Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Back in Brrrrrooten and Day 7, Part 1: Temple Mount, Pool of Bethesda, Via Dolorosa

Good news!  Our group made it safely home to Minnesota, even though it decided to throw us a little bit of a snowstorm to celebrate our homecoming in the wee hours of Friday night/Saturday morning.  The last few days for me have been spent trying to readjust to God's time (Central Standard Time, of course) and trying to be with my family as much as possible.  Pastor Art, the wizened ministry veteran that he is, had arranged to have someone else lead worship for him on Sunday.  Myself, being younger and more foolish, thought it would be no problem to come back and lead worship on Sunday, complete with two annual meetings, and oh yeah, just cap the day off with having both church councils over for supper that evening.  Needless to say, my wife is an absolutely amazing woman and I couldn't have done any of this without her.  So now I'm trying to take it a bit easier at the start of the week to allow her and I both to get as much rest as possible...not easy with three young children. 

The other good news to share, which you're probably much more interested in than my dull, yet somehow exhausting life is that I've made substantial progress on editing pictures for the blog and a book that I'll be putting together in the coming weeks.  The small netbook computer that I had with me on the trip was nice for travel, but it doesn't have the more sophisticated photo editing software that I have on my home computer, so I'm taking the time to go back and re-edit all of the pictures, including the ones that I've already shared on the blog.  I won't be replacing the original posts, but they will look even nicer when it comes time to print said books.  I'm planning on using Blurb to create the books and they will be available for sale to anyone who wants one.  When the book is done I'll share the link to where you can purchase it. 

So as the windchill dips into the -40 range this evening and my children are finally snuggled comfortably in their beds, how about I try to tell you about our seventh day of touring the Holy Land?

Tour Day 7 for us was Tuesday, January 14, our third day staying in Jerusalem.  We awoke bright and early to be near the front of the line to get into the Old City of Jerusalem and into the Temple Mount.  The Temple Mount, so named because it's the site where the Temple of Jesus' day once stood (the so-called Second Temple, built after the Israelites returned from exile in Babylon, eventually destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD).  To say that the Temple Mount is interesting and important is an understatement.  It is a holy site for three of the world's major religions.  For Jews, it is where the Temple once stood which was for centuries the center of worship for the people of Israel, where the presence of God dwelt with the people, and where the High Priest communicated directly with God.  It is still the place toward which many Jews direct their prayers.  For Christians, it is a place that Jesus taught, prayed, and worshiped, not to mention the heart of the city where the central elements of the story of his death and resurrection took place.  For Muslims, it is a holy site because it is believed that Mohammed ascended into heaven from this location during his Night Journey where he spoke directly to God and received important instructions regarding prayer.  After Jerusalem came under Muslim control in the 7th century, the Dome of the Rock shrine was built over a large rock called the Foundation Stone.  It's this building that currently resides on the Temple Mount, its gold dome the most recognizable landmark in the Old City skyline.  This Foundation Stone is believed to be the place where the Holy of Holies stood in the Jewish Temple, and it's also believed by Jews to be the place where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac.  Muslims also believe this, except that it was Abraham's son Ishmael who was nearly sacrificed.  Confused enough yet?  As I said, it's nearly impossible to overstate the importance of this site to literally millions of people. 

Even though Jerusalem itself has changed hands several times in recent history, most notably in 1967 when Israel gained control of the Old City and the rest of the West Bank from Jordan, the Temple Mount itself remains under the oversight of Muslim authorities.  Israeli Police provide security on and around the Temple Mount, but Muslims make the decisions about when and for how long the site will be open to visitors.  They also forbid anyone to bring non-Islamic religious texts and artifacts into the site or to openly pray while there.  This meant that we left our Bibles on the bus for the morning portion of our tour.  It also posed a problem for us because we planned to walk the Via Dolorosa after visiting the Temple Mount but before we would return to the bus.  Because neither Pastor Art nor I had the texts for the stations of the cross memorized, we needed a way to read the Biblical text without bringing a Bible with us.  Luckily, technology saved the day and someone from the group had an e-reader with the Bible loaded on it.  Either the Muslim authorities haven't caught on to this technology or they don't care because we didn't have a problem bringing it with us. 

Ok, so that's the most I've written about any single site we've visited thus far, but like I said, it's really impossible to do justice to the historical significance of this place.  I think of any single place we visited, it fascinated and made me a little nervous because of how contested it is.  Not only is it a place where so many people have gone to worship for thousands of years, but it's also a place marked by conflict, assassination attempts (at least one successful), and protests in more recent years. 

