Today we attended liturgy at the Greek Catholic Patriarchate church. This was our third trip to a Melkite church, so I’m getting accustomed to the Divine Liturgy (their term for the Mass) as they celebrate it. They celebrate what is known as the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. The liturgy was again in Arabic and when we got there, all the books in English were taken. So, I followed along in French this time. I actually really enjoy the Eastern liturgy. If you want to understand what the role of music is supposed to be in the liturgy, attending an Eastern rite celebration would be a good introduction. In the West we have basically reduced music to the role of filling gaps between other parts of the Mass or as some kind of break for a song at various points in the liturgy. For the Eastern rites there is no singing “at” liturgy, rather, the liturgy itself is sung. There is a constant singing back and forth between the priest, deacon, and assembly. If you read the documents of the church on sacred music, this is supposed to be how it is for the Latin rite as well, but we kind of lost this in the last few decades. The other thing I enjoyed about the liturgy today was the church building itself. Everywhere I looked there were pictures of saints and scenes depicting the heavenly Jerusalem. It really helped me to feel like I was in heaven for that hour. That is after all what the Mass is supposed to be; for one hour, it’s heaven on earth…not a bad place to be.
Today was a free day and I chose to venture out to see the Mount of Olives. Normally it is suggested that you take a taxi to the top and then walk down. However, I decided I’d rather get some exercise and walk to the top. I started my trek by walking down across the Kidron Valley (that still sounds cool to say). There I visited the Garden of Gethsemane. There are a couple different sites that commemorate the events that took place on the night of Jesus’ arrest. The garden itself consists of 8 olive trees fenced off that probably are 2000 years old. The way some of these trees look, it’s not too hard to imagine them being that old.
Inside the Church of the Agony, or the Church of All Nations as it is also called, is the Rock of the Agony. This is the rock upon which Jesus prayed in agony before being arrested. Back outside there is a larger filed of olive trees known as the Garden of Olives and here there is preserved the Grotto of Gethsemane. This is the cave in which the apostles waited/slept while Jesus prayed. It was also here that Judas betrayed Jesus. Under the altar in the chapel you can see statues of the sleeping apostles. As I walked through these sights I was struck by the repeated phrase, “Sustinete Hic Et Vigilate Mecum,” “Stay here and keep watch with me.” It was written on the fencing, in the mosaics on the walls, and many other places. I really did want to stay and just pray, but it was my first stop and I knew that I would come back in the next few weeks.
So I continued on and next visited what is known as “The Tomb of the Virgin”. There is a tradition that says that when Mary died/fell asleep the apostles were instructed by an angel to take her body to a tomb on the Mt. of Olives and there keep watch. It was from here that she was assumed into heaven. You enter this church by going down a long flight of stairs to an underground cave church. Here is preserved, much like in the Holy Sepulcher, the empty tomb in which Mary was supposedly laid. As I arrived, the Armenians were beginning Divine Liturgy and I decided that I wanted to stay and pray Morning Prayer here. It was a Saturday in Ordinary Time, so I took the allowed option of celebrating the office in honor the Blessed Virgin Mary. I don’t know if this was really the tomb of Mary, it certainly could be, but I know that I felt close to Our Lady there and found it a very nice place to pray.
From the Tomb of the Virgin I began the steep part of the ascent. On the way up I passed the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Mary Magdalene. It is the one with the onion-shaped gold domes that you see in some of my pictures. Unfortunately, it’s only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I continued on up. After a nice climb I reached one of the nicest places on the entire Mount of Olives, the church of Dominus Flevit (literally “The Lord Wept”). This church commemorates the place in the Bible where Jesus stopped and wept over ancient Jerusalem, “soon to be destroyed for its lack of faith”. The church itself is not all that impressive inside (the outside is designed interestingly in the shape of a tear), but the main draw about this church is the view. You have the best view of the Temple Mount and the city of Jerusalem from this point.
