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A Pilgrimage to The Holy Land March 28 - April 8, 2019

During Lent, 27 members and friends of Trinity Church joined together to travel on pilgrimage for 10 days through Jerusalem, Galilee, and other parts of the West Bank and Israel, We explored the sites that pilgrims through the centuries have venerated, and learned more about and from the “living stones” — the people who continue to share this troubled, beautiful, and holy land.

Travel Day

Travel consumes an the entire first day, a mix of waiting, anticipation, and of course jet-lag — all part of a pilgrim’s journey.

Plenty of patience is needed, but it’s a fraction of what pilgrims of earlier centuries endured!
Touching down we cross yet another important threshold. Throughout this entire journey we will be praying our way through our steps, starting at the baggage claim!
It’s night by the time we reach Jerusalem, in the hands of our friend and guide of many years, Iyad Qumri, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian Christian. He is an extraordinary guide through the many layers of this land and culture!
Ending the day in the chapel of the cathedral. We echo that first-century pilgrim graffiti: "We have arrived!"

Day One

Overview of Jerusalem

Our first full day is a literal overview of Jerusalem and its environs, discovering just how close all the place names mentioned in the Bible really are — often within sight from any high viewpoint.

We start out from our base at St. George’s Cathedral and guesthouse, It’s an ideal base — close to the Old City, in a bustling Palestinian neighborhood that allows us to immerse ourselves in the pulse of this land.
Iyad starts with a tour of the local city blocks around us, and immediately we begin to learn that “West Bank” does not mean what headlines often lead us to believe.
Looking out from Mt. Scopus, west through the haze toward the Old City, and then to the east toward the river Jordan and the biblical lands of Moab, Edom, and Ammon beyond the Jordan River. (background photo)

Discovering Hospitality

It is impossible to avoid the pain of separation and division in this land. Signs of it are everywhere. It is also impossible to avoid the abundance of hospitality, one of the pillars of Middle Eastern society. Displacing ourselves leads to new discovery, one of the core movements and motives of pilgrimage.

Red signs are posted throughout the West Bank whenever one enters Area A, the only sections still under Palestinian jurisdiction. We are constantly crossing these boundaries, and finding friendship and the beauty of community life wherever we go.
As in: Lunch. Our host bakes spiced chicken, carrots, potatoes and onions in a clay oven. It was the fistsful of rosemary that he packed into the oven before he sealed it up with mud that made it a culinary memory that most of us will not forget! Such simplicity and such abundance.

Herodium

After lunch we climbed to the pinnacle of Herodium, one of King Herod’s many massive building works (including the Temple) — another great overview both of the land and the paranoid ruler who formed the world of Jesus.

Meeting the Archbishop

We end the day back at the cathedral with Archbishop Suheil Dawani, the Primate of the Episcopal Church throughout the Middle East. He provides another layer of insight into the complexities of this land and a testament to the presence of indigenous Christians from the time of Jesus until now.

Day Two

Jerusalem Overview: Closer In

Our second day gives a closer overview of the city, which is crucial to understanding what lies beneath its initial appearances.

We start with Sunday worship at the cathedral, celebrated in both Arabic and English. (Exciting to hear the Collect for Purity spoken in Arabic, which begins “Allah hu’akbar” ... the same words our Muslim sisters/brothers use in their call to prayer. We are closer cousins than we usually assume!)
Iyad makes the Jerusalem of the time of Jesus come alive at the scale model of Herod’s Jerusalem. This becomes more important as the trip goes on, and we learn how the location and walls of the city shift around from the time of David to Hezekiah to Herod to the Ottoman walls of today. The church that remembers the site of Jesus’ crucifixion is now smack in the center of the walled city, but it was once outside the walls in a stone quarry.
The model is connected to the Shrine of the Book, a museum that houses the Qumran scrolls, the most important biblical text find of the last century. A first-century BCE version of the whole scroll of Isaiah is among the manuscripts.

Day Three

Judean Desert

We rise before dawn to leave for Nazareth by way of the Judean desert, greening now with the spring rains. We take a half hour for silent reflection out on the hills.
Looking back toward Jerusalem on the horizon to the west...
And down toward Jericho and the Jordan River on the horizon to the east...
Then we gather to break bread as the sun breaks through. These sudden moments of Nature filled with Grace feel like such a gift — as beautiful and ephemeral as the desert flowers blooming around us.

Mount of Temptation

Our next stop is the ancient city of Jericho and the monastery on the Mount of the Temptation.

