Saturday, 27 December 2008

parris converted?

Matthew Parris, former Tory M.P. and journalist for The Times, has written an article in which he argues that what Africa needs is Christianity. What makes this piece so surprising is that Parris is an atheist and yet he declares:

Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

You can read the full article here. Parris puts forward a convincing case, however, the question I would like to ask him is this:

If Christianity is the answer for Africa then why isn't it the answer for Great Britian and why isn't it the answer for Matthew Parris?

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

holy land reflections (2) - little donkey

Aleem Maqbool with donkey number three.

I've just been reading an account by the BBC journalist Aleem Maqbool of his journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem with a donkey. Actually, there were several donkeys as he had to change them for various reasons during his sojourn. Maqbool has now reached Bethlehem and was interviewed this morning on Radio 5 Live, from where he described the preparations for this evenings celebrations of the birth of Jesus. It is well worth reading Maqbool's account of his journey and I particularly appreciated his description of places I was not able to visit during my recent trip to the Holy Land. Here is a section from Maqbool's diary and his description of the situation faced by many Palestinians echoes some of the stories I heard durng my time there.

The morning began with a beautiful walk, but ended with a stark reminder that this trail takes us through what remains a conflict zone that impacts on people's lives every day.
The final few kilometres to the checkpoint took us past small communities, again, divided into those which were predominantly Jewish, and those that had a mix of Christians and Muslims, like the village of Mokeble, the last stop before the barrier that separates Israel from the West Bank. There, I got talking to Adala, a teacher, who was keen to show off the Christmas tree in her school hall. She said that since the barrier had been put up, her husband had been separated from his brothers and sisters who were in a village a few hundred metres on the Palestinian side. She said they could no longer come to visit him, but that her and her husband, as Israeli ID card holders, could sometimes cross the other way into the West Bank if the checkpoint was open.

After a wait at the checkpoint, I was happy to be told that I would be allowed to pass. However, the Israeli authorities informed us that our donkey did not have the correct paperwork. Donkey number two would have to be left behind. I would like to think her stubborn resistance to getting into the animal trailer was because she wanted to stay with me. However, I have a feeling it was more the prospect of a bumpy ride home.

For those Palestinian farmers in the West Bank who have land on the "wrong side" of the barrier (in many places it runs well inside West Bank, leaving Palestinian land outside), such bureaucracy can really impact on working life. Many farmers have given up tending their land in these circumstances. Two donkeys down, I crossed into the West Bank alone.
Tuesday 16th December: Mokeble. Aleem Maqbool.

This brief account reminded me of my own experience of crossing the barrier as we left Bethlehem (West Bank) to enter Israel. What at the time was for me a minor inconvenience comprising a delay of about half an hour is an everyday occurrence (of much longer than half an hour) for those living on one side and working on the other side of the wall. There are many Palestinian Christians who will be unable to attend worship in their own churches over the Christmas period because of the separation barrier. I will be thinking of them as I take my family to church on Christmas Day.

The wall at the entrance to Bethlehem.

'For He is our peace: in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.' Ephesians 2:14.

Monday, 22 December 2008

holy land reflections (1) - layers

Excavations at southern wall of Temple Mount

In the film Shrek there is a scene where Shrek, the ogre, and his faithful sidekick Donkey are discussing Shrek’s personality. Shrek explains that he is more complex than might at first appear, he has layers. One of the most striking features of the Holy Land and in particular Jerusalem is that it is a place of many layers. These layers are most obviously visible in the archaeological excavations where one can see the stratification laid bare. A good example of this layering is the dig at Jericho where in the first part of the C20th various archaeologists, most notably Garstang and then Kenyon, investigated the city walls and explored the relationship between the finds and the Biblical record. I commented on the site at Jericho on a previous post and there is a good summary of the site here.

Excavation at Jericho revealing stratification and base of a watch tower.

Another sense of layering can be seen at the religious sites which over time have been regarded as holy by various faiths. At these sites one can see different holy places built one upon another. In some cases as one faith replaced another so religious buildings were destroyed and the rubble used in the construction of another holy place on top. The best example of this I saw was at the Temple Mount where excavations have now revealed the street level of the Second Temple (538 B.C. – 70 A.D.) and Roman (70 - 325 A.D.) periods. At this site are also remains from the Byzantine (325 – 634 A.D.), Umayyad (660 – 1073 A.D.), Crusader (1099 – 1187 A.D.), Ayyubid (1187 – 1229 A.D.), Mamluk (1250 – 1516 A.D.) and Ottoman (1516 – 1917 A.D.) periods. Another example is at the Cenacle, traditionally considered the site of the Upper Room where the Last Supper was celebrated. This site is now the remains of a Crusader church which became a mosque and then synagogue. It is an important site for Jews as it is considered to be the site of the Tomb of David.

As a result of this layering of holy places a great amount of sensitivity and restraint needs to be exercised by the various communities. I was particularly impressed at the church of Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant in Abu-Ghosh to see the way in which the church was modestly decorated out of respect to Judaism. Judaism regards it as an important religious site; Abinadab’s house where the Ark resided for twenty years before David moved it to Jerusalem. This sensitivity has not always been evident and on occasions the consequences have been explosive. One of the most infamous examples was Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Dome of the Rock as part of an election campaign in September 2000; the consequences were a battle between Palestinians and the Israeli security forces. Inevitably there are conflicting accounts of this incident and the motives of those caught up in it but it serves to highlight the way in which a site, regarded as central to Judaism and Islam and as special to Christians, carries many layers of history and significance.