Here’s one final neat fact about this church. It’s built on top of two other churches like normal but both of those churches face the opposite direction, away from the city and back into just the hillside of the Mount of Olives. This is because there was a long standing tradition that churches be built facing east so as to welcome the rising sun representing the resurrection and the return of the messiah. Well, when the modern architect designed the new church in the 50’s he decided that the view to the west was just too good to pass up and wanted to celebrate Mass facing the city in the way Jesus would have observed the city from this point. To make a long story short, the bishop did not approve of facing the church to the west. It had to face east according to the tradition. The architect submitted. However, he then built the church facing west toward the city just as he had planned. When the bishop saw the church he immediately confronted the architect pointing out that the church faced west instead of east. The architect retorted that in the fact the church did face east. Clearly the church faced west so the bishop was perplexed. The architect asked the bishop what he saw through the window of the church. As you can see from the picture below, the Dome of the Rock is prominent, but the central axis of the church is actually pointed directly at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Upon pointing this out to the bishop, the architect proudly stated that the church doesn’t just face east, but actually faces Easter.
After taking many pictures of the Temple Mount I continued up to the very top of the Mount of Olives. Near the summit is the Church of the Pater Noster (Our Father). This is the traditional location where Jesus taught the apostles the Our Father. I didn’t get to stay here very long because they were closing, but I did see the ruins of the original church and an early tomb. The neat thing about this church is that they have the Our Father in every language imaginable on large tile displays all around the church. I will have to go back here when I can spend more time in the church which I didn’t really get to see before they kicked me out.
At this point I was almost to the top of the mountain. After just a bit more climbing I reached the summit and my final destination, the Mosque of the Ascension. The Muslims took it over at some point because I think the Christians didn’t take care of it. At any rate, it turns out that it’s not really much to speak of. It’s just a small little round building that is completely empty inside. It’s not even open normally; I had to get a Muslim to open it so I could see it. It supposedly marks the place of the ascension of Jesus into heaven. As a little “memento” of the event, they have a stone in the floor inside the mosque that is supposed to be the last footprint of Jesus on earth. I don’t have any problem this time saying that I really don’t think I believe the story. The fact that the “footprint” (which looks nothing like a footprint) was left in what appears to be 4th century marble was my first clue. Despite the doubtful footprint and lack of a church sufficiently dignified, I must say that I was surprised by the fact that I had a very prayerful experience there. As I stood looking up at the simple brick dome, I felt a great longing for the coming of Jesus. The words of the angels spoken to the disciples at the Ascension came to mind, “This Jesus will return to you.” Being at this place helped to stir up my longing for the coming of God’s kingdom. The Muslim who opened the place for me was ready for me to go, but I left with the words “Marana Tha” on my lips, Come Lord Jesus!
I wondered over to the Russian Church of the Ascension which is also on top of the hill, but it is only open Tuesdays and Thursdays (something about these Russian churches). By this time the morning was gone and I needed to get back down the hill for Mass. So, completing my backward circuit, I took a cab back down the hill and arrived home just in time. What a great morning. Scripture tells us that Jesus frequently spent time on the Mount of Olives and I know I will need to spend much more time there in the coming weeks.
P.S. There are so many pictures that I took of things that I couldn’t even take time to describe here. Please feel free to follow the link below if you’re interested.
Today was a normal class day. I love reading the great first homilies of St. Peter and hearing the stories of the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles. For our architecture class we were given the assignment of going to measure some columns on various buildings throughout the city. We had a drawing to see who would go where. I am supposed to go climb up and measure the circumference of the outside of the Dome of the Rock. Just kidding. I’m actually measuring some column near the Holy Sepulcher and our teacher already assured us that he checked with the people to whom these columns belong and promised us we would not be arrested while doing our homework.
