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


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


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.