February 10, 2020

Holy Land Pilgrimage 2020

Just a few days into their journey through the Holy Land and our St. Columba pilgrims have already covered significant terrain: spiritually, historically and geographically. Parishioner Lisa Battalia has graciously accepted the role of pilgrimage blogger, and has been sending amazing pictures and stories of their travels. Follow our pilgrims on Facebook and Instagram using the hashtag: #ColumbaPilgrims (just cut and past this phrase into the search bar on Facebook). If you are not currently following St. Columba's on social media, now is the sign up by clicking those links provided and liking us!

Day 1: St. Columba's Holy Land Pilgrimage
Parishioner Lisa Battalia writes ...
St. Columba’s pilgrims have all safely arrived in the Holy Land — minus several suitcases and one injury. Please keep Harriet Dwinell in your prayers. She had a fall and broke her arm — remaining remarkably good spirited — but she may need to leave us early to get more medical attention back home.

We were greeted at Ben Gurion airport by our wonderful hosts and guides, Iyad and Rami Qumri (father and son) and after settling into the St. George Cathedral Guest House in Jerusalem, enjoyed a delicious traditional Palestinian dinner of Maqluba or “upside down rice.” We spent a bit of time getting to know each other better, including learning what each of us left behind for — and hope to take home from — this wonderful journey. Tomorrow, we begin our pilgrimage in earnest.

Day 2: St. Columba's Holy Land Pilgrimage
Parishioner Lisa Battalia writes ...
St. Columba’s pilgrims had a very busy day. It began — after lovely prayers and song together in a chapel of St. George’s Cathedral — with a thought-provoking introduction to the difficult politics of the region and the day-to-day difficulties for those living in an occupied territory. It ended with a heartfelt welcome by Archbishop Suheil Dawani — The Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem and Chief Pastor of the 27 parishes spread through Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon —  and an introduction to the existential crisis of survival for indigenous Christians living in the Holy Land. In between, we climbed (by bus) Mt. Scopus to view and get our bearings of the entirety of Jerusalem, and made another climb (by foot, with a decent through the tunnels of an ancient cistern) to Herodium, to view the ruins of the palace and burial place of Herod the Great (King of Judaea form 37-4 BC), as well as lovely views of the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea. We enjoyed a traditional Bedouin lunch of Zarb in the Palestinian town of Beit Sahour (the site of the Annunciation to the Shepherds or “Shepherds Field”) — first watching the chef load the pit oven with marinated chicken and vegetables and fist fulls of rosemary branches before sealing the oven with mud. Delicious.

Day 3: St. Columba's Holy Land Pilgrimage
Parishioner Lisa Battalia writes ...
This update will be short at St. Columba’s pilgrims are heading out before dawn to the Judean Desert to celebrate the Eucharist.

Today — as we would enter the Old City of Jerusalem for the first time and visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher built around Golgatha/Calvary — we began our morning prayer with Psalm 122, “Jerusalem is built as a city that is at unity with itself ... Peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers ...,” and ended with our singing in unison “Were you there when they crucified my Lord.” The Psalm is interesting in light of our wandering through four distinct quarters of the City: Jewish, Christian, Armenian and Muslim; and what we learned about and observed of the 6 Christian denominations who struggle to control their “piece” of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; so much so that for centuries a Muslim family has served as a neutral guardian and holds the key to open the Church each day.

It is a busy and chaotic place. To get to the Church, we entered the Damascus Gate — first descending to see the ruins of the original Roman arch and tower built by Hadrian. We made our way through the narrow, steep, and uneven streets of the Old City — all amazed at Harriet’s resilience and endurance as she tackled them with her broken hand in a cast.

We ended our day with a special lecture by Bernard Sabella, a retired professor of sociology at Bethlehem University and a former member of the Palestinian Parliament. You can learn more about Dr. Sabella from his memoir: A life Worth Living: The Story of a Palestinian Catholic.

Day 4: St. Columba's Holy Land Pilgrimage
Parishioner Lisa Battalia writes ...
What a spectacular day!
We began very early — and in silence — to arrive at the Wadi Qelt — the riverine gulch running through the Judean Desert from Jerusalem to Jericho — in time for sunrise and to celebrate an incredibly moving Eucharist. We sang together “Morning Has Broken” as the sun warmed the desert rocks. 

