way of a car driving down the street – the street is no wider than a car and I cannot imagine that cars should even be there. I looked up and saw that we were turning onto a street called Via Dolorosa (this is the traditional Way of the Cross).

We walked up the Way and entered a small building to “see excavations”. Our guide Iyad explained that we were now on the site of Antonia’s Fortress. This is where Pilate would have stayed when he was in town. This is where the prisoners (Jesus too) would have been kept if they had been sent to Pilate. The Roman soldiers had a game they would play. Every week one prisoner on death row would be chosen to play “King”. The soldiers would stand the prisoner on a stone and dress the prisoner up as a king (stuff like a robe or a crown of thorns). Then they would mock the “king” and beat the “king” and finally they would execute the “king”. An excavation at some point had unearthed the “King Game Stone”. I was amazed. I had never heard that what happened to Jesus on that stone by the Roman soldiers was a game that had happened to countless other prisoners. We went down into the excavation where there was a cistern and a series of rooms with stone floors. And among the stones was a large, square, flat stone with a crown carved into it and a B for Basileus or King in Greek. Jesus had not only suffered, he had suffered as many had before and many had after, and yet this cruel game also, ironically, revealed the truth about Jesus. I prayed on that spot that I might be accompanied by Christ in any suffering I might ever have as Jesus accompanied all who suffered such merciless cruelty. Be present Lord Jesus be present.

Our next stop was the Church of Saint Anne (Mary’s mom), and Bethesda. Bethesda is a pool/bath area that includes a place of ritual cleansing for healing. It is where Jesus healed a man who had been lame for over 30 years. There are numerous photos in my album (link at the end) of the excavations of these pools (they are deep!).

Father Randy Alexander, Mother Rosemary Sullivan (a priest who is part of our group) and I offered prayers for healing and anointing with Holy Oi which I was honored to bless at Bethesda. I will continue to keep all who came to me for prayers in my heart and in my prayers. May God bless them.

We entered Saint Anne’s and sang Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God. I lit a candle at the Shrine to Saint Anne and said a prayer for my mother Nancy (which is a form of the name Anne), my wife, and my sister. May God bless their motherhood as Anne and Mary were blessed.

We headed out of the Old City and grabbed lunch back at the guesthouse. After lunch we bussed to West Jerusalem to the Israel Museum to see a scale model of Jerusalem around the time of Jesus. It was really cool and helpful to see the nearness of the different places events in the Bible happened. Check out some of the photos. The Museum houses a shrine for the Dead Sea scrolls which was fascinating to walk through.

After a long day I am ready for dinner in the grotto. I’m also ready for a good night sleep (I went to bed too late yesterday but enjoyed the late conversation with other Pilgrims).

Tomorrow we visit the Holy Sepulcher.

Photos from today are here.

(Photo link and edits for typos will be done after dinner).

Day 1 walkabout, Mt Scopus, West Bank, Herodium

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I would call this a day of background and relationship building.

Breakfast. I had 7 double espressos because I slept poorly. The coffee helped. The local fruits, veggies, and dairy were perfect.

We started with morning prayer in the cathedral (I led and preached and there will probably be few opportunities when I get home for me to reflect on that moment – a moment which I will always treasue).

Next we took a walking tour of East Jerusalem. This is a Palestinian area and I will have more to say about that reality later (another post for another day).

After the tour we took our bus to Mt Scopus. We saw the several mountains around Jerusalem (including Ascension/Olives) and their relationship to the city. We also saw the desert on the other side of the Mt, and the Israeli settlements and Palestinian Territories (more on that later too… in another post).

We then drove to a Palestinian town Brit Sahour for lunch (Zarb) of chicken and vegetables which are roasted in a mud covered, Canaanite oven. The lunch was delicious but getting there was a visual lesson in the political reality. To get into the town we had to pass through a checkpoint that Israelis can freely travel through (not Palestinians) and a set of the many infamous Red Signs placed by the Israelis which state clearly that it is both illegal and dangerous for Israeli citizens to enter the area – which has been walled off by the Israelis with razor wire and concrete walls. I would describe the barriers and checkpoint less as obstacles designed to keep people out and more as methods to keep people in. Americans do not seem to have many issues traveling in either Israel or Palestine. I’ll post something about the political reality at a later point, but the signs and walls said a great deal by themselves.