At sunset today we went down to the Wailing Wall in the Jewish quarter to observe how the Jews celebrate the beginning of the Sabbath, or Shabbat as it is correctly pronounced in Hebrew. This was a really neat experience. There were lots of people from all ages gathering at the wall in what was really almost like a big party. There’s no organization to it. People come and get together in groups and do some prayers which involve some singing and dancing. The teenage groups were really enjoying their singing and dancing while the old folks were up closer to the wall praying very reverently. I met some very nice Jews who helped explain things to me. They encouraged me to join a group and start dancing, but I think I’ll wait until next week for that. It was very refreshing to see so many people coming together to pray and also to have fun. We need something like this back in the United States. I’d love to get together to sing songs about God and pray and just have fun more often. We need to come together as a Christian community more than just for Mass. The beginning of Shabbat was a real social event here as well as a religious event. Maybe I’ll even work on my dancing for next week. Then again, maybe I’ll just start with joining some prayers. Shabbat Shalom…Good Sabbath.
This morning I went to pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The church is built to contain the place of Jesus’ burial as well as Mt. Calvary. The first church on this site was built by Constantine in the 4th century. The building was destroyed by the Muslims and then rebuilt and destroyed again and again. The church today is thus a mix of things that remain from the previous churches. The focal point of the church is the tomb of Christ which is situated in the middle of a large rotunda. The tomb itself is contained in a cube shaped structure that encloses the inner part of the tomb where Jesus’ body was laid as well as a kind of antechamber. This little area is known as the Chapel of the Angel in reference to the angel that appeared there to the women announcing the resurrection.
As you enter the Chapel of the Angel there is a pedestal that contains part of the original rock of Jesus tomb. The opening to the inner part of the tomb has written in Greek the quotation from the Bible, “Why do you seek the living among the dead. The Lord is Risen”. The tomb contains a slab of marble which covers the original rock on which the body of Jesus was laid.
As I came to the Holy Sepulcher for the first time, I expected it to be a holy place that was special because Jesus suffered, died and was buried here. After all, Calvary and a tomb have much to do with death…or so I was thinking. However, my experience of visiting the tomb of Jesus really changed my perspective on what the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is all about. This church is not so much about death, but is rather a shrine to the resurrection. I came thinking of the tomb as the place where Jesus was buried, but it just hit me as I was praying there that this is, more importantly, the site of the resurrection. As I entered the tomb, it just hit me in a way I hadn’t expected…this tomb is empty. The words of the angel came to my mind, “He is not here; He is risen”. In all the other places that we’ve gone to visit, we go to see “something”, some ruins, some bones, a tomb…lot’s of different “somethings”. However, when I went to the tomb of Jesus what I found was nothing. There’s nothing there; the tomb is empty! Indeed the tomb of Jesus contains nothing, but this nothing is what means everything to us as Christians. I am now a witness to the empty tomb just as those first disciples found it. Much like them, I too wish to spread this message to the ends of the world. The tomb is empty. He is not here. He is risen.
This afternoon we went to visit the church of St. Anne. This is built over the place that is believed to be the home of Sts. Joachim and Anne and thus the birthplace of the Virgin Mary. We had a talk given by one of the priests here on all the different Christian churches present in the holy land (by using the word church, I mean to use it in the sense that Vatican II uses it to refer to the Christian groups that have valid sacraments. Protestants make up a very insignificant number of the Christians here and are not considered churches). There is of course the Latin Rite Catholic Church (that’s us) as well as the Armenians, Copts, Syrians, Melkite, Orthodox and a host of others, some in union with Rome, some not. It was really interesting to see how we all fit together although it really made me long for the reunification of all the churches. There are so many different altars in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. To some extent this is a sign of diversity, but to some extent it also leaves you wondering why we can’t all just get along.
Right next to the Church of St. Anne are the ruins to the Pool of Bethesda. This is the site in the Bible where Jesus cures the lame man who has been waiting by the pool but has found no one to put him in the pool at the right time. The springs that fed the pool has dried up and mainly what remains there now are the ruins of a couple older churches built on the site. After this we were invited by the Christian Brothers to come visit their school in the Old City. The highlight of this tour was getting to go up to their roof which has a great view of the city. I took lots of pictures so be sure to check them out.