My personal impression of the situation is that each of the religious communities is on the whole sensitive to the others and seeks to live with an uneasy accommodation. Where else in the world can one see so many sites of religious significance literally on top of each other? One of the most amusing stories I heard was that when the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem they thought the Dome of the Rock was actually Herod’s Temple and so didn’t destroy it but placed an altar there and converted it into a church! Had they realised it was a mosque it probably would have been reduced to rubble nearly a millennium ago.

Chapel of the Finding of the Cross: Church of the Resurrection.
A third type of layering is evident at Christian sites where over time different churches have been constructed, reflecting successive periods of the Holy Land’s Christian past. At the Pool of Bethesda the excavations reveal evidence of a large Byzantine church and then a Crusader church built on its foundations. However, the best example is the Church of the Resurrection constructed on the traditional site of Golgotha and the Tomb of Jesus. The site, a quarry outside the city walls, was initially covered as part of Hadrian’s reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Venus was built there. Following his conversion, Constantine ordered the clearing of the area and the construction of a church, though his mother Helena gets the credit for the work. Three interconnecting churches were built and completed towards the end of C4th.

The church was damaged and rebuilt in C7th and was a protected Christian site under Moslem rule until C10th when it was badly damaged by fire during a riot and then in 1009 A.D. its destruction was ordered by Al-Hakim. All that was left were those parts of the building that could not be easily destroyed or removed. An expensive rebuilding project took place in the C11th and was completed in 1048 A.D. by Constantine IX. It comprised a large open court with five small chapels and the original basilica remained in ruins. In the mid C12th the Crusaders began to refurbish the church site and brought it together under one roof. Franciscan Friars renovated the church in C16th but it was badly damaged in another fire at the beginning of C19th. Further renovations have taken place since then and include the restoration of the dome in the mid 1990’s. As I have mentioned in a previous post, some of the church, including the Edicule, are desperately in need of restoration but it seems that the controlling denominations can’t agree on what to do.

Cultic shrines at Caesarea Philippi.

There is one more sense of layering that I was aware of during my time in the Holy Land. It was a real privilege to read the scriptures while visiting sites traditionally associated with those passages. The geography and history of these places gave me a fresh appreciation for, and understanding of, the text. Whether it was standing on the shore at Galilee, looking at the cultic shrines at Caesarea Philippi, walking on the Street of the Cheesemakers beside the Temple Mount, looking across at the Old City from the Mount of Olives or sitting quietly under an olive tree in Capernaum, it was as if I began to experience passages of scripture in 3D. Moving about these places grounded my reading of the Bible and at times challenged the images I had previously formed in my mind; it helped me to discover new layers in very familiar stories and incidents.

One of the tasks pursued by Biblical scholars for many decades has been the attempt to strip back the layers of the Bible to get to the real or historical Jesus and to uncover the writers and communities behind the scriptures. Personally, the rich experiences of visiting the Holy Land and reading the Bible while there have underlined the need to accept, appreciate and enjoy the many layers of the land, the places, the traditions and the Bible; to embrace the complexity and diversity and to dig deep rather than be content with the superficial.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

jerusalem (15) - 10 commandments for visiting the holy land

Brother David: a view from Dominus Flevit.

Here are my ten commandments for visiting the Holy Land.
  1. Don't shave before floating in the Dead Sea.
  2. Don't make eye contact with a trader. If you do he's already made a sale.
  3. Try and meet as many local people as possible (but avoid 2 & 6).
  4. Don't cross your legs in a Syriac Orthodox church. It's very rude.
  5. Be flexible. The situation is very fluid.
  6. Don't pull out a map in the old city of Jerusalem. It is amazing how many 'friends' you suddenly make.
  7. Don't ask for a cheeseburger in a kosher McDonalds.
  8. Respect the sites and traditions of other faiths (see 7 & 9).
  9. Don't try to take a Bible onto Temple Mount.
  10. If 2 happens, haggle.

Dead Sea Beach

U2: With A Shout (Jerusalem) - October

Oh, and where do we go
Where do we go from here
Where to go
To the side of a hill
Blood was spilt
We were still looking
At each other

Oh, we're goin' back there
Jerusalem Jerusalem

Shout, shout
With a shout, shout it out
Shout...shout it out...

I wanna go
To the foot of the Messiah
To the foot of he who made me see
To the side of a hill
Where we were still
We were filled
With our love

We're gonna be there again
Jerusalem Jerusalem

Shout, shout
With a shout
With a shout

Friday, 19 December 2008

jerusalem (14) - back home

Last lunch with some of my fellow pilgrims at the Austrian Hospice.

Friday 19th December. Well I survived the 12 hours at Ben Gurion Airport, the security checks were nowhere near as daunting as I had been led to believe and I was pleasantly surprised to discover the plane home was a 747. I had an aisle seat and no one sitting next to me so plenty of room even though the flight was fairly full. The other passenger in my row was a young Jewish Israeli called Omri (aged 15) who was born in London but now lives in Israel; he was travelling to stay with friends in London to celebrate Christmas. Omri told me that one of the things he misses most in Israel is bacon rolls.