Breakfast awaits us in Jericho at one of Iyad’s many wonderful hosts who we came to call Cousins. From one banquet to the next we go!
The monastery is one room wide, quite literally hanging off of a cliff face.
It looks out to the hermits caves that date back to the early centuries of monastic life. The monastery remembers the place where Jesus was driven into the wilderness to discover his destiny.
The chapel is luminous with sunlight and icons.
In the Orthodox world, all icons are at the same time windows to the divine, and mirrors of the soul — these are far from musty places when one knows how to read them!
Pilgrims looking out over the Jordan valley. The ruins of ancient Jericho and the modern city spread out below, with the hills of biblical Moab and Edom (now the country of Jordan) beyond.
Before leaving Jericho we read the story of Zaccheus and the sycamore tree. (George contemplates the slightly bad idea of climbing the tree...)
...and then contemplates a very bad idea, (but Mohammed, our No.1 bus driver talks him out of it.)

Sepphoris, the big town next door

We drive up the Jordan Valley to arrive at Sepphoris, just four miles from Nazareth, where Joseph and Jesus would have certainly worked (Nazareth was a village of 150 and Sepphoris a city of thousands in the process of being built by “carpenters” (a misleading translation of tekton, aka 'master builder' in a place with little timber and lots of stone!)

Theaters are indicators of the size of a city — this one was large for the region. Jesus was likely exposed to a cosmopolitan environment from an early age.
Pottery shards from the first through the fourth centuries are literally littering the ground everywhere. Few archeological sites are so rich with this kind of ancient “trash” still able to be picked up at random.
The almond trees are ripening; the figs and olives are not far behind them. The spring rains make this land crazy-abundant with produce.

Nazareth

Entering Nazareth, we go to the ancient spring in the town, now flowing in the crypt beneath the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation.

The story is written in icons all around us, and in the lives of the many worshippers who go down to the water...
Including ourselves!
We stay just across the street from the Church of the Nativity in a gracious convent guesthouse with the Sisters of Nazareth.
And it is not just an ordinary convent — they have in their basement a private excavation: a few decades ago they literally fell through the floor into first-century Nazareth, with remnants of houses and perfectly-preserved rolling-stone tombs dating to Jesus’ time. This gives us an incredible preview into what we will find later in the week in Jerusalem.

Day Four

Galilee and the Jordan

Today we spend the entire day on the Sea of Galilee, about 12 miles from Nazareth, where Jesus spent the majority of his teaching ministry.

Iyad's assistant, Ranya, joins us for the next couple of days. She guides us with a beautiful spirit and style, and as a Christian herself, she helps us to understand the unique perspective of the indigenous Christian population in this land.

We begin the day in a remote spot along the upper Jordan River. Heavy rains means it's running high, but our No.1 bus driver, Mohammed, gets us to the spot where we can access the river.
In this remote spot we renew our baptismal vows, remembering that we're being baptized into a life-long process of increasing awareness of our own anointing — aka "becoming Christ."
Happy pilgrims on the verge of Jordan!
...one day we will all cross the river. the work of any religion at its mature levels is to teach us how to die before we die, to know a Love stronger than death. This “lonely place” seems to be a good place to let that truth sink in.

Capernaum

The town in which Jesus based himself is again surprisingly cosmopolitan as it lay on the major trade route between Egypt and Persia. Here are the streets right around the house remembered by early tradition as Peter’s house.
The large synagogue is built on the first-century foundations of the synagogue of Jesus’ time — much larger than most of us imagine.
Taking some time for meditation on the beach below Capernaum, where the church remembers Jesus calling and sending his follower-friends

Heptapagon (“Seven Springs”)

Slightly further down the shore, we stop at the church built on 4th c. Byzantine foundations, which are usually a clue of a yet-earlier tradition (and water sources are always a giveaway of natural gathering places); here is where the church remembers the feeding of the 5000.
the famous mosaic of the loaves and fishes beneath the altar.

The Sea of Galilee

We cut the engines for 15 minutes of silent reflection on this large lake (7x12 miles)
Though the sea is calm for us today, we're told it can get choppy quickly with the multi-directional winds that blow down from the high hills all around it.
Jesus’ road back to Nazareth through the Valley of the Doves. Many pilgrims comment that this is such a strikingly beautiful land, often beyond our expectation.
The keystone of each day’s travel is an after-dinner reflection time, noticing what caught our attention and where our awareness has expanded. This is what takes pilgrimage beyond the tour and what creates a caring community out of “group travel.” (tonight we're in in the sister’s chapel back in Nazareth.)