This morning was again devoted to study. It is important for me to point this out because some people seem to think that we’re just over here on vacation or something. So, here you can see that once again we are studying…very hard. After exhausting ourselves with studies this morning we had a walking tour of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City this afternoon. The Old City is divided four ways between the Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Armenians. The various quarters each have their own appropriate attraction, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Christian Quarter, the Temple Mount in the Muslim Quarter, and the Wailing Wall in the Jewish Quarter. I’m sure the Armenians have something important too…I just can’t think of anything right now. They had good food anyway.
What would be a tour in the Holy Land without seeing some ruins? While in the Jewish quarter we saw the remains of what would have been Main Street Jerusalem in the time of Jesus. All Roman cities had such a street, called a “cardo” (“hinge” in Latin), with columns down both sides and shops. We saw one when we went to Sephoris previously. By far the most interesting thing was a visit to what is known as “The Burnt House”. These are the remains of a Jewish house that was burnt by the Romans when they destroyed the city of Jerusalem in 70 AD. They had a nice light and video show that dramatized the event.
Speaking of 70 AD, I guess I should mention for those that are unfamiliar that most of what is in the Old City today was not around at the time of Jesus. Jerusalem has been destroyed many times over the years. The temple that was destroyed in 70 was already the second temple because the first was destroyed centuries earlier. As Christians we can obviously see how it was never in God’s plan that the temple would be there forever. The sacrifices that used to be offered in the temple were perfected and brought to fulfillment in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. There was no need for a temple after the resurrection of Jesus as now his perfect sacrifice on Calvary is offered for us each time the Mass is celebrated. When you’re here in the Holy Land it really makes you realize just how significant it is that Christianity has never been tied to any particular piece of territory but was intended by Jesus to be everywhere, universal, catholic. The Holy Sepulcher is a special place, but if it were destroyed tomorrow it would matter nothing for our faith. The same is not true of the other faiths here.
While on our tour of the cardo we saw a gold menorah (Jewish candelabra) that was constructed by a group of Jews to exactly replicate the one that was used in the temple. However, they are not doing this for nostalgia. Each year this same group tries to lay the corner stone on the temple mount to rebuild the temple. They believe this will force the coming of the messiah which can only happen here in Jerusalem. They are systematically rebuilding all the implements that were used in the old temple so that they will be ready when the third temple is constructed. In the 16th century one of the gates to the temple mount (the one that you see in the pictures from the Mt. of Olives, called the Golden Gate) was bricked up by the sultan because it was prophesied that the messiah would enter Jerusalem through the Golden Gate. By bricking up they gate they figured they would prevent the messiah from coming. (Nota Benne: Guess which gate Jesus entered on Palm Sunday…they were a little late with the bricks!) Being here really makes you glad for our Christian faith that is truly universal. We have our holy places, but more importantly the whole world is now our holy place because it is there that we carry on the mission of Christ.
Today was back to school day. We started our new classes on the Acts of the Apostles and the Architecture of the Holy Land. I can sense a different kind of spirit in us now that we’re studying Acts. It’s all so exciting to read about Pentecost and the early Church. You can tell that our teacher and the class get excited as we read the great words of Peter proclaiming the resurrection. I also really enjoy learning how to “read” the buildings around here thanks to our wonderful architecture teacher. In the afternoon we had a Jewish speaker come in and talk about Jewish/Christian relations. I can tell that I’m going to learn a lot of good stuff over these next weeks.
Today was a rare “free day” for us with nothing scheduled. So, it was a great opportunity to go explore the confines of our new home in Jerusalem. I went out with a couple friends and we headed straight for the holiest place in the city, the Holy Sepulcher. I want to do an entire entry on this site in the future, so I’ll just sum up here by saying that this famous church houses the tomb of Jesus (it’s empty…I’m now a witness to the empty tomb!) as well as Calvary. In case you hadn’t guessed, yes, it is a large church.