You have a large choice of films to select from on a jumbo and I decided to avoid those I am likely to watch with Kate. I ended up with Wanted and then Tropic Thunder; my recommendation is to avoid them as neither were any good but it meant I could relax and switch off. A two hour tube and train ride across London and then Kate and the kids came to pick me up from the station. Slight problem, they weren't expecting me for another 24hrs! My fault as I had told them I would be home Thursday not Wednesday. It was fantastic to see them and I began to realise just how much I had been missing them while away. The kids had just finished their last day of term so we have plenty of time to catch up over the next few days. Went to bed early to catch up on some sleep and when I woke up began to wonder whether the last three weeks had really happened. I missed hearing the call to prayer and the weather at home is obviously cooler, though not as cold as I was expecting.

One of the things I am aware of is a heightened sensitivity to the situation in the Middle East and I find myself picking out news stories about the area almost subconsciously. This morning I came across an interesting article in The Guardian about an exhibition of cartoons on the Israel - Palestinian conflict at London's Political Cartoon Gallery and I think I will try to get to see it. The cartoon printed in The Guardian was particularly disturbing.

I've got about 1,000 pictures to edit and may put them up on a website in case anyone wants to have a look. In the meantime I'm ploughing through the Christmas cards and accompanying letters that have arrived while I've been away and I am frantically trying to remember who I haven't sent a card to.


Tuesday, 16 December 2008

jerusalem (13) - leaving emmaus

View of the hills of Jerusalem from Abu-Ghosh

Tuesday 15th December. The last day of our course began after breakfast with a reflection on Luke’s account of Jesus’ resurrection appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus Luke 24:13-35. Then it was time to jump on the bus and head off for Emmaus. At this point a problem became apparent; there are now four possible sites for Biblical Emmaus! While travelling we explored the possibility of each location. The key issue is the distance from Jerusalem. Luke describes it as being 60 Stadia, translated as 7 miles, from Jerusalem and says that the disciples, Cleopas and another, returned to Jerusalem that night so it had to be relatively close. We visited two possible places. The first was the site of the town of Motza on a Roman Road about 3.5 miles from Jerusalem. There are some excavations under way on the ancient site and we had a brief walk on the Roman Road. The problem with this site is the distance unless Luke was referring to a round trip.

Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant: Abu-Ghosh

The next site visited was Abu-Ghosh a town approximately 7 miles from Jerusalem. This was the place identified by the Crusaders as the Biblical Emmaus and there is a Crusader church there which is considered by some to be one of the best preserved churches from that period in the Holy Land. Unfortunately, the church was not open when we turned up so we didn’t get to have a look round. Instead we went to the the Church of Notre Dame de l'Arche de l'Alliance (The Church of Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant). The site is identified as the house of Abinadab where the Ark of the Covenant resided for 20 years before David took it to Jerusalem. Mary is considered to be the Ark of the New Covenant as the bearer of the Lord’s presence in the person of Jesus. It is a beautifully peaceful place with shaded olive tree grounds and a simply decorated but nevertheless impressive church. One of the reasons for the plainness of the décor is the recognition that it is also a holy Jewish site and the church does not want to give undue offense.

Icon in Church of Our lady of the Ark of the Covenant.

It was outside the church, overlooking the town and across to Jerusalem, that we celebrated our final Eucharist as a group. Led by Brother David, the focus was on the sense of Jesus having revealed himself to the disciples then leaving them to move on. This was an appropriate way for us to end our pilgrimage together as we began to prepare to leave Jerusalem and return home.

On returning to Jerusalem we had a free afternoon before coming together for the evening which began at the Dean’s apartment with some drinks, a chance to thank those who have so ably led us, presentations and some entertainment. The evening finished with a meal in a local restaurant and then saying goodbye to those who had early flights to catch. I feel really fortunate as my flight is only five and a half hours, some people will be travelling for nearly two days.

I spent Tuesday packing and having a final walk around the old city with some of the other course members. We had a relaxed and enjoyable lunch in the garden of the Austrian Hospice on the corner of the Via Dolorosa. I say relaxed but there is a minaret just opposite the hospice and the call to prayer which started up half way through our meal was extremely loud (though I managed to record it for future use). The weather was, like it has been throughout the course save a couple of cloudy days, warm and sunny. That’s been great for us as pilgrims, however, Jerusalem is in desperate need of rain as December has been unusually dry so far.

Brothers David & Robert: 'Are you sure he said cheesemakers?'

I’m writing this piece in Ben Gurion airport at just after 1am on Wednesday morning. My check in is at 5am so I thought I’d make good use of the time and the chairs are too uncomfortable to try and sleep. The good news is there is free Wi-Fi in the airport so I can post this straight away. Having been away from home for the last three weeks I’m looking forward to spending plenty of time with my wife and children over the Christmas period. I will continue to reflect on my time in the Holy Land over the next few weeks; there has been so much to absorb and process that I feel I need a bit of time before commenting in more depth on what I have learnt about the places and people of the Holy Land. I am sure it will take me a lot longer to fully appreciate all I have received during my time here.

