From the viewpoint on Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem, you can easily see the vastness of the Judean Desert to the north and west. Leaving before dawn, we left Jerusalem for Wadi Qelt, a short drive from the heart of the city. The stark change in scenery is impressive, changing from a vegetative, mountainous, urban landscape to a yellow, rocky, desert scene almost instantly. A riverine gulch in the West Bank, once perhaps used to travel between Jericho and Jerusalem by individuals such as King David, Wadi Qelt eventually runs into the Jordan River near Jericho and the Dead Sea.
Stumbling out of the bus, we followed a dirt path up the hillside in silence. We gathered for a brief prayer and a reading of Psalm 23. Given almost an hour for our own time of prayer and reflection, we scattered to find our own ways to await the sunrise and listen for God, the air still cool. For those who climbed up to the top of the hillside, far in the distance was Jericho to the west, the oldest city in the world dating back 10,000 years, almost 900 feet below sea level. In July, there was no water running into the Jordan – no green pastures, no still waters, only valleys of shadow. And while this is a small desert in comparison to many others in the world, being in the midst of it was truly humbling.
Wanting to visit the many sites of the Holy Land where Jesus lived out his life and ministry is usually why Christians make a pilgrimage to Israel/Palestine. Seeing the places noted in scripture changed what had resided within my imagination from the years of childhood to that of adulthood. My trip to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and the surrounding areas in Judea and Galilee shattered my idealized pablum version of biblical times while confirming the realism that he lived and breathed as a human.
Located in the West Bank, today Bethlehem is a town surrounded by separation walls in the Judean hills about 5 miles south of Jerusalem. Rising above the valleys below, it isn’t hard to imagine how magi traveling from the East might see a bright star “above” this city. From a distance, a star might appear as if it was resting atop a hill. Pilgrims have been visiting Bethlehem since the 1st century, so something had to have happened here. Visiting the Church of the Nativity, one has the expectation to stand where Mary and Joseph had sought lodging, giving birth to a son whom they laid in a manger since there was no room in the inn due to an overpopulated city because of a Roman census. Don’t get too excited. Yes, the church that commemorates the spot is beautiful: mosaics, oil lamps, icons. There are also hordes of people pushing and cramming into the little “cave/grotto” where the precise spot is marked by a 14-pointed silver star. Yes – X marks the spot. I climbed down into the claustrophobic space as my fellow pilgrims sang “Away in a Manger.” I bent into the niche on the floor and touched the star with the little window (plexiglass?) that showed the rock below. Not exactly a holy moment for me.
One of the main reasons I wanted to be a pilgrim in the Holy Land was to visit the various sites that are mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the Gospels. And I wasn’t disappointed. Often beginning with a wake-up call at 5:00am and returning to our room around 8:30pm, we walked many miles each day (or rode a bus to various locations, where we did more walking) taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the Holy Land.
Arriving at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, it was dark as we made it by bus to St. George’s Guest House in the West Bank of Jerusalem. It was an uphill drive, following a similar route the Romans would have taken, coming from the east coast. (When entering Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples would have climbed to the City from the west. See Marcus Borg’s book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem). Jerusalem really is a city high on a hill – 2,000 feet above sea level with many surrounding hills and narrow valleys. Limestone rocks and cliffs abound. It is a forbidding land, nothing like “the land of milk and honey” I expected.
Day 1 started with Morning Prayer in the Chapel at St. George’s where we began to get acclimated to our new environs scripturally: Psalm 122 and Luke 13:34, and musically in four-part harmony: “Jerusalem, My Happy Home” to Land of Rest. We donned sunscreen, hats, scarves, and cameras to walk to the Damascus Gateand Salah Eldin Street to get the feel of the distance and view the wall of the Old City and how it had been built up from Roman (1st C) to Byzantine (4th C) to Crusader (11th C) times.
From Monday, June 9th through Sunday, June 23rd my husband and I joined a group of pilgrims from the Episcopal Church in Connecticut to visit our Holy Land for the first time. I use the word “our” because it is a land that belongs to all of God’s people. While I have been home (a bit jet-lagged) for four days now, I am still coming to grips in my mind what I experienced and what I am going to do about it.
My expectations were simple: I wanted to walk in the places where Jesus and other people from scripture had been. I wanted this to be something other than a vacation to another part of the world, especially since we’ve travelled so much abroad in recent years. My expectations were rewarded, but they were also challenged, enlightened, troubled, comforted, and so much more. I went as an American Christian from the Episcopal tradition who happens to be from Connecticut and is a Christian educator. I returned the same, but different; more cognizant of the rights I have as an American citizen and a person who can freely worship (as well as travel) anywhere I choose. Not so for most of the people who call Israel/Palestine home. Jerusalem could be called the “center of the universe” for many faith traditions. Whose land is it? It’s complicated.