Day Five

Through Samaria and Judea

We say goodbye to the sisters at daybreak and head south through the Jezreel Valley and into Samaria along the central spine of the country, along the route of the patriarchs; every few miles we pass another place of biblical mention and importance.

Burqin

This off-the-beaten-track church is the fourth-oldest in the world — it remembers the healing of the 10 lepers, and is a treasure.
Just the opportunity to be in a quiet West Bank Samaritan town free of any tourism at all is a gift as we head back toward Jerusalem.

Shechem: Jacob’s Well

The ancient city of Shechem (current day Nablus) was the religious heart of the Hebrew people long before Jerusalem. The ancient aquifer and well is still alive since the time of the patriarchs.

After the priest-caretaker was murdered by settlers, and the church damaged by grenades, his remarkable replacement, Fr. Justinian, undertook to rebuild it.
He designed the church, raised the money and the building, painted all its murals and icons, built the chandeliers, etc.
He now sits down by the well, continuing to paint icons with a fine hand. A remarkable man.
We listen to the reading of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well in the Gospel of John, then draw up water from the patriarchs' well — so cold and sweet!
George of course thinks the church is dedicated in his name.

Taybeh

Taybeh (biblical Ephriam) is the last all-Christian inhabited town remaining in Israel/West Bank. Once prevalent, the indigenous Christian population is now down to one percent of the country's total population.

Our lunch is one of the Palestinian delicacies: Musakhan — chicken roasted with onions and sumac.
After a stop by the Taybeh brewery, a business started by a Palestinian Bostonian family returning to help rejuvenate their town, we visit the ruins of St. George, a 4th-century church that gives us a good orienting lookout over all of Samaria and Judea.
Give the preacher a chance and he’ll take it!
This evening, back in Jerusalem, we hear from Ophir Yarden explaining the range of Zionist perspectives on the land and its current issues. Other evenings we hear from the Muslim and Palestinian Christian perspectives. While it gets more difficult with each presentation to hold fixed positions, it becomes easier to hear each voice as holding a part of the truth of this land.

Day Six

Shepherd’s Fields, Bethlehem

Having returned to Jerusalem, today we go just outside its southern border to Bethlehem.

Bethlehem is a bustling city in itself, but just outside it lie the Shepherds Fields. They still give a sense of the calm that pervades the rural landscape. Wherever we can, we give 20 minutes for reflection as we take in the meaning of these places.
Shepherds Fields is a region still dotted with dozens of dwelling caves, which is how the local population of Bethlehem lived at the time of Jesus. Ranya described how they are often two-room structures — people in one room and animals in the other. For “no room at the inn” think: no room in the extended family living area;”
And for “manger” think: stone feeding trough. The actual world of the Bible is significantly different than our Sunday School pictures, but no less fascinating!
Always we are holding two realities together — looking just to the left are hillside upon hillside of illegal settlements, which now control over 60% of West Bank land.

(background photo: spring flowers blooming in the Shepherds Fields)

The Wall of Separation

Bethlehem, like most of the places we visit, is in the West Bank, which means we cross and recross checkpoints, and confront this dark and imprisoning reality.

The wall rather than being built along the illegal settlements, weaves through the town, cutting off residents from water sources, farmland, and each other. Here, it is built across the main road into Bethlehem, turning the whole area into a cul-de-sac, which strangles its local commerce.
Here the wall surrounds a building of homes and shops on three sides.
Along the way we stand and sing this South African Apartheid-era song:

Courage, my friend, / You do not walk alone. / We will walk with you / And sing your spirit home.

Ruth’s Place

Every day we eat very, very well, and the welcome of our hosts is always warm and gracious.

Today we meet Ruth, who has held her own for many years against great odds.
These are just the condiments before the shawarma and falafel arrive!

Church of the Nativity

Considered the oldest church in Christendom, it was built by the emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, and was not destroyed by the invading Persians (who according to story recognized their likenesses in the mosaics of the Magi).

Here we get a taste of the pilgrim crowds that have streamed to the Holy Land since the 4th century.
The 5-aisled church somehow manages a serenity even as pilgrims crowd down to the crypt.
The star directs pilgrims’ hands to the stone that is the ‘hotspot’ of remembrance of Jesus’ birth.
Beneath the church is also the cave (and tomb) where St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin (Vulgate) and wrote his extensive commentaries on Scripture. Every corner of our journey holds these striking shards of history. It just goes on and on, far beyond what photos can capture or memory can hold...

