Travelling the Holy Land (4)

Waking in Bethlehem is quite something. Not just the old biblical surrounds, also the current political controversies amongst the main role players make it all rather exiting – jewish settlers, Palestinian terrorists (or freedom fighters!) and a small Christian minority to complicate the mix. This first day in Bethlehem we were planing to visit Jerusalem – and just like our good Lord – go in and come back for the night, just to return the next day again.

Trendtours “on the way with friendly people”

The various meals were good times to connect with the fellow travellers. Normally, there were long rows of tables set with plates and cutlery. Food was laid out on a buffet and coffee machines were placed for convenience. We normally had a good hour for the meals, but I was done after half that. Angelika skipped breakfast and rather concentrated on getting her writing done, coffee and hair too. There was an elderly couple (Gerd and ?), who sat across the aisle in the bus. They were not game to swim in the Dead Sea, nor did they want to go for walks in the evening after supper. Still, they were a friendly couple and I enjoyed their company. Two older women (over eighty) from around Wiesbaden, were friends and did these trips together for some years already. The elder of the two, was rather assertive towards Eayd and worked hard at getting things straightened out. The younger was a avid photographer. Both were game for everything and on the ball. A mother (over seventy) and her married son (in the late forties) came from the Schwarzwald and did this tour together, because the daughter/sister had found a friend and dropped out. She was an ardent catholic and he somewhat of a sceptic. Another couple, was retired. He had his knee replaced, was working hard at keeping it moving even as he walked with a stick. He was a confessing catholic. Drank beer and we sat under the olive trees in the back yard of the hotel discussing politics, religion and other interesting topics. His wife was a religious instructor in some school. She was rather involved in church in her earlier days, but had lately come of it as she put it. And so it went on and on. Each one of these pairs were good company. I enjoyed the discussions, but the were all rather short lived and without much consequence. A bit too short winded. I rather miss these people already. Perhaps I should have tried to create a chat group and organise a follow-up in Wittenberg. Perhaps it is not even too late for that now. We will see.

The bus drove us up through the old town of Bethlehem. We took the first left into Hebron Road and passed Rachel´s tomb. The high wall fencing off the W.Bank from Israel proper was quite a sight. Much higher than the Berlin Wall and most other walls I know. In some places it is but a fence, but in others the concrete slabs are very effective. We passed some security check point, where a Israeli soldier – every time a friendly woman! – checked the passport of a single tourist. That was enough for all. Our tour guide was usually rather tense, but there was no trouble. It did not take too much time either. Nothing in comparison with the old crossing into the DDR, but much more similar to road blocks in South Africa, where police search for weapons, aliens and stolen cars. It seems as if the roads in Jerusalem are under heavy construction. We saw stadiums, many high risers in beautiful white sandstone, cypress tress and hanging gardens again and again. It was all topped by blue skies and reminded me again and again of Israels national flag. (cf. Greece)

In Jerusalem we stopped on the Mount of Olives. We got off the bus and enjoyed the morning view across the old city of Jerusalem. Eayd had to get Erika on track and the rest of us moving. So, after some time, he eventually stopped a taxi and had her drive to Gethsemane and the church of all nations. We did not get to go and see the orthodox church of Mary Magdalene, but we saw its beauty from a distance. Eayd took some time to elaborate the historical site spreading before us. It started with the Jewish cemetery and ended with the many church stepples, minarettes and other landmarks in the old city.

We walked down hill between the high walls of the cemetery and the grounds of many gardens – like around the church of “Dominus flevit“. What a spectacular view and what impressive architectural design by the Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi. The place is held in trust by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. No wonder so many tour groups come here to look over Jerusalem. This is really spectacular.

And when Jesus drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side 44 and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

Luke 19:41-44

Moving further down the mount of Olives, we enjoyed the proximity of the church of Mary Magdalene, where the relics of two martyred saints, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia and her fellow nun Varvara Yakovleva are displayed. The Grand Duchess is the aunt of Princess Alice of Battenberg, mother of the Duke of Edinburgh, who at her wish was buried near her aunt “Ella”. You see, Jerusalem really has serious history – and it is often closer to home, that we imagine and I don´t just mean the old Hessian connection, which is close to our Weber´s Eisenberg connection.