I am particularly grateful to Stephen and Jill Need and to the staff at St. George’s College for their hospitality and running of an excellent course/pilgrimage. It has been said that St. George’s is one of the Anglican Communion’s best kept secrets and if my experience is anything to go by that certainly seems to be true. Brothers Robert and David from the Society of St. John the Evangelist were everything one could hope for in our chaplains; they ministered to us with deep spiritual insight and humour and have led us sensitively in worship and reflection. They gave to us much more than I could have hoped for or expected and I thank them for their generosity of time, energy and prayers.

For me the most important aspect of a pilgrimage is journeying with others and learning, sharing and growing together. We were quite a disparate group on the course and yet I believe we got on well together and our conversations and discussions were challenging, encouraging and affirming. At the start of the course I mentioned the question of whether I was a tourist or a pilgrim and it has been the people on the course, as much as the places I have been to, that have helped me to feel that I have been a pilgrim, with a bit of tourism thrown in. Above all I believe we have experienced in community God’s presence, grace and love and that has been a great way to spend Advent.


Monday, 15 December 2008

jerusalem (12) - remembering

The Kidron Valley with Jewish cemetery and Tomb of Zecheriah

Sunday 14th December. As I mentioned in my post last night, today was to be more relaxed but didn’t quite turn out that way. In the morning I decided to head through the old city to the lower southern side and visit the City of David excavations outside the walls. Unfortunately, I had chosen a time when several parties of school children were visiting the site with teachers and so I gave up as I didn’t have the time to queue. I was surprised to see that with every party of children was at least one armed teacher/parent/guardian; armed not with a side arm but an automatic rifle. I wonder what impact this has on the children, however, given that each will be required to serve in the army I guess guns are part of everyday life.

School children with armed guard (4th from left)

My change of plan was to walk along the Kidron valley to get a closer look at the tombs and a different perspective on the Mount of Olives. One feature of the valley is the extraordinary cemeteries to the right of the Mount of Olives, covered in thousands of tombs. This is the favoured spot of burial for Jews because it is close to the Golden Gate in the wall of Temple Mount. This gate is blocked up but will be opened when the Messiah comes and the dead shall rise to greet him. People want to be as near as possible and consequently the tombs are very costly. Robert Maxwell is buried here; no doubt his tomb was purchased with money scammed from Mirror Group pensioners. Having visited the churches of the Mt of Olives on Friday, looking up at them again from the valley brought back thoughts of the last few hours of Jesus’ life and the powerful impression each church had left on me.

From left: Church of All Nations, Church of Mary Magdalene & Dominus Flevit

In the afternoon a group of us visited Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. It is difficult to express one’s reaction to this place and the story it tells; hard to process the unfolding horror; shaming to be confronted with the anti-Semitism fostered by Christianity down through the centuries; humiliating to reflect on the failure of so many to do anything before it was too late. I mentioned to Brother Robert, near the beginning of the course, that I found it difficult to see the Western Wall as a place of prayer and he suggested it as a place to pray for forgiveness for what we have done to the Jews. I walked through the halls, looked at the photographs, films and artefacts, and some of the material was familiar but the display of a pile of shoes from one of the concentration camps was shocking in its simplicity. Hearing the testimonies of survivors and reading about the unimaginable suffering of the ghettos and the camps, it is not difficult to understand Israel’s determination that this will never happen again. At the same time I noticed the groups of young Israeli conscripts being guided round the museum as part of their induction and couldn’t but speculate as to the impact this was intended to have on them. Is it to remember or is it also to harden their determination to defend their state and their people at all costs? I found myself thinking about the establishment of the ghettos and the image of the separation barrier/wall also came to mind.

Entrance to the Yad Vashem Museum

The most moving place for me was the Children’s Memorial in the gardens. You enter an underground space and a darkened room with a central pyramid structure and walkways around it. The structure and walkways are made of glass and filled with small white lights. The lights reflect off the surfaces and create a galaxy of points of light. As you walk around the structure a voice reads out the name and age of some of the 1.5 million children murdered. No photography is allowed inside the museum but no picture would do justice to the impact of this memorial. Outside is a sculpture which I was able to photograph. I didn’t look too closely at it when I took the picture but when preparing the photo for the blog I found I had to stop as tears filled my eyes; it isn’t only the sculpture but what it represents. I’ve seen some truly stunning pieces of art over the last couple of weeks and I have to say that none has had the impact on me that this did.

Sculpture outside the Children's Memorial

The last visit of the day was to The Shrine of the Book, a relatively small museum dedicated to an extraordinary treasure. The first display one encounters is an impressive model of Second Temple Jerusalem. However, the focal point of the museum is the Dead Sea Scrolls which I mentioned in my post about Qumran. The main hall describes the scrolls and their significance and the centre piece is a facsimile of the Scroll of Isaiah, the only complete scroll recovered. In an air conditioned side room an original section of another scroll, the Scroll of the Temple, is displayed.

Model of Second Temple Jerusalem

Display of the Scroll of Isaiah

Back at the college we enjoyed another excellent dinner prepared by the chef Joseph, with the added surprise of a birthday cake for Stephen, Dean of St. George’s and our course director. This was followed by a time to share reflections on the course and our experiences. I will post more about my personal reflections at another time. At this point I’ll finish with a prayer from this evening's Compline.