Day Seven

Church of the Resurrection / Holy Sepulchre

Today focuses on the site most central for Christians, known as the church of the Church of the Resurrection to the Orthodox and church of the Empty Tomb (Holy Sepulchre) in the West. It is a chaotic mashup of periods, as it has been totally destroyed four times and rebuilt 12 more. Our earlier study this week helps us understand how this site related to the city in Jesus’ time (outside the walls vs. city center) and how the events scripture describes became encased in this jumble of piety and religious competition.

The streets around this part of the Old City are jammed and throbbing throughout the day. Here we stop to identify the front steps of Constantine’s church of the 4th c. — two blocks away from the current church. It was a massive building in its time, the beginning of Christendom.
We come to the current church from its back side, standing on the roof of the lower church.
We enter through the tiny rooftop door of the Ethiopian chapel, jammed with white-robed pilgrims, we make our way down to the main part of the church.
We continue down to the depths of the church, where we find the remains of the quarry, near where Constantine’s mother, Helena, “discovered” the wood of the cross. Throughout this pilgrimage we are less concerned with trying to find the “X” that marks the spot, and instead have concentrated on both understanding the historical layers of deed and devotion, and then praying our way through these places, knowing that all ground is equally holy.
Behind a chapel wall at this lowest level is first-century evidence of this place being identified as a pilgrimage destination. It’s a picture of a boat with the inscription “We have arrived.”
The church is so tangled and vast that it is a small pilgrimage just to get through it. (Coming up from the quarry).

Iyad helps us make sense of the fascinating layers of history that make up this place. It’s a tribute to factionalism and empire as much as it is to devotion and discipleship.

Graffiti is ubiquitous in the world, but old graffiti seems more interesting than new!

The crusader cross graffiti may have signified families and clans arriving, which became the “Jerusalem Cross” we know today.
The rotunda and “edicule” where millions venerate a stone slab that dates from Crusader times (the early tomb and edifice were completely destroyed in the medieval period).
We end our visit behind the edicule, in a little overlooked chapel, through a break in the stone wall that reveals rolling-stone tombs from the first century (identical to what we saw in Nazareth — these types of tombs were used for only 50 years before and after Jesus. Encountering them puts us within his lifetime.
Before leaving the church we light the same bundles of 33 candles that those attending the Easter Vigil will light. It's customary to take these home to use at our local vigil.
Anticipation!

From “group travel” to real community

One of the gifts of our advance preparation, our daily meeting at the close of the day, and our treating every step of this journey as pilgrimage more than tourism is that the travelers connect in a beautiful way. We often stay up later than we should, in animated conversation around all that is affecting us. The evolution is slow and subtle, but a beautiful company of pilgrims has definitely formed along the way.

Day Eight

Walking the Way of Jesus:

Gethsemane

Today’s travel together is dedicated to retracing Jesus’ steps along his public entry into Jerusalem, the Passover meal, his trial and execution.

We begin by meditating at dawn in the ancient olive grove of Gethsemane, experiencing its calm before the tour coaches arrive by the dozens.

(background: an extraordinary company of friends has formed over these past days — so much camaraderie in this group!)

Mount of Olives

Starting in Bethphage, we begin our own walk from the top of the Mount of Olives down into the Kidron Valley into the garden of Gethsemane.

Threading our way down through the Jewish tombs and olive groves on the Mt. of Olives
As the city spreads out before us, we pause halfway down the mountain at the church (Dominus Flevit) that remembers Jesus’ long sigh: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem...”

Caiaphas’ palace

We then head up the opposite slope of the Kidron Valley, facing the Mount of Olives, to the first-century home of a wealthy religious leader, believed to have been the High Priest Caiaphas’ house, and the church built over it, St. Peter in Gallicantu (place of the cock-crow).
The Roman road is still visible leading up the hill past the palace.
The dungeons below the palace are especially poignant. We stand with all those imprisoned, and contemplate our own path that leads through the valley of the shadow of death.
The stone anchors still exist, to which ropes were fastened to hold prisoners in place for scourging.

Day Nine

The pilgrimage is almost over. Today we stand with the faithful of the other two sister religions that call this land holy, and worship with our own Palestinian Episcopal sisters and brothers.

We begin at sunrise at the edge of the Temple Mount, the huge platform that Herod the Great built for the Second Temple. After its destruction it was replaced by a temple to Jupiter, then a Byzantine church, then the Noble Sanctuary, which remembers Mohammed’s ascent to heaven, and the adjacent Al Aqsa mosque.

Western Wall

Joining worshippers at the Western Wall, the remaining part of Herod’s retaining wall that is closest to the Holy of Holies sanctuary in the Temple.
Adding our prayers for peace to the stone worn smooth...