After praying at the Holy Sepulcher for a while and attending mass in Portuguese we decided to see the rest of the city. I believe there are about 600,000 people living in Jerusalem and about 15,000 of those live inside the walls of what is known as the “Old City”. This is the area that is enclosed by the famous walls you always see in pictures. The size and shape of the Old City of Jerusalem has changed many times over the years. Jerusalem has been destroyed and rebuilt so many times that I think even the archeologists have lost count. The present walls were built by Suleyman the Magnificent from 1536-1541.That seems old, but consider that King David build the first walls around 1000 BC. If something isn’t at least a millennium old here then it’s considered new. One of the nice things about these walls is that you can actually get up on the top and walk all around the city. We decided to do this to get an overview of the city. You can’t quite go all the way around because the area near the Temple Mount is closed, but we still walked about 2.5 miles.
Most of the walk was actually kind of boring because you really can’t see much of the city. However, the highlight was the walk along the eastern wall. From here you are looking out across the Kidron Valley (remember the Bible says Jesus “went out across the Kidron Valley…well there it was…it’s real). I got my first look at the Mt. of Olives (also a real place) and the Garden of Gethsemane (real again…just like in the Bible). We had to end our tour of the walls at St. Stephen’s gate because that’s where the Temple Mount starts. From there we walked back through the Old City. Merely trying to get back home I ran into such places as the birthplace of Mary and the Via Dolorosa (Way of the Cross). I can tell that I will have plenty to do here over the next 5 weeks.
Today was our day to head up to Jerusalem. Even though we were technically heading south from Galilee, the Bible always speaks of going “up” to Jerusalem. This is partly symbolic, but it is also the very real situation when you realize that Jerusalem is at a higher elevation than all the surrounding country. Before leaving Galilee I spent one final morning getting up early to pray as the sun rose over the Sea of Galilee. However, these last two days it was just pouring down rain as I got up. So, I sat on a porch and prayed under cover. I could still see the sea and the rain was very nice to listen to. Despite coming for four days in row I have to say that I never did see the sun rise over the sea. I saw some nice colors the first two days and then just rain the next two days. Still, I had some really good prayer time on those mornings. I shall miss it in Jerusalem.
We headed to Jerusalem this morning making a stop and the ruins of an old synagogue with a beautiful mosaic floor. We had lunch at a familiar restaurant in Jericho and then began our ascent. The rain continued pretty much all day and greeted us upon our arrival. I still have some unpacking to do, but I’m slowly getting settled into our new home here for the next 5 weeks. We’re right across the street from the Old City and tomorrow is a free day to go explore. I think I will go visit the Holy Sepulcher. One final bit of good news is that we now have internet in our rooms here, so I should be able to keep my blog updated each night. I will do my best. Please continue to pray for me and my fellow pilgrims as we begin the second half of our pilgrimage here in Jerusalem.
Today was a nice relaxing day with only one thing planned. We had Mass on the Mount of the Beatitudes this morning. Unfortunately, it was really raining when I got up. It did stop long enough for us to be able to get out and walk around on the mountain (hill, really) after Mass which was nice. There is such a beautiful view of the Sea of Galilee from up there. Jesus would have used the natural theater setting to give his famous Sermon on the Mount. There are many groves of banana trees now where all the people would have sat, but my imagination easily changed bananas into 1st century disciples. I was the cantor for Mass today and I picked some hymns that talked about the Beatitudes. I didn’t think much of it when I made the decision to do that, but it turned out to be a very powerful moment singing those songs right where Jesus first spoke those words.