God of all mercy,
we confess that we have sinned against you,
opposing your will in our lives,
we have denied your goodness in each other,
in ourselves, and in the world you have created.
We repent of the evil that enslaves us,
the evil we have done,
and the evil done on our behalf.
Forgive, restore, and strengthen us
through our Saviour Jesus Christ,
that we may abide in your love
and serve only your will. Amen.


View from Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum.

Sign on the ticket office window at The Shrine of the Book.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

jerusalem (11) - the way of the cross

Station 13: The Deposition. Mosaic behind the stone of unction in the Church of the Resurrection.

Saturday 13th December. Another 5:30am wake up and then down to the old city to walk The Way of the Cross (stations of the cross). No photos as I wanted to focus on the walk and fully engage with the worship. The Brothers, Robert and David, had developed a liturgy for us to use and we began at the First Station on the Via Delorosa. Even though it was early in the morning, traders were already beginning to move about and we had to watch out for vehicles speeding through the narrow streets. As we neared the Church of the Resurrection the streets became busier; watching school children dashing along with their back packs I found myself praying for my two children back home. For the final four stations we stayed on the roof of the church next to the Ethiopean monastery as it would have been impossible to do this inside given the services, tourists and pilgrims at the various stations. However, we had time afterwards to go inside for our own prayerful reflection. I found myself sitting in the Latin Calvary, relatively quiet to my surprise as the mass had ended, and taking in the mosaic representations on the ceiling that I hadn’t really noticed before.

Latin Calvary mosaics

Breakfast at Papa Andrea's was the now familiar fare, a mixture of salads, cheeses, olives, bread and preserves and the ubiquitous eggs (still not a patch on the ones my girls lay at home). I’d been here earlier in my stay as they have a roof terrace with great views of the city and their coffee is good. They also have a large inflatable Father Christmas and I was tempted to release it just so I could get a photo of Father Christmas floating over the Dome of the Rock!

Papa Andrea's
The rest of the day was free to wander and shop; I picked up a few bargains after much haggling. I also managed to buy some stoles with the Jerusalem Cross design for a colleague and myself. (No more requests please my bag is full and seriously over weight).

The only other item on the schedule was an early evening talk from a representative of the Palestinian community giving the third of our perspectives on life in the Holy Land. The three talks we have heard have all been very informative and I have been impressed by the real desire for peace and to find the way forward. Clearly much depends on what Obama will do and also what happens in the forthcoming Israeli elections. I still don’t feel ready to post my own reflections on what I have seen and heard about the situation but meeting people and hearing their stories has been invaluable.

I’ve just finished reading Richard North Patterson’s novel Exile, another of his legal dramas this time set against the backdrop of Israel and the West Bank. I thought Patterson explored the complexities of the situation with sensitivity, balance and understanding. It was interesting to read his descriptions of places I have had the privilege of visiting as well as of areas where there was no chance of me going. I was not surprised when checking out the author’s note and acknowledgement to see an extensive reading list but more importantly a wide range of interviews and conversations with people directly involved in the situation. I could have done without his slightly Mills and Boone ending but still thought it a good timely read.

I’m looking forward to a lie in tomorrow and a more relaxed day, although having said that I’m off to visit the Shrine of the Book, The Model of Jerusalem and Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial tomorrow afternoon. I may try and visit the City of David excavations and Hezekiah’s Tunnel in the morning.

Anyone seen Brian?

Saturday, 13 December 2008

jerusalem (10) - holy week

Our small band of pilgrims enter the Damascus Gate at Dawn

Friday 12th December. Up at 5:30am as a small group of us visited the Church of the Resurrection before breakfast. Really enjoyed walking through the old city at dawn, the streets were so quiet and still and we were able to see the place in a different light without the bustle of the people and markets. The Church of the Resurrection was, however, quite busy and there was a Catholic mass just beginning at Calvary. There were also more people at the tomb than on my previous visit. Nevertheless, there were some places of peace and solitude for prayer and these tended to be the little side chapels and other areas no one is much interested in. My favourite spot is the place known as the holding cell, where Jesus was kept just prior to his crucifixion. It is mesmerising to move from area to area and hear the services in different languages; priests in a variety of vestments reflecting the diversity of traditions, interweaving their liturgies like some elaborately choreographed opera.

A Coptic Priest by the Edicule at the Church of the Resurrection

After breakfast we headed for the Mount of Olives to follow some of the journey of Jesus during Holy Week. Beginning with the Palm Sunday Church at Bethphage, we spent time reading the account of Jesus’ Entry to Jerusalem on a Donkey, before reflecting on the contrast between the procession of Jesus and the procession of Pilate into Jerusalem. The church is a relatively humble place with simple frescos and an interesting mounting stone, thought to be from the crusader period. On the stone is the picture of a laughing donkey and you can only view it by looking at its reflection in a mirror.

Dominus Flevit

On to Dominus Flevit (The Lord Wept) a tear shaped church commemorating Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. This is another Barluzzi church and through the window behind the altar one looks out across the Kidron valley to Jerusalem. The reading from Luke 19:41 led into a reflection led by Brother David and quiet prayerful singing.