Dome of the Rock

From there we ascend to the top of the mount, learning history, politics, and taking time for private prayer along the way.

Pools of Bethesda

Coming off the Temple Mount we walk through the Pools of Bethesda and remember the story of the Healing of the Lame Man (John 5).

The onsite St. Anne’s Church is an amazing Crusader church that was saved from destruction by becoming a mosque for a time. It has a 7-second sound decay, which makes it spectacular for singing!

St. Andrew’s Church, Ramallah

We still have time to get to Ramallah to join our fellow Palestinian Episcopalians for worship.

As everywhere, we encounter generous hospitality and an extraordinary good-heartedness.
‘Walking the streets of Ramallah’ (to go get fantastic ice cream — Iyad’s treat!). It’s not a thing most of us would have imagined we would be doing so easily before this trip, but several of us comment at how it feels safer than the streets of New York City!

The Dead Sea

Even pilgrims take a break to play!

On this, our last full day, we head down Iyad’s house in Jericho for a final celebration meal, and stop first at the lowest point on earth, the biblical “Salt Sea” —bobbing like corks on the water, and slathering up with the mineral-rich healing mud in the 80-degree heat.

Jericho — Iyad’s home

Our final dinner and sharing circle at Iyad’s home is sweet, tinged with sadness. As we’ve come to know, appreciate, forgive, and support one another in these intense days of travel, learning, and growth, we’ve formed a precious community, which tomorrow will disperse. It’s a fact that we will never again be all together in this lifetime. And tonight there are so many reasons to give thanks.

On the first day we chose a name at random to become our secret prayer partner, and we each bought them a small gift to exchange tonight. Lots of hugs, lots of stories, tears, laughter, and a sense of the fullness of a Life that is stronger than death, right here and right now.

As we travel back through the Judean desert toward Jerusalem, the crescent moon hangs in the night sky, just like it does from the minarets that have companioned us through this journey.

Day Ten

(Final Day)

The Way of the Cross

Our final act as a group is to get up before dawn one last time and walk through the Old City along the ancient Stations of the Cross, walking less in medieval penitence than in a glad recommitment to the way of self-offering Love.

The first half of the traditional stations are marked out along the Via Dolorosa
We enter the Church of the Empty Tomb for the last set of stations...
Climbing the stairs to the Calvary rock
Like all the churches, this one has encrusted and gilded memory until it’s hard to find or feel; yet these moments can still be hushed and holy. We’ve learned to see with the eyes of the heart (and to arrive early!)
We end our devotion back in the little semi-neglected chapel/cave with the empty rolling-stone tomb.

What I hear the pilgrims say: With all that we’ve seen and been through together, our hearts have been cracked and broken open in the best sort of way. We can feel soulfully the angel’s assurance to the women at the tomb: “He is not here; he is risen! We had to come to this place of absence to find Presence. We can go now and find Christ everywhere!

And after the Stations of the Cross, a great bakery cart!

Emmaus

We complete our journey together by following the disciples to Emmaus, about 7 miles outside Jerusalem, to read the story of Jesus becoming vividly known to his disappointed followers in the breaking of the bread in a way that changes them forever.

As we simply break bread together, here and week-by-week, more of this truth falls in through the cracks of our heart, that Christ is always and everywhere. Pilgrims, walk on!
An icon is both a window and a mirror, and something about this one get it exactly right; we see ourselves in the story — even George!
Our own Last Supper — a spectacular melt-off-the-bone local lamb dish, then the beginning of the long journey home, then the rest of our lives! Walk on!

The return journey

The return journey is sometimes more challenging than the outward-bound pilgrimage. Making sense of the life and relationships we return to, when we have been significantly altered in a short amount of time, takes bravery, persistence, and patience.

Taking home what we have learned about the "living stones" of this land — Jewish, Muslim, and Christian — will also take some time to process and articulate. Far from choosing sides, we return with a renewed sense of solidarity with all those working for change, for peace, for a common future.

We walk in solidarity with one another as pilgrims as well, traveling separately now but still together in heart and purpose.

This pilgrimage has ended; the journey continues!

The real domain of the Paschal Mystery is not dying but dying-to-self, reminding us that it is not only possible but imperative to fall through fear into love because that is the only way we will ever truly know what it means to be alive. —Cynthia Bourgeault

Traveler, your footprints

are the only path, and nothing else.

Traveler, there is no path,

the path is made by walking.

By walking the path is made,

and looking back,

you’ll see a road

never to be trodden again.

Traveler, there is no path,

only a ship’s glistening wake in the sea.

—Antonio Machado

pilgrims, Walk on!

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