Continuing to follow the wadi (by bus) we arrived in Jericho before the town awakened and stood under a sycamore tree — it was in Jericho that the short-statured tax collector Zacchaeus climbed the sycamore to see Jesus. Next we headed up by cable car, followed by a hike, to the the still active Monastery of the Temptation, built into and clinging to the cliffs of Mount Temptation. The Monastery’s church is built over the cave where Jesus resided for 40 days and nights tempted by Satan. After our exertions, we all enjoyed glasses of fresh squeezed pomegranate juice! 

From Jericho we continued to Nazareth where we will spend the next 3 nights. We walked up the old streets to the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, built over the — still running — underground spring where the Greek Orthodox Church believes the Angel appeared to Mary as she drew water. We had the church to ourselves and read together the story of the Annunciation. “Let it be to me according to your word.” As we sat admiring the church murals — including a touching and unusual mural of Joseph carrying a toddler Jesus on his shoulders as they made the journey back from Egypt — we could hear the call to prayer from the nearby Mosque. 

Our resting place — the guest house of the Sisters of Nazareth — sits a stones’s thrown away from the Basilica of the Annunciation — a much larger Catholic Church housing what is believed by Catholics to be the cave where Mary lived and where the Angel appeared to Mary. Like so many churches we have seen — including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher — the first “church” was a shrine (an altar placed in the cave), later enclosed in a church commissioned by St. Helena, Constantine’s mother, at some point destroyed by war and later rebuilt by the Crusaders over the ruins. The current church was constructed over the same site in 1969, and the courtyard contains 75 large, varied and beautiful portraits of the Madonna donated by 75 countries. Before we returned to our rooms exhausted, we stopped at a wonderful spice store recommended by Iyad — many of us will be returning home with a good supply of fresh, homemade Za’atar mix.

Day 5: St. Columba's Holy Land Pilgrimage
Parishioner Lisa Battalia writes ...
What a glorious day — and not because the sun was shining and the temperature was finally in the 60s — although that felt nice. Our sights were set on the water. Early morning, we visited a quiet spot on the Jordan River and renewed our baptismal vows. We sang together: “Yes, we’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, beautiful river; Gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God.” Best of all though, and unexpectedly, two of our pilgrims asked to be baptized. The joy was palpable as we welcomed our now fully initiated members, Don and Duncan! 

We also spent the day continually in the sight of and enjoying the sound and smell and beauty of the Sea of Galilee — the shores from which Jesus called his first disciples, the fishermen brothers Peter and Andrew, to become “fishers of men”  — truly experiencing what it means to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. We started of a small beach in Tabgha, the waves gently lapping, at the church on the spot where Jesus fed the Apostles breakfast from the miraculous catch and told Peter to “feed my sheep.” The ”sea” remained in our sights as we toured the Church of the Multiplication, reading again from the Gospels together, this time the miracle of the loves and fishes. The modern day church contains floors made entirely of 5th Century mosaics, including the mosaic found in front of the altar depicting two fish flanking a basket containing loves of bread. We viewed the “sea” (a small lake actually; we also learned that Matthew liked to exaggerate; the “mountain” where Jesus delivered the Beatitudes is really just a hill) from a higher vantage point at the Church on the Mount of the Beatitudes, then descended to the hillside where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount, reading together his words: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven...” 

We next visited Capernaum, the home base of Jesus’ ministry. Increasing winds made the Sea of Galilee choppy with white caps. Capernaum is a remarkable place with ruins of the Town’s synagogue — from the 4th century but excavations reveal sits on top of the synagogue that Jesus would have visited. The synagogue sits adjacent to ruins of the town’s homes, including where Peter lived, and where Jesus healed the paralyzed man whose friends lowered him through the roof to get past the crowds gathered to hear him. 

Finally, we visited a museum at the Kibbutz Ginosar, built along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, which houses the remains of a 2000-year-old wooden fishing boat. It was discovered in 1986 by two fisherman brothers — preserved in the mud and then painstakingly excavated and treated over 10 years to preserve it for display. On the bus ride back to Nazareth we sampled a tasty traditional sweet of shredded wheat and pistachios graciously provided by our host and guide, Rami.