The bare rock at Gethsemane

Down the road we entered the Garden of Gethsemane with its ancient olive trees and Barluzzi’s Church of All Nations also known as the Church of the Agony. The focal point of the church is a bare piece of rock where Jesus prayed to his Father before his arrest, while the disciples slept. It was one of those churches I found helpfully led me into prayer and, despite the visitors, there was a stillness about the place that I found very affecting. I have to agree with Brother Robert that Barluzzi really was a genius at rendering scripture in stone.

Ascent from Mary's Tomb (Orthodox)
Bit of a shock to the system for me at this point as we moved further along the base of the Mt of Olives to The Tomb of Mary. Much as I understand the importance of Mary, she has never been central to my devotions or worship and I struggle with some of the traditions that have developed about her over the centuries. It was an interesting place to visit and we spent time reading John’s account of Mary and the Beloved Disciple at the Cross John 19:25-27. The tomb is deep underground and empty as Catholics believe Mary was assumed into heaven (at least that is the assumption); leaving the church was a bit like emerging from a dark womb.

St. Mark's Syrian Orthodox Church - The Upper Room

Lunch was followed by a visit to the Syrian church of St. Mark’s in the old city. The Syrian Church believes that this is the site of Mark’s house, the place of the Last Supper and Pentecost and they claim the first church in Christianity. It was an extraordinary visit, not because of the church but a woman called Justina who showed us around. Justina shared with us stories of miracles she had witnessed at the icon of Mary in the church and then sang the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic, as she said, the language of our Lord. She got very upset when a couple of our group crossed their legs while sitting in the church (a very rude gesture in her tradition), however, Justina was a great host and a tremendous evangelist. Eventually she took us down to the Upper Room (down because the city street level is much higher today than C1st AD) where she sang to us in Aramaic once more and then encouraged us to join in. By this stage we were pushed for time so set off to Mount Sion outside the southern wall and a visit to the Cenacle. This is the other site claimed as the place of the Last Supper and has a much older tradition associated with it. The place normally shown in photographs is part of a Crusader church, which became a Mosque and then a Synagogue. We read Paul’s account of The Last Supper from 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 before singing Eat This Bread.

Cenacle - traditional site of The Last Supper

The Cenacle is next to Dormition Abbey, the other site dedicated to Mary’s Assumption. This is a really imposing and dramatic building on the top of Mount Sion looking across to the old city and is a clear feature of the Jerusalem skyline. The Abbey is another church decorated with mosaics. There are also swathes of white plaster and I don’t know if this is because they ran out of money before completing the decoration or this was the original intention but for me it didn’t quite work. I’m prepared to forgive any shortcomings with the décor because they did have a decent Advent Wreath and serve a great cup of coffee in the cafeteria.

Advent Wreath Dormition Abbey

I enjoyed a wander through the old city as the sun set, watching the orthodox Jews running to their synagogues for the start of Shabbat and trying to get photos of their different hats and clothes as the light faded. I did manage a photo of the moon rising over Jerusalem, it really was a stunning sight. The rest of the evening was a relaxed affair; a briefing about departure and procedures at the airport, followed by dinner and then a short rehearsal of some of the liturgy we will be using tomorrow morning when we will be walking the Way of the Cross (another 6am departure!).

Moonrise over Jerusalem

Friday, 12 December 2008

jerusalem (9) - healing

The Street of the Cheesemakers: where Jesus walked?

Thursday 11th December. Back into full swing this morning but things didn’t go according to plan. We headed off early to visit Al-Haram Ash-Sharif (Temple Mount) only to find that the Moslem religious leaders had extended the celebrations which were due to have ended on Wednesday to Sunday. This meant the site was closed to non-Moslems so we couldn’t go in. Stage two of the plan had been to visit the temple southern wall excavations so we went straight there and had an absorbing time looking at all that has been uncovered and what it reveals particularly about the Second Temple. Two particular areas drew my attention. The first a C1st A.D. street beside the temple under what is now known as the Robinson Arch. The street is called the Street of the Cheesemakers (let the reader understand again) and was lined with traders’ shops where goods including food and temple sacrifices were sold. The area is also surrounded by Mikvah’ot for purification before worship. The other area is the southern steps leading up to the temple, which I mentioned in a previous post. We sat on these steps and listened to John 2:13-22, the cleansing of the temple, and then reflected on its significance for Jesus' life and mission.

Southern steps to Second Temple.
On to the Western/Wailing wall which I posted about previously. As before there was a lot of activity with Bar Mitzvah ceremonies and musicians playing drums and blowing shawms (rams horns).

Wailing at the Wailing Wall
Our change of plan was to leave by the Dung gate and head for St Peter en Gallicantu, the church where the Denial of Peter is commemorated and is also believed to be the residence of the temple High Priest Caiaphas. The church affords stunning views of the old city and across to the Mount of Olives and down the valley towards the Dead Sea. A very welcome cup of coffee was followed by one of the most evocative times of prayer and reflection. The church was restored in the 1990’s and the décor inside is a series of beautiful mosaics, the designs are breathtaking and expertly executed. We sat in the body of the church singing Taize chants and then another group of pilgrims entered. They read Peter’s Denial Matthew 26:69-75 in Spanish and then one of our party read it in English. After a time of silence we moved to the area underneath the church which includes the dungeon where Jesus is believed to have been held overnight before his crucifixion. It’s basically a deep pit into which prisoners were lowered by rope. We stood in the cell listening to Psalm 88, imagining the darkness and the fear.