The Church of Mary Magdalene

After some walking this crisp spring morning, we came to the garden of Gethsemane with its ancient olive trees and wonderful church. Our guide got into trouble, because he just could not refrain from chatting away. Outside, he had warned us, that he would have to remain silent, because the priests inside the church were very strict. However, he never stopped talking and then nearly got into a brawl with the priests and the guards called in to silence him. Well, that got us all exited and nicely fluffed up. Anyway, I really liked this site and to think, that our good Lord had been here in the night, when he was betrayed…

And they came to a place which was named Gethsemane: and Jesus saith to his disciples, Sit ye here, while I shall pray. 33 And he taketh with him Peter and James and John, and began to be sore amazed, and to be very heavy; 34 And saith unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death: tarry ye here, and watch. 35 And he went forward a little, and fell on the ground, and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36 And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt. 37 And he cometh, and findeth them sleeping, and saith unto Peter, Simon, sleepest thou? couldest not thou watch one hour? 38 Watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into temptation. The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak. 39 And again he went away, and prayed, and spake the same words. 40 And when he returned, he found them asleep again, (for their eyes were heavy,) neither wist they what to answer him. 41 And he cometh the third time, and saith unto them, Sleep on now, and take your rest: it is enough, the hour is come; behold, the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42 Rise up, let us go; lo, he that betrayeth me is at hand.

Mark 14:32-42

We moved up to the city wall, entered not at the blocked Golden Gate, but at the Lion´s gate and soon were walking the via Dolorosa to move up to the Damascus Gate.

We visited the church of the holy Sepulchre, where various dominations (Orthodox, Coptic and Catholic) keep the holy site of Christ´s crucifiction and burial under muslim auspices. It is quite a business, but I got to shake the Ethiopian patriarch´s hand. Some might think the various churches are just a curse, but I think, there might actually be a blessing in it too. “No lording it over others” for one, and they can act as check and balances to prevent the dominance of one and promote the true service of “feet washing” for those waiting to pray at this holy site.

An upper room, where Jesus is supposed to have instituted his supper, later served a bleak mosque. Down below is the tomb of King David – an active synagog and we see the Tower of David. Ongoing the struggle for meaning – just as St. John points out:

Many of the people therefore, when they heard this saying, said, Of a truth this is the Prophet. 41 Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee? 42 Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was? 43 So there was a division among the people because of him.

John 7:40-43

The many sights and sounds in Jerusalem are rather overwhelming and words hardly do justice to the drama that has unfolded here – then and over the ages. We move on to Jaffa Gate and try to understand, what we are experiencing. Sometimes listening in on the audiobook read by John Lee: Simon Sebag Montefiore´s “Jerusalem. The Biography”. This depicts masterfully the many layers Jerusalem consists of. Moving around the old city is just like scratching around in the dust even as below are literally countless layers of history covered up and hidden from sight. There are lots of reasons to return to Jerusalem again and again. It actually felt to me like reading the Bible in another dimension, that had previously eluded me, but it encourages me to read the holy Scriptures more carefully and diligently than before. After all, we Lutherans did not just defend the sola scriptura against the traditional papists, but also against those, still waiting for the Messiah plus those, who deny the divinity of God´s only begotten Son conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the holy Mother of God – Mary of Nazareth. Obviously it is quite an uphill battle to argue against the muslims, who occupy the Temple Mount and imposed their prayer places at the centre of the world. A serious “theologia crucis” is called for – just as Bo Giertz did paradigmatically in his moving novel: “The Knights of Rhodos.” If at Stammtisch in Wittenberg these discussions might seem pretty far from reality, walking around Jerusalem pushes these crucial issues right into Your face. There is no way around it. Face it. High time to polish up on my Hebrew. That seems a life long task and I am glad, that it is still day to read, learn and contemplate God´s living Word, which remains for ever.

Back in Bethlehem, the city of David, where the little baby Jesus was born, we go down on our knees and enter the magnificent church of the Nativity – finally. Obviously, we should have also visited the fields, where the shepherds had watched over their flocks when the angel host appeard to them. Eusebius comments how even back in his days, they were arguing about the exact location. Sounds much like theologians today arguing about where Luther nailed those Theses. It was a long day and I am looking forward to the next one, hoping one day to visit the Bethlehem outskirts and walk those pastures with Beduin shepherds. Perhaps they are Christian to this day? After all it is decisive as St. Peter points out:

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Ghost, said unto them, Ye rulers of the people, and elders of Israel, If we this day be examined of the good deed done to the impotent man, by what means he is made whole; 10 Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole. 11 This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner. 12 Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.

Acts 4:8-12

About Wilhelm Weber

Pastor at the Old Latin School in the Lutherstadt Wittenberg
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