Jesus loved the people
Much of the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion was spent traversing back and forth between Jerusalem and Bethany. In between was the Mount of Olives. I had never imagined it being much more than a hill. That changed this morning.
Our guide, Dan, wanted us to get around earlier this morning, hoping to beat the crowds to the top of the Mount of Olives. “The early bird always gets the schnitzel,” he said, as we managed to stand overlooking Jerusalem without having to fight the crowd. The view is breathtaking and was the perfect way to start a journey that would have us walking many routes that would have been all too familiar to Jesus. We looked over the city of Jerusalem mindful of the moment Jesus looked over this city and wept. Jesus loved the people and proved that love soon enough.
Mount of Olives
Separated from the Eastern Hill (the Temple Mount and the City of David) by the Kidron Valley, the Mt. of Olives has always been an important feature in Jerusalem’s landscape. From the 3rd millennium B.C. until the present, this 2900-foot hill has served as one of the main burial grounds for the city. The two-mile long ridge has three summits each of which has a tower built on it.
We didn’t have palm branches, but the imagery came to mind as we made our descent down the road which would have led to Jesus’ triumphal entry. Being in these places…these spaces…the passion week was coming to life before our eyes. Even more as we stopped in the Garden of Gethsemane. Thanks to some help from GTI (our tour company), we were able to have access to a private garden. Joe read the story of Jesus praying in the garden and of his arrest. Quietly we went off on our own to pray, just like Jesus. We have prayed in many places and God has heard, but we won’t forget the time we prayed at Gethsemane.
After we prayed in the private garden, we visited the Basilica of Agony, a church marking the place where Jesus was tormented when praying. This place was build by the Franciscans to mark the Gethsemane Garden. We marveled at the olive trees, several of which were well beyond 1000 years old and quite possibly old enough to have been around at the time of Christ.
We continued to make our way into the city of Jerusalem. Our next stop was the Pool of Bethesda. Dan reminded us that this place marked the healing of the lame man. This is where Jesus asked the man if he wanted to be well, and the man pointed out that he could never make it into the pool when the waters stirred. As Dan was so adept at doing, he used the historical context and the archaeological evidence about the pool to point out what was really going on in our story. This was about Jesus showing his power and dominion at a place that truly pagan and spiritually void. This was just the beginning of a day full of reminders of the power of Christ.
Pool of Bethesda
The name of the pool is said to be derived from the Hebrew language and/or Aramaic language. Beth hesda (בית חסד/חסדא), meaning either house of mercy or house of grace. In both Hebrew and Aramaic the word could also mean "shame, disgrace". This dual meaning may have been thought appropriate, since the location was seen as a place of disgrace due to the presence of invalids, and as a place of grace due to the granting of healing
Next we followed the route that would reveal to us the 14 stations of the cross, the Via Dolorosa. This winding, steep road would bring to life the sobering reality that Jesus carrying a cross (the cross beam as we would learn) to his crucifixion was beyond what any human would be capable especially after being severely beaten.
We stopped at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This site is where many believe Jesus was both crucified (the place of the skull, Golgotha) and was placed in the tomb. Shoulder to shoulder we looked around a church that was filled with beautiful artifacts and gorgeous mosaics. It was difficult to see the Golgotha rock and we didn’t stand in line for the tomb, knowing that we would be visiting another site called the Garden Tomb later. It is also likely that the crucifixion took place here, but the burial could have been at the Garden Tomb. Even though no one is completely certain if the this was the place of crucifixion and burial, it was still evident that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre held special meaning to so many.
After some pizza for lunch, yes a bit of familiar cuisine with Israel’s touch, we went to the Israel Museum. One of the highlights of the museum was a model of the Jerusalem based on the Second Temple Period. This was so helpful to see, right in front of us, many of the sites we had visited. Even more awe-inspiring was the Dead Sea scrolls exhibit called the Shrine of the Book. After visiting Qumran earlier in our trip, it was nice to see some of the artifacts we had learned about. In fact, the museum really was a great opportunity for Dan to show us many things that helped tie our trip together.
Our time at the Garden Tomb later this afternoon would be a very special moment in our trip. We were able to see a tomb that really represented well for us the tomb in which Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus might have laid Jesus body to rest. After visiting the tomb, we were able to share a time of singing and communion. Worshipping near the tomb where Jesus might have risen made this time of remembrance a benchmark for all of us. It seemed like a perfect way to end our day, but you never know what God has planned, and our evening would be a good reminder of it.
Dinner was not at an excavation site or some holy church, but it was a nice restaurant close to many of the sites we had visited. After sharing a meal, we enjoyed wrapping up the trip with stories and with gratitude toward our guide, Dan, and our driver/cook, Eli. I kept thinking this was our “last supper.” And, as far as trip meals go, it basically is. So, of course, I thought of Jesus and his disciples…that Last Supper. But, when you think about it, in many ways it was a beginning, and I think in many ways, this is a new beginning for us. New friendships. New passions for learning and growing. New hope. New courage. New life. We won’t be the same, we have had the Bible unearthed for us so how could we. It is our hope and desire to share these newfound discoveries and passions and stories with those familiar faces in those familiar places. Jerusalem and home seem so far apart, but if we have learned anything on this trip, our God has a way of bringing it all together.