After walking around for a bit after Mass it was time to head home. We had arranged that we were going to walk back instead of taking the bus since it was only about a 30 minute walk. This was so that people could stay and pray for as long as they wanted without having to feel rushed to make the bus. This seemed like a really good idea. However, about 2/3 of the way back it started to rain and then it really started to pour. We were all soaked by the time we got home (I actually had come prepared with my rain gear, so I made out OK). After getting dried out we enjoyed our last evening in Galilee just relaxing and playing cards. There are so many memories to take from Galilee that I’m sure I have meditation material for many years.
Today was a day I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. Today we went to Caesarea Philippi, the place where Simon became Peter. I’m so excited to tell you it about that I’m tempted to skip the other sites…but I won’t. We actually went to two other places before the big destination (emphasis mine). First, we went to the ancient ruins of Hazor. This city is another very old city. It was built thousands of years before Christ. It’s so old that when Solomon built the gates, there were already ruins of many cities below that he was building on top of. The Bible mentions that fact that Joshua came all the way up here with the Israelites after crossing the Jordan because of the symbolic importance of capturing this city. The most impressive part here was getting to go down into a huge shaft that was dug to get to water. This is similar to what we saw at Megiddo, except this time we got to go down in the tunnel. Basically, the problem was that the spring was located outside the city walls. So, they dug straight down hundreds of feet and then made a horizontal tunnel over to the spring so they could get water without leaving the city. Pretty neat.
As we were touring Hazor, it began to rain. We were expecting this, but it really started coming down. It rained so much that we didn’t get to tour our next site at all. We stopped at the entrance to the city of Dan and talked about it and prayed. It was here in Dan that the northern king Jeroboam set up a golden calf for the people to worship instead of going to the temple in Jerusalem after the kingdom split.
Now it was time to head to the feature attraction. As we arrived in Caesarea Philippi I could immediately see the big rock cliff that was so familiar from the many videos and pictures I’ve seen. I should mention that the places we went today were at the far north of Israel in the area of the Golan Heights. Jesus must have had a really good reason for bringing the apostles all the way up here. Indeed he did. It was here in front of this huge rock that Jesus told Simon, “You are Rock and upon this Rock I will build my Church” (Matthew 16:18). Jesus really knew how to use the features of the land to aid him in his teaching. There’s also another significance to this rock in regards to Peter. There is a cave in the rock that used to have a spring. Thus there seemed to be no bottom to this cave and the pagans referred to this as the “Gates of Hell.” They even used to throw animals in the hole in sacrifice to the gods they believed lived below. So when Jesus tells Peter he will give him the keys of the kingdom of heaven and the “Gates of Hell” will not prevail against the church he is again using the geography to prove a point.
As a final exclamation point, the cave was part of a temple dedicated to the pagan God Pan who was the god of shepherds. How appropriate that Jesus would make Peter the chief shepherd of his church here at this place. While people came there to worship a pagan shepherd god, the Good Shepherd came and established his new chief shepherd as head of his new Church. Jesus knew what he was doing when he decided to come way up north here. One other neat thing about this place is that the Jordan River starts here. As I said, it used to start right in the cave, but an earthquake changed things slightly. What a powerful place! I could have stayed and prayed here all day, but it was raining and no one else was much interested in staying, so we had to move on.
We continued north from Caesarea Philippi to the border of Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. We hoped to catch a glimpse of Mt. Hermon, the highest peak in the Holy Land. Unfortunately, the rain had left us in a big fog. However, as we ate lunch the rain that we had been experiencing actually turned to snow. As we finished eating the clouds began to give way and there before us we saw Mt. Hermon and the Golan Heights beautifully covered in a fresh blanket of snow. As quickly as the mountains had appeared, the clouds again covered them and they were gone. It was also time for us to be gone from this region and so we began our decent back down to the Sea of Galilee. The rain kind of put a damper on things today, but I’m starting to accept the fact that I’m just going to have to file some of this stuff away to meditate on at a later time. We’re seeing so much so quickly that I just don’t have time to process it all. It can be frustrating, but I trust that God has it all under control and maybe some of the best experiences of the Holy Land will come in a chapel somewhere back home at a later time. All in God’s providence.