Mosaics in St Peter en Gallicantu.
Outside the church are extensive excavations which have led to the conclusion that this was the high priest’s house and next to it are a set of steep steps which it is thought Jesus would have descended to go to Gethsemane and then ascended as he was brought before the Chief Priest.

Pool of Bethesda.
Back into the old city and lunch at a Lutheran Hospice. As usual the food was excellent and was rounded off with a slice of panettone and coffee. Then across the old city to The Pool of Bethesda which is a remarkable archaeological site. We sat in the church for another powerful meditation by Brother Robert on healing following the reading of John 5:2-16. Do we really want to be healed? The church has interesting acoustics, effectively a reverb chamber, and it is not easy to hear someone speak but the singing sounds out of this world. The excavations go right down to the pools at the time of Jesus, with remains of a Byzantine basilica and then Crusader church on top. One comment to make about Biblical archaeology at this point. Back at the Second Temple site Kathleen Kenyon, who I mentioned in relation to Jericho, identified a wall as being second temple when in fact it was later. At Bethesda scholars were very sceptical that there was a pool and so were astounded when one was actually found. It just goes to show that the archaeologists and their assumptions are not necessarily right. At the same time we should thank God for their gifts and skills which have helped to reveal so much about sites in the Holy Land.

Separation Barrier on outskirts of Jerusalem.
It has been a long day and in the evening we had a lecture on Christians in the Holy Land. It was an introduction to the history, plethora of denominations and the issues faced by indigenous Christians today. Christians now number about one percent of the population and many of them live in areas that are cut off by the wall, or separation barrier as many Israeli’s would call it. Basically, many Christians are prevented from attending their churches, amongst many other things, because of the limitations on travel imposed as part of the security measures. It is easy to forget, when thinking about the situation in this part of the world, that a majority of the Christians are Palestinian Arabs living in areas including the West Bank.


Thursday, 11 December 2008

jerusalem (8) - he is not here!

Domes of Church of the Resurrection to left of central tower of the Lutheran Church.

Wednesday 10th December. Today the pace slowed down a little. We had some free time in the morning which I took to relax, read, change some money and wander. Then before lunch we met for a lecture on The Church of The Resurrection (also known as the Chrch of The Holy Sepulchre) and after lunch headed for a visit. This extraordinary church is the latest construction on the site believed to be that of Calvary and the empty tomb of Jesus. Now there is another tomb site, near St. George’s College, discovered by General Gordon when he took Jerusalem under British rule. This site is one favoured by some reformed traditions who dislike the Church of the Resurrection and all that goes with it. For some people it also looks more like what is expected, with an attractive garden, however, the tradition for this site is very late.

Ethiopean monastery on roof of the Church of the Resurrection.

It is difficult to describe the church, which is accessed through the narrow streets of the old city. Click here for a floor plan. We started on the roof where there is an Ethiopian monastery and what immediately hit me was the dilapidated nature of the monastery, reflecting the poverty of the monks. They are just one of six different denominations who share responsibility for the church and all have to agree before work can be carried out in much of the church. This has meant some areas have been shamefully neglected for many years and some parts have been in danger of collapse. Inside and past various chapels and we came to Calvary. There are two altars here; one owned by the Roman Catholics and the other by the Greek Orthodox. It is the Orthodox sanctuary which is over the bedrock in which Christ’s cross is believed to have been placed and you can put your hand through an opening and touch the rock. The area was quite busy and it was difficult to prayerfully engage with the space so we moved on to other parts of the church. I will need to go back again early in the day to find a quieter time and spot to reflect.

Greek Orthodox Calvary

The edicule where the tomb of Jesus is believed to have been is in bad condition; held together by large metal bands surrounding the structure. Visitors are allowed in four at a time by an Orthodox monk and once inside you don’t see much, just an altar on the spot where the tomb was located. The monk banged on a stone after a few moments to say time was up. One bonus was that the Orthodox chapel under the main dome was open and with no one in it there at least was some space to be still for a few moments.

Edicule of the Tomb of Jesus.

Dome of the Greek Orthodox area.

As I mentioned, I need to go back at a better time of the day, though it was good to see the place as many people encounter it. One small insight summed the church up for me on this visit. We visited a small chapel off which is located two tombs, one believed to be that of Joseph of Arimathea. The chapel was little more than a cave and in a terrible state. Apparently this is the Syrian chapel but owned by the Armenians who let them use it. The Syrians won’t renovate it because they don’t own it and the Armenians won’t restore it because they don’t use it! Now I understand why at various times these different groups have found it so hard to agree on anything significant to do with the building. One other incident did lift my spirit; as I left the Franciscan Monks were beginning a sung procession of worship round the church and the singing was magnificent.

Syrian Chapel owned by the Armenians.