Most of St. Columba’s pilgrims went across the street to participate in a candlelight procession at the Basilica of the Annunciation - but this pilgrim was too tired after the day’s adventures.

Day 6: St. Columba's Holy Land Pilgrimage
Parishioner Lisa Battalia writes ...
Sunday. The Lord’s day. Church bells are ringing throughout the city. It is another beautiful, bright and clear day in Nazareth — though the electricity has gone out at the Sisters of Nazareth guest house. This morning we will attend Anglican services being celebrated in the Sisters of Nazareth church, as Christ Church next door is under renovation. The Rector of Christ Church, Nael Abu Rahmoun graciously visited us last night to tell us a bit about his ministry and himself — as he described it: An Arab (his language), Palestinian (his nationality), Christian (his faith), Israeli (his citizenship).

It reflects what a complicated place we are visiting: We are currently in Israel (as defined in 1948), but traveled here from Jerusalem, which sits on the border of, and part of which is in, the West Bank (the area west of the Jordan River, annexed by Jordan in 1948 and occupied by Israel since 1967). We had to go through a check point — it went smoothly, though armed Israeli soldiers entered and walked through the aisle of our bus — and we chatted with several friendly Israeli soldiers at the first pit stop we made in outside of the West Bank. I noticed they were speaking American English and asked where they came from. One young man was from Atlanta, the other from Long Island. They left their families behind and moved to Israel after high school feeling compelled by their faith and beliefs.

We traveled to Jerusalem from the airport in Tel Aviv last Saturday on the Israeli controlled highway (you are generally not stopped at the check point going into the West Bank). We passed Ramallah on one side (currently the administrative seat of the Palestinian National Authority; a historically Christian Arab town, it is now majority Muslim with a significant Christian minority). Israeli settlements have been built directly across on the other side. Concrete walls line the highway and Palestinians living in the West Bank have different color license plates and are not permitted to drive on the highway.

Larry and Ledlie both had their luggage missing on arrival. Larry’s seemed to have disappeared from the system but magically arrived at St. George’s a few days later. Ledlie’s bag was tracked down, but he was told it would not be delivered to him (he had to make a separate trip back and forth to the airport) because St. George is in East Jerusalem, and the delivery company will not drive into the West Bank. One of the ministries of Christ Church is to bring together Palestinian youth and Jewish youth from settlements on the West Bank at “neutral” places. We found ourselves wondering where he found to do that.

We also learned from the Rector of the dramatically diminishing population of Christians in the Holy Land. Much of what we consider the Holy Land (for example the Old City of Jerusalem and Bethlehem) are located in the West Bank and the future appears bleak for Palestinian youth so they leave. He described the humor and sadness he feels when people ask him when he “converted” to Christianity because his ancestors are truly the first Christians, having literally converted near the time of the historical Jesus. In fact, the Archbishop noted that many ministries run by the archdiocese (schools throughout the region and hospitals and clinics including an important hospital in Gaza) focus on education and health care, expressly mirroring Jesus’ primary ministries to teach and to heal. As did the Archbishop, the Rector referred to the remaining Christians living in the Holy Land as the “living stones” — the people, of the places, where it all began. There is a palpable concern about their survival as representatives and protectors of the Christian faith in the Holy Land.

The church service was lovely and followed by coffee and pastries on the outside terrace. Ledlie joined Father Rahmoun in celebrating the Eucharist. We were joined in the pews by local parishioners and members of another church visiting from Houston, TX. The service was bilingual: In some cases alternating parts between Arabic and English; some portions (the Gospel and sermon) were repeated in each language; in some places Americans sang in Arabic thanks to transliterated text; and at other times the Arabic and American congregation spoke/sang at the same time in different languages — that was a strange cacophony of voices!