After a wonderful and hospitable lunch and on a full stomach we drove over to Herodium Which is a national park of Israel located within a Pastinian territory (not sure exactly how that works). Herodium is a semi-man-made mountain with the ruins of the fortress/palace of Herod the Great on top. Herod the Great was the ruler of the Roman province of Judea who lived up until the time Jesus was born, and he appears in St. Matthew’s infancy narrative. He is frightened by the Magi’s news and slaughters all the boys in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill this new King of the Jews the Magi have come to see. He was not the nicest guy… even to his family. Apparently Emperor Augustine said “it is better to be one of Herod’s pigs than one of his sons.”

Herodium is an engineeeing marvel – apparently Herod ordered that they cut the top off of the local hills/mountains and put them all on top of another hill, placing the dirt around a fortress that had been built which included massive man-made cisterns. And of course this is what they did. The result was a palace, bathhouse, pool, and fortress that overlooked the whole region. It must have been awesome. Herod liked it so much he decided his tomb would be there. The steep walk up in the warm weather (perfect at high 80s with zero humidity) was a tad challenging but not bad. Most of the photos I took today are archaeological or scenic shots from Herodium.

Unfortunately for Herod, his tomb, and his man made fortress, his legacy was remembered decades after he died, and the locals destroyed everything as soon as they could to mar his memory. It was also used as a fortress by Jews during the second Jewish Revolt. In any event, it is now an engineering ruin, perhaps a fitting memorial for an king who was remembered for numerous building projects including the expansions around the Second Temple and also ruining the lives of many people.

The 360 degree view from Herodium was amazing. The Judean hills, the Palestinuan towns, the Israeli settlements, and the roads are all visible.

We returned to East Jerusalem, passing through a check point without issue (our guide said one word to the guards “Americans”).

A few minutes were free to freshen up before we were presented a brief history and Q&A session on Islam. I had taken a semester at Yale on Islam and this served as a nice refresher about this ancient religion which includes a billion people on earth and calls (as Christians and Jews do) Jerusalem and the Holy Land a sacred place. I think most of our group knew little to nothing about Islam. The speaker was engaging, honest, and well received.

Dinner in the guesthouse grotto was magnificent. We concluded with a cake – a surprise for Patty and Randy Alexander who celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary that day. The Alexander family (their three boys are here) and I snuck away after dessert (but not into any he desert) and we renewed their marriage vows under the stars of the Holy City.

Afterwards conversation ran deep into the night. I slept well and am up now preparing for our first visit to the Temple Mount and the Western(formerly known as Wailing) Wall.

Photos from Day 1 are here. Day 1 Photos

All 41 Pilgrims gathered together

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The flight from Newark to Tel Aviv was an hour late and uncomfortable, but otherwise uneventful; we all made it to Israel. I think I may have gotten 2-3 hours of bad sleep.

Our guide Iyad Qumri met all 19 Christ Church Pilgrims us at the airport and drove us by bus to Jerusalem. He gave us a mini tour of parts of the West Bank along the way, driving past Palestinian towns and Israeli settlements.

We arrived at the St George’s Guesthouse where we are staying in Jerusalem around 7:30pm. The entire Alexandria group had already arrived in drips and drabs over the day and so our group has swelled to its full size of 41 Pilgrims.

After a brief gathering I offered a prayer of thanksgiving for safe travel and our loved ones back home and grace before dinner.

Dinner was served (upside down chicken and rice, yogurt and cucumbers, a variety of other salads, etc) and it was deliscious. After dinner we met the Archbishop of The Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, “a province of the Anglican Communion stretching from Iran in the east to Algeria in the west, and Cyprus in the north to Somalia in the south. It is the largest and the most diverse Anglican province. The church is headed by a President Bishop, currently the Most Reverend Suheil Dawani, who ranks as a representative primate in the Anglican Communion. The Central Synod of the church is its deliberative and legislative organ. The province is divided into four dioceses:

Diocese of Jerusalem — covering Israel, Palestinian territories, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon,
Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf — covering Cyprus, the Arabian peninsula and Iraq,
Diocese of Egypt with North Africa, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti — also covering Algeria, Tunisia and Libya,
Diocese of Iran.”

(From Wikipedia)

We then gathered for introductions, travel tips, and a review of our itinerary.

Tomorrow is day 1, and start bright and early at 7am. Local time here is 7 hours ahead of New York. The weather here is gorgeous. Mid 80s with no humidity during the day. Mid 60s at night.