After dinner we had the first of three lectures on the current situation between Israel and the Palestinians. This evening’s talk was giving a Jewish perspective and was presented by Ophir Yarden of the Inter-religious Co-ordinating Council in Israel. I won’t comment on what he said as we have two more contributions from a Christian and a Palestinian and I need more time to reflect on this subject. At this point I will just say that Ophir was very impressive in his explanation of the variety of Israeli perspectives and grasp of the national and international situation. He sees this as a critical period given the recent elections in the U.S.A and the Israeli elections in the New Year.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

jerusalem (7) - dead sea

The Dead Sea: Lowest Point on Earth.

Tuesday 9th December. Today was about being a tourist as we journeyed to the Dead Sea. First on the agenda was a visit to Massada overlooking the sea and giving spectacular views across to the Jordanian hills once the haze had cleared.

Herod's Palace on cliff face: Massada.

Massada is a fortress built on an imposing hill and initially constructed as a palace by Herod the Great. Being somewhat paranoid, in his case people were really out to get him, Herod built the palace as an impenetrable fortress well away from potential enemies. It really is a staggering achievement, though it is sobering to remember hat the place was built and functioned on the backs of a large force of slaves. There is an ingenious system for collecting water from the surrounding area and storing this in huge cisterns hewn in the rock. The excavated rock was then used to build the settlement on top.

View from Massada: a Roman encampment outlined towards bottom of the picture.

Perhaps Massada is better known as the site of resistance against the might of the Roman Empire by a group of Jewish zealots who held back one of Rome’s greatest legions. The story concludes with the fortress finally falling in 73 A.D. only for the entering forces to discover that the inhabitants had committed suicide, save for a woman and some children. The outlines of the Roman camps and the ramp constructed to breach the hilltop are still visible. The story is recounted by Josephus and was made into a film in 1981 starring Peter O’Toole. Our trip began with a short introductory film of the history, before a cable car ride to the top. You can walk up by a couple of routes and this was the preferred method of ascent by some of the younger parties of visitors but I was happy to sit back and enjoy the views.

A few comments about Massada. It is very impressive and as I said the views are spectacular but the place also left me feeling uncomfortable. Firstly because the place was built using slaves and I could envisage the luxury of Herod’s palace with its baths and pools, house for concubines and visitors quarters being maintained by a completely oppressed workforce. Secondly, there is now some questioning of exactly what happened at Massada. Was it home to 900 zealots, heroically holding out against the might of Rome or a rather smaller group whose stand has been exaggerated because it wouldn’t have looked good for a legion to have been held back for so long and at such expense by a handful of rebels? There is also some suggestion that the zealots made their way to Massada while trashing the villages and towns on the way. I make no judgement but just observe there are different narratives for these events.

My chief concern, however, is that Massada is clearly a rallying point for Zionism in a rather disturbing manner. Here the legend of the valiant, faithful remnant holding out against the surrounding armies is given full expression; from the film at the beginning of the visit through to the realisation that until recently all Israeli soldiers came to this place to be sworn in. When we returned to the base of Massada I half expected to see a recruiting sergeant with sign up papers.

A Dead Sea float.

Having seen the Dead Sea from Massada it was good to reach it and go for a swim. Actually you go for a float rather than a swim because the mineral content of the water prevents you from sinking. The water was pleasantly warm but getting in and out was a painful experience because of the sharpness of the mineral deposits on the rocks and stones; several of our party ended up with cuts and grazes. The problem with this is that when you get out of the water any abrasions of the skin sting and I discovered cuts and bites in places I didn’t know I had on my body! A good warm shower and filling picnic were very welcome and at least I had a photo to prove to the kids that I had floated on the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. The sad news is that the sea is drastically reducing in size and areas that were covered in sea are now exposed land with sparse vegetation.

Caves where Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947-56.

Finally, we stopped off at Qumran to visit the excavations and consider the impact of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the site of an Essene community. A dig was underway while we visited which gave the site added impact, though it is impressive enough with the view of the various caves where the scrolls were discovered and the clear layout of the community's living quarters. One of the features of this course I have really appreciated is the talks and short lectures bringing us up to date on the latest research and discoveries in the Holy Land. Today we were fortunate that one of our party had a masters degree from Oxford which focused on Jewish Piety in the Second Temple period and she gave us an impromptu talk on research on Qumran and the Essenes.

Qumran excavations.

Again we were reminded of the ambiguities that surround archaeological research. The scrolls themselves are a crucial find giving us the earliest copies of many of the Hebrew scriptures, save the book of Esther which is probably because the book doesn’t mention God. The scrolls also include the Essene’s strict rule, showing them to be a very ascetic sect, messianic, eschatological and dedicated scribes who demonstrated their faithfulness with ritual washing. The site contained several deep mikvah'ot for full body washing and a scriptorium. However, some scholars now question the conclusions made about the site. Do the scrolls found belong to the community that lived nearby? Did an Essene community live here? Why were the bodies of women and children found in the cemetery when the Essenes where a strict ascetic and supposedly celibate sect? Was John the Baptist an Essene? All these questions simply highlight the uncertainties that remain with these sites.
Desert Places

It was time to head back to Jerusalem and the college but on the way home I did switch back to pilgrim mode as Andrew Mayes, another member of the course who is soon to become course director, gave us a talk and reflection on Desert Spirituality. The surrounding environment was a great aid in appreciating the attractions and the demands for those drawn into the desert to grow in their relationship with God.