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February 10, 2020

Holy Land Pilgrimage

Over the 10 days of their journey through the Holy Land, our St. Columba pilgrims covered some 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. Sign up today!

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  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.

Day 8: St. Columba's Holy Land Pilgrimage
Parishioner Lisa Battalia writes ...
We’re still going strong here in the Holy Land; each day bringing new, amazing and some uncomfortable sights. We started today back in Beit Sahour and the Shepherd’s Field (where the angel announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds) but this time we visited a 1st century cave home. One we were able to climb in and really get a feel for: The area where a shepherd family’s livestock would have spent the night; the stone trough the sheep would have eaten from; the adjoining area where a family would have slept - exactly the kind of place that in reality would have been a “stable”  and a “manger” and an “inn”  in the time of the Jesus. We sang together “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” imagining 1st century life there. Stepping next into the Chapel of the Angels — designed by the Italian Architect Antonio Berluzzi — we sang again “Angels We Have Heard on High” and sounded truly angelic thanks to the tent-shaped church acoustics.

From Beit Sahour we traveled a few miles to Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity. But first we stopped to read and reflect along the very grim and imposing ”Wall” that surrounds sections of Bethlehem. It is part of the “Separation Barrier” that Israel began to construct in 2002. It was built in response to attacks by Palestinians against Israelis during the 2nd Intifada, and we have heard several Palestinians express the view that the 2nd Intifada was problematic, perhaps even a “mistake.” In Bethlehem, we experienced, if only temporarily, the feel and impact of the Wall. It does not follow the “green line” (the boundary between Israel’s sovereign territory and the West Bank) but rather sits inside the West Bank. Homes and businesses that were once part of a commercial area now face an imposing concrete wall, in some cases immediately outside their windows and surrounding their homes and business. It has the effect of cutting Palestinians off from their farm land — they need permits to visit their fields on the other side of the Wall where they now grow only olive trees as these do not need daily tending. It also cuts off Palestinians from their families in East Jerusalem (which is in the West Bank but is under Israeli control) because they need difficult-to-obtain permits in order to enter East Jerusalem. And of course, as the large red sign outside the town makes clear, Israeli citizens cannot enter Bethlehem — a fact that struck as strange and sad. Bethlehem is an Area “A” zone and the sign posted by Israeli security states: “The Entrance for Israeli Citizens is Forbidden, Dangerous to Your Lives and is Against the Israel Law.”

At the Church of the Nativity — a World Heritage Site and the first to be listed by UNESCO under “Palestine” — we shuffled slowly on a crowded line to see the cave where Jesus was born. It gave us some time to view and learn about the church: Its Byzantine era mosaic floors and columns made of limestone, later painted on by the Crusaders in the 11th century. The gorgeous Crusader era mosaic murals, just recently restored, containing gold, silver and diamonds. The church was built by Constantin’s mother Helena, destroyed by the Samaritans, and rebuilt by Justinian. It would have been destroyed again by the Persians, but legend has it that the Persian commander, Shahrbaraz, saw the mosaic of the three Magi wearing Persian clothing and commanded that the church be spared.

We arrived at the entrance of the cave/crypt just as it was temporarily closed for a daily ritual of a clerical procession into the cave for sanctification. It was frustrating, but ultimately quite lucky as we were able to sit on the stairs leading down to the cave and see/listen to — and smell the strong incense from — the sanctification ceremony, then be the first to enter the cave when it was over. We had a few rare, uncrowded moments to touch the 14 point silver Star of Bethlehem that claims to sit on the exact site were Christ was born. (The number 14 represents the number of generations between each of Abraham to David; David to the Babylonian Exile; and the Babylonian Exile to the birth of Christ.)  Even though we escaped the usual crowds in the cave; we recognized the gift of having been in the quiet cave at Shepherds Field early that gave us a deeper appreciation for where we stood notwithstanding the chaos of a heavily touristed site.

We warmed up in sun in the lovely courtyard of the Church of St. Catherine next door — tempted to pluck one of the ripe looking oranges from the trees — and visited the caves beneath where it is believed that St. Jerome may have done some of the work on his translation of the Bible from Greek to Latin (the Vulgate).

We ended our day with a visit from Ophir Yarden, the director of education of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel and a senior lecturer in Jewish and Israel studies at Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center. Mr. Yarden was born in American and has lived in Israel since 1974. He discussed with us the unique and essential character of Israel — the first Jewish nation in 2000 years and one that represents a revolutionary change for a long imperiled minority — the Holocaust being the most recent and extreme episode of a long history of persecution, He acknowledge the newness and learning curve for jews as a majority people. He also confirmed the grave fear for Israelis that resulted from the 2nd Intifada. As did our other speakers, he acknowledged the difficulty in resolving the current situation, but expressed commonalities and optimism: “Palestinians want peace and justice, but so do Israelis, and Israelis want peace and security, but so do Palestinians.”

Day 9: St. Columba's Holy Land Pilgrimage
Parishioner Lisa Battalia writes ...
We sadly said good bye to our guide Iyad Qumri last night as he is traveling to Louisville for the CEEP Network Annual Gathering, but we remain in the excellent hands of his son, Rami. Our pilgrimage has been further blessed with the presence of the Rev. Canon John Peterson, the National Cathedral’s first Canon for Global Justice and Reconciliation and former Dean of St. George’s College, Jerusalem, not to mention that he has written the book “A Walk in Jerusalem: Stations of the Cross” and will lead us on our own Palm Sunday Walk and prayerful walk of the Stations.

