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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Walking Jesus' Final Hours

Apologies in advance to those who have been faithfully reading this blog, but I am going to be much more abbreviated tonight than usual. We have to be up and away early tomorrow, so tonight is about packing and getting ready to go home.

Today, Saturday, was our last touring day. We started at the Church of St. Peter Gallicantu. “Gallicantu” means “the cock crowing.” This site is traditionally identified with the house of the high priest, Caiaphas. What a beautiful sanctuary! We sang “Open My Eyes, Lord” and soaked in the amazing art depicting the trials of Jesus and the denials by Peter. It was deeply moving to go down below into what may have been the pit or dungeon where Jesus was flogged and jailed overnight. The rocky hole was tight and hot, and it was easy to imagine Jesus being there on his night of suffering. We also saw what may have been the courtyard area where Peter denied Jesus by the fire. That was sobering, and all of us were caused to reflect upon our own spiritual failures.

Next, the Israel Museum and the Shrine of the Book. The first thing we did was spend some time at the 1:50 scale model of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. It is huge and incredible to behold. It took years and endless research to build. Just walking around the model with a capable tour guide like Anton Farah is very helpful for orienting yourself to a city—both ancient and modern— that can be very confusing to a first-time outsider.

Then we went inside to the Shrine of the Book. For those of us who are nerds about historical and textual matters, this is nirvana. The big draw here is the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit—the Qumran artifacts, the scrolls themselves. Also, the Aleppo Codex is the lesser known display. Both exhibits are fascinating, and I could have spent hours here, but, alas, our time was growing short, and we had to move on.

After lunch at a local Middle Eastern spot, Alhambra, we moved over into the Old City and began the Via Dolorosa or Way of the Cross. Via Dolorosa means “way of suffering/passion.” This is the traditional path Jesus walked from arrest to trials to execution. Entering at Stephen’s Gate, by the eastern Muslim cemetery, we first went to the ruins of the Pool of Bethesda (John 5) and the Church of St. Anne. This is a Crusader church built on the site near the old sheep market where the Virgin Mary is thought (by traditional Catholics anyway) to have been born. Here, Kellie Miller sang a solo, then led us all in “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Kellie's voice is beautiful, and the acoustics here were outstanding!

Leaving St. Anne’s, we started through the fourteen Stations of the Cross. Beginning at Station One, the Church of Flagellation (where Jesus perhaps was flogged), we began walking the ancient streets that Jesus may well have walked that terrible Friday. Narrow, crowded with humanity thoroughfares—through houses and markets and street vendors and the busyness of life. This may have been what Jesus’ journey to the cross was like—streets crammed with real people with real issues living real lives. Most of the “stations” are simply a spot by the street designated “I… II… III… IV…” or whatever Roman number applies. There is the place where Jesus was given his cross. There are the spots where Jesus stumbled carrying the cross, the place where he met his mother, Simon of Cyrene, the girl Veronica who wiped his face, all the way up to being stripped of his clothes and nailed to the cross.

The stations lead to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Built in 325 by Constantine, this site has been the traditional location of both the crucifixion and the burial/resurrection since the 2nd century, during the reign of Hadrian. It was destroyed and rebuilt numerous times, and the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches have come to share this site that functions more as a shrine than as a church. It is hard to describe the parade of pilgrims who come to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Busload after busload of visitors from every place on earth come to pay homage, and it is something of a madhouse inside. The first thing you encounter is people—mainly Orthodox believers—kneeling and kissing a stone slab: This is the rock where the body of Jesus was, tradition says, cleaned and prepared for burial. Long lines wind there way through the dark, heavily ornate church, people waiting to see the tomb or go upstairs to see the spot identified as Golgotha. Directly under Golgotha, there is the Chapel of Adam, a small room featuring the rock broken by the crucifixion earthquake. After the Holy Sepulchre, many of us used our time in the market area of the Old City to do some shopping, grabbing last minute souvenirs and keepsakes from our trip.

Following this, we walked nearby to the Garden Tomb. This is an alternative possible site for both Golgotha and the tomb of Jesus. In many ways, it seems to be a more believable location ( it is certainly more peaceful). It’s outside the old wall, while the Holy Sepulchre is not. It seems to fit the general description of the locations in a variety of ways. A guide led us first to a rocky hill that looks down today over a bus station. The rocky face of the hill seems to resemble a skull (“Golgotha” means “place of the Skull,” you remember), with eyes and nose. The guide suggested if this was the site, then the actual execution more likely took place down in the area where the bus station is today, nearer the old highway and Damascus Gate. Scripture never says Jesus was crucified on a hill, by the way, but does say it was a place accessible to crowds. It was a moving experience to see the place where Jesus may have died.

Then, we ended up at the tomb. It’s a simple rock-cut tomb in the face of a cliff that has many of the marks of the Gospel accounts—a slot or trench for a rolling stone doorway, a low doorway, Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy man with a “garden tomb” to donate, etc. After a brief introduction from the guide, we all went inside and looked at two small rooms. The entrance is into a left side grieving room, where the body would have been prepared. Then, on the right, there are two slabs—one front, one back—where the wrapped body could have been placed. Was this Jesus’ tomb? No one knows (though someone over the centuries left Christian cross markings inside and out to suggest they thought it was). But, even if it was not, it is certainly a tomb very much like the one Jesus was laid in. And, as the guide reminded us, the only thing that really matters about any possible tomb location is that all of them are empty. “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here. He is risen.”

We had a farewell dinner tonight at a local restaurant. One more round of great Middle Eastern food was followed by some great sharing in the group. Gary McCaleb, our leader, did a fantastic job of summarizing our ten days together. We did a lot of bonding, and everyone—from teenager to senior citizen—brought something amazing to our little traveling community. There were a few tears and lots of hugs and promises to stay in touch, share photos online, etc.  Phil and Melinda and I gave Gary a little token of appreciation on behalf of everyone for putting the trip together, leading our group so well, and allowing the three of us co-leaders to tag along as helpers and enjoy the trip. We had a final prayer and called it an early night. Tomorrow is an early day. We will have breakfast and a quick communion service, then be on the road to the airport in Tel Aviv by 7:15 a.m. Our flight is at 11:3o or so, and we arrive back in DFW late on Sunday evening (9:30ish). Pray for our safe travel. Will try to post some final pictures when we can.

What a great adventure! Israel is a wonderful and special place, and we want to come back someday, but right now we are tired and very ready to come home and see our Jordan and Sarah! See you girls on Monday! Love, Mom and Dad.

שלום  Shalom,
Brent and Melinda

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