t was a relatively relaxing day (except for Iyad’s frequent prompts to “yella” — Arabic for “get going”). Our only destination after church and lunch at a local restaurant in Nazareth was a trip to visit Zippori/Sepphoris. This was the bustling capital of Judea during Jesus’ time and is believed to be where Mary’s parents lived, and may very well be were Jesus’ and his father worked their trade as builders. (We learned that Jesus is called a carpenter, but that is a translation of the word “tekton” which refers more broadly to an artisan/craftsman). The site contains Roman ruins from the 1st Century, including a theatre. We enjoyed an impromptu singing performance by Larry Smith, Ann Colgrove, and Gail Crane! The “hypocrites” criticized by Jesus may refer to “actors” performing in the Roman theatre. (Caroline Wills got a prize of a pottery shard found by Iyad among the ruins for knowing that! Ledlie won another shard for knowing that the exit from a Roman theatre was called a vomitorium  — to spew out people quickly). Sepphoris also contains ruins of a Synagogue, and a Crusader Fortress from the 11th Century. We examined evidence of how the tower was built on early ruins because the earliest and large stones are topped by increasingly smaller and newer ones. It was from Sepphoris that the Crusaders marched to be defeated by Saladin.

Most spectacular were the many well preserved and beautiful mosaics found throughout the site, and from different centuries, as Sepphoris remained a bustling and wealthy city for some time. Sepphoris’ Jews did not participate in the First Rebellion against the Romans and the City became the seat of the Sanhedrin. Judah assembled the final version of the Mishnah (the first written compilation of Jewish oral tradition) there in the 2nd century.

Day 7: St. Columba's Holy Land Pilgrimage
Parishioner Lisa Battalia writes ....

Before I tell you about today, I must tell you about a very special treat we experienced last night after I sent in my post. It turns out that the Sisters of Nazareth Guest House (where we were staying) was once a school. As it was being built in the late 1800s, the sisters discovered it sat on ruins including both Byzantine 4th century (a church) and possibly 1st century ruins (caves for homes), which means the caves could have been visited by Jesus. In fact, a 7th century pilgrim left behind a travel guide which describes such a Byzantine church in Nazareth built over the home of Mary and Joseph. The ruins contain a remarkably well-preserved tomb. A perfect circular rock that would have been rolled over to seal the tomb sat at the entrance. We could peek into the inner sanctum where women would have tended to the body before placing it in the deeper tomb within. This is a place that very few visitors see, but Iyad and Rami were able to show it to us because of their special relationship with the Sisters. Truly amazing!

Back to today — a transition day. We journey from Nazareth back to Jerusalem which meant passing through several check points, past walled settlements, and, as we visited the town of Burq’in inside an Area “A” (an area controlled by the Palestinian Authority), past a sign saying “Entry Forbidden for Israeli Citizens.” The first checkpoint we ultimately passed through without being stopped and boarded, as we were entering the West Bank, but we had to wait some time as it does not open for passage between Israel and the West Bank until 8 am and closes again every day at 8 pm.

We made several meaningful stops en route, traveling through what was ancient Samaria (note: there was longstanding animosity between Jews and Samaritans). The first stop was at a moving, tiny Greek Orthodox Church in Burq’in. The oldest part of the church (one of the oldest churches in the world) is built around the cave quarantine where the 10 lepers called out to Jesus as he made his way from Nazareth to Jerusalem (skirting to avoid Samaritan territory). Jesus healed all 10 but only one, a Samaritan, retuned to say thank you. Our host at the church was a gentle man, one of a handful of Christians who remain in the area. He spoke to us in Arabic, while Rami translated. Many of us purchased lovely hand embroidered purses made by his wife.

Our next stop was Nablus, at a modern Orthodox Church built over Jacob’s Well — a deep rock well mentioned in the Old Testament that is still serving up water that some of us sipped today. This is the well where Jesus stopped on his travels to talk with the Samaritan woman. After a delicious snack of Kenafeh (shredded wheat pastry wrapped around cheese and soaked in sweet syrup) that we watched being made, we hit the oldest, and one of only two or three Palestinian breweries, run by an impressive young business woman. There we learned about the history of the family-operated brewery and washed down our snack with a nice beer before purchasing some of food items made by local women in Taybeh (honey, olive oil and couscous). You can learn more about the brewery and where to purchase its beer in the US at taybehbeer.com.  We still managed to make room for a delicious lunch of chicken and caramelized onions flavored with sumac served over traditional bread.

Our last stop was at the open air ruins of a 4th century Church overlooking the Wadi Qelt where we began our journey to Nazareth three days ago. The place is still actively used, including to make ritual sacrifices of animals to give thanks. We walked over freshly spilled blood at the entrance to the church ruins!

We are now safely returned to St. George’s Cathedral Guest House were we remain for the rest of our pilgrimage.

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