So where was I?  Oh yeah, so we left early to get in line to go through the security checkpoint to be able to get in to the Temple Mount.  Non-Muslims are allowed access from 7:30 to 10:30 in the morning, so our window for visiting was rather small and we didn't want to spend most of our day waiting in line.  As usual, our guide was nearly perfect in planning when we should leave our hotel and we were one of the first groups in line.  After a short wait, the gates opened and the screening process began.  After going through the checkpoint, you walk up a long covered ramp that takes you above the large open area below that's known as the Western Wall, sometimes called the Wailing Wall.  The Western Wall is the last portion of the original Temple area that is still standing, and it is a famous place of prayer for Jews.  Here is the view from inside the ramp of men praying.  A smaller area for women to pray is just out of frame to the right. 

Upon entering the Temple Mount, we found ourselves standing between the Dome of the Rock to the north:

and the Al Aqsa mosque to the south: 

 As we stood and listened to our guide describe the buildings and history of the place, as well as answer many more of our questions about the current politics of the place, we got a first hand experience of the tension that exists over this sacred site.  There were several groups of Muslim men seated in various places around the Temple Mount and we started to hear some of them chanting something a little ways off.  The Israeli Police, who had just moments before been helping tourists take pictures in front of the Dome of the Rock, started talking on their radios and looking more alert.  It turned out that a group of Jews had for some reason been granted permission to walk through the Temple Mount wearing kippahs (or yarmulkes or yamakas, whichever you prefer).  Of course this was seen as a sign of protest and the Muslims who were there praying and studying were voicing their own protests against them.  When she realized what was going on, our guide said something like, "We're just going to move a little farther away from them."  That's how we found ourselves standing virtually alone on the vast platform that immediately surrounds the Dome of the Rock:

The smaller structure to the right is called the Dome of the Chain.  It was most likely used as a model for the Dome of the Rock, although the Dome of the Rock was ultimately constructed with a hexagonal outer wall rather than octagonal.  Like many places we've visited, this building has a history of use by both Muslims and Christians for prayer depending on who had control of the Temple Mount. 

As we explored this area, another rare sight greeted us: one of the doors of the Dome of the Rock was open.  Our guide suspected that the snowfall that Jerusalem received the week before may have caused some damage as they were apparently hauling scaffolding into the shrine to make repairs. As recently as 15 years ago when Pastor Art first visited the Holy Land, visitors were allowed inside the Dome of the Rock.  Since 2000 and the Second Intifada in Israel, it has been off limits to non-Muslims, so it was indeed rare for us to get at least a peek inside.  And yes, for you farm implement aficionados, that is a Bobcat-like machine to the right being used to haul the scaffolding to the door:

Here's a view of the inside of the Dome of the Chain, showing the intricate tiling that decorates both it and the exterior of the Dome of the Rock:

A view to the north side of the Temple Mount:

Looking to the east toward the Mount of Olives.  You can see the small dome of Dominus Flevit Church near the center of the middle arch.

Walking down those steps and slightly to the north, we came to the Golden Gate.  It's no longer in use, and the current gate probably only dates to the 6th century AD, the original gate below this one, but this is believed to be the location that Jesus entered the city during his triumphal entry that we remember on Palm Sunday.  The man on the roof was keeping a close eye on all of us:

 After the Temple Mount, we ventured into the narrow streets of the Old City of Jerusalem and made our way just a short distance to the Pool of Bethesda at St Anne's Church.  Here we are getting our first good look at the streets of the Old City:

Pastor Art reading the story of the healing of the sick man by the Pool of Bethesda in John 5.  

A view of the site of the Pool of Bethesda.  Like many archaeological sites we've seen, this one contains many layers of history including a Byzantine church, a Crusader church, as well as a Roman temple. 

After having a look at the archaeological stuff, we stepped into St Anne's Church and our guide encouraged us to sing a few songs in the acoustically beautiful space.

Bonnie graciously stepped up to direct our singing:

After this, we began walking to the place where we would begin our journey along the Via Dolorosa.  The streets that seemed narrow enough just walking through them became even narrower as we also shared the road with vehicles:

The approximate location of the Antonia Fortress marks the beginning of the Via Dolorosa.  This is the location that Jesus most likely would have been taken to his trial before Pontius Pilate.  Today, several churches are located in this area to mark the site, and we began by visiting the one named Ecce Homo (Latin for Pilate's words, "Behold, the man").  Our guide Gila took the time to explain the path we would walk and show us some drawings of what the city probably looked like in Jesus' day.  Here she's showing us the place where they believe Jesus was crucified and buried, outside the city walls of the time, but today the place where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre stands.  You can also see of course the Temple Mount with a depiction of what the Temple itself would have looked like.  The large building to the left of the Temple Mount is the Antonia Fortress.  As an aside, the more time we spent with Gila, the more we realized what a remarkable guide she is.  Pastor Art, in preparation for leading our devotions along the Via Dolorosa, did a simple Google search of "Via Dolorosa Bible readings."  Google answered with nearly 200,000 websites and the very first one listed was from, our guide's website.  She was a wealth of information, not to mention an experienced guide who seemed to have a knack for getting us to places at times when very few if any other tour groups were around. 

