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.