 After hearing the first reading of the stations of the cross from Pastor Art, we went underneath the church to see a large cistern and some of the ancient streets of Jerusalem that have been excavated.  The grooves in the limestone pavement were to help horses get better traction when it was wet. 

Back on the "modern" streets, we began our walk along the Via Dolorosa by passing under the Ecce Homo arch, the site traditionally recognized as the place that Pilate delivered that speech.

We made several stops to read as we went along.  Several stations occur at the same location and not every location is accessible for devotional readings.  We did the best we could, however.  Here we are at station 6 listening to Pastor Art read for us.  This is the station that remembers the legend of Veronica wiping the face of Jesus with her handkerchief.  This event is not recorded in scripture, so we read Matthew 25:40 instead. 

Part of the Via Dolorosa goes through a marketplace.  Even though the merchandise and services offered are modern, you really got a sense of how crowded it must have been as Jesus carried his cross through the streets.  

This gentlemen certainly caught our eye as he quickly strolled by:

Soon, we were standing in a courtyard near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  The large dome in the background with the cross on it is part of the church.  In order to keep peace among the various denominations that come to the site, reading and singing as a group is not typically allowed within the church, so we used this space to read the final passages for the stations of the cross where Jesus is crucified, then brought down from the cross, and buried.  

For me personally, this was the most emotional part of the entire trip, and I know it was very meaningful to many others.  Throughout our time in the streets of Jerusalem, I was typically the "rear guard" or caboose for our group, making sure that we all stayed together and no one got left behind.  During our walk along the Via Dolorosa, I saw more people putting an arm around their spouse or holding hands than any other time on our trip.  I hope it doesn't embarrass them too badly, but I had to get at least one picture of this kind of moment, so here is Jim and Sue as we prepared to walk into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the first time and see the place that embodies the central event of our faith.  I think it pretty well summarizes the way most of us felt as we took those steps.

After passing through a couple of small chapel spaces, we came to the main entrance of the church:

Being an Orthodox church, it had the same level of ornamentation and decoration that we were now used to seeing in such places:

We took our place in line to wait to see the spot where Jesus was laid in the tomb.  Pictures were not allowed inside, but here are some of the decorations just above the entrance:

It's now getting close to midnight here in Brooten and I should be getting to bed.  There is a lot more to share from this day, but it will have to wait.  I have to share one story with you, though, about my experience of seeing this place in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  Inside this shrine that's been built around the spot they believe Jesus was buried, there are two rooms.  The first room you enter is simply a waiting room.  The room containing the altar and other decorations around the place of the tomb is rather small so they only allow four or five people in at a time.  There is an Orthodox priest standing in the "waiting room" that tells you when you can go in and when your time is up and you have to come out.  As usual, I was at the end of the line in our group, just behind Pastor Art and his wife Brenda.  As our turn came closer, Pastor Art was cut off just after Brenda went in, which unfortunately meant they didn't get to go in together.  Just as I was feeling bad about that, a young woman and a little girl came into the waiting room behind us.  The little girl, no older than 6 or 7, was dressed brightly and carrying a backpack.  The priest, dressed in black with a long beard and a kind but stern face suddenly lit up as the girl smiled, said something to him, and ran and leaped into his arms.  Even though I didn't know the language they were speaking, it was immediately recognizable as the universal language that exists between fathers and daughters.  It was almost indescribably beautiful in that holy place to see the unconditional love between parent and child on display.  It of course made me miss my own children, but it also made the priest seem more human to me and the entire place lighter and less formal.  In fact, when he put her down, she tried to get past him into "the place," and he had to catch her by the arm.  From that point on I started paying more attention to children in the places we were visiting (you'll see more evidence of this later), and I began to wonder if her attitude of smiles and laughter and joy was more appropriate than all of the somber faces I saw waiting in lines to see this or kiss that or kneel before this other thing.  She was a great gift to me because I think she gave me the clearest expression of the hope we have in the resurrection I could imagine: laughing and smiling right by Jesus' tomb and the loving embrace of parent and child.  I think that's a good thought to end on for the night.  Peace to you all.


1 comment:

  1. And Jesus said, "Let the little children come unto me." God blessed you in witnessing this moment in Israel.....