We started early again, to avoid crowds, our first stop, the Western Wall (known as the Wailing Wall until 1967 when Israel gained control over it). It is the remaining wall of the outer expansion of the Second Temple by Herod. We separated, men and women, to visit the Wall and, as people have done for hundreds of years, left our prayers in the crevices. Afterwards, many of us described what a powerful experience it was to touch and pray at the Wall.

Upon departing, we climbed the ramp to the Temple Mount immediately next door (both these places require walking through separate security checkpoints). The Temple Mount contains the Summit of Mount Moriah where Abraham offered his son Issac as a sacrifice. It also contained at some point the Arc of the Covenant. And it is where the Third and final Temple will be built. Yet still, it is the site from which the prophet Mohammed, on the second part of his “Night Journey” ascended to heaven. The gorgeous gold and tiled Dome of the Rock commemorates this event. The Al Aqsa Mosque is also situated there. Recently Jewish settlers have been going to the Temple Mount to demonstrate and we were instructed that things could be tense and to behave thoughtfully, not appearing to pray or talk politics. 

Later, at the Israel Museum we viewed a fantastic large scale model of the the entire City of Jerusalem as it was in the 1st century, including the Second Temple and the large retaining wall built by Herod. The area within those walls but outside the Temple — the Court of the Gentiles — was where Jesus drove out the money changers. This view of the model confirmed the magnitude of the area of the Temple of the Mount that we had felt as we wandered around. It can be difficult to take in all the spectacular, yet seemingly competing, religious significance of this one place.

Next, we visited the Church of St. Anne — Mary’s Mother — that is believed to be built over the cave or grotto where Mary’s parents lived. As John Peterson reminded us, it may or may not be the exact place, but the essential point is that it “is the spot where the Church remembers” this event — and that is why it matters. St. Anne’s is the oldest intact Crusader church as it was not destroyed by Sultan Saladin. We sang a lovely round together, enhanced by the church’s renowned acoustics and reverberating echos.

Next to the church sits the Pools of Bethesda (sound familiar) a ruin containing both 1st century Roman and 4th century Byzantine structures. One of Jesus’ deeply moving miracles happened there. It was believed that the first person to touch the water in the pools after it been “stirred up” by an angel would be healed. Jesus approached a man he knew had long been paralytic and asked him if he wanted to be cured. The man explained that he had no one to take him closer, and when he was finally able to reach the water, he never managed to be first to enter the moving water. Jesus healed him immediately.

It seems appropriate that our next stop was a very special visit to the Princess Basma Center that combines a clinic, rehabilitation center, mother’s empowerment program, and inclusive school, to serve Palestinian children of all ages with disabilities. The Center falls under the ministries of the Anglican Church in the Diocese of Jerusalem, and as pilgrims we made a group donation — each in honor of our prayer buddy during the pilgrimage — to the Diocese of Jerusalem to help them continue all the good work they do.

Before dinner, we had a visit from Firas Amad who introduced us to some foundational aspects of Islam, as well as discussing the current political situation. He is also optimistic that there will be a solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict, but his is based on a longer timeline of 100 years and the culmination of a sustained civil rights movement.

Day 10: St. Columba's Holy Land Pilgrimage
Parishioner Lisa Battalia writes ...
Only two days left, and with John Peterson guiding us, they were quite extraordinary. We began Thursday at a Church in Bethany — not the church where Holy Week traditionally starts in Jerusalem— that would be the Church of Mary and Martha. But Bethany has been divided by the Separation Wall and going there would require more security checkpoints. We learned from John that the Greek Orthodox begin Holy Week the day before Palm Sunday — commemorating the raising of Lazarus— Mary and Martha’s brother, and all three Jesus’ good friends. They do this because Jesus’ miracle foreshadows his own rising on Easter Sunday and allows them to remain joyful during Holy Week. We also examined the different stories of Palm Sunday — did the crowds wave palms as in John’s Gospel or did they “cut branches from the trees” as in Matthew’s? These would have been olive branches as date palm tress grow in Jericho, not Jerusalem. Different trees would have very different meanings. Palms were the symbol of Imperial Rome and, at the same time that Jesus was entering Jerusalem on his donkey through the back gate, Pontus Pilot was also entering Jerusalem with pomp and military authority by a different gate. If olive branches were instead what greeted Jesus, this would a harken instead to God’s covenant with Moses. 

From Bethany, we descended the Mount of Olives by foot — it was a grey and rainy morning in Jerusalem — on a road through a massive cemetery. It is an important burial site for Jews and has been used for thousands of years. Muslims are also buried on the left side of the Mount and Christians are buried in the middle. We stopped briefly at the small tear-shaped church Dominus Flevit, with a large but simple window containing the outline of a chalice and overlooking Jerusalem. The church was designed by Antonio Barluzzi (who designed the tent shape chapel in the Shepherd’s Field) to commemorate where Jesus saw Jerusalem and wept. John directed our attention to a tree out front with thorns growing from its branches. A tree that grows only there.

We continued to descend and slipped quietly into the Garden of Gethsemane — perhaps not the actual place where Jesus spent the night to pray alone, while his apostles slept, despite his asking them to stay awake with him, but it is “where the church remembers.” The olive trees in the garden are 1900 years old, and grafted onto roots that are even older. As we stood admiring these gnarled and magnificent trees, John encouraged us to reflect on the ways we might graft our own lives onto the roots of Jesus. The Church of All Nations (many countries contributed to building it) also called the Basilica of Agony, sits next to the Garden. It was designed by Barluzzi, as well and is dark and somber inside to reflect its significance, yet still beautiful with purple and gold alabaster painted windows. Many of us wondered at the 2 bronze deer sculptures at the top of the church, something we had never seen before. The answer is quite beautiful. They refer to Psalm 42: “As the deer longs for streams of water, so I long for you, O God.”

From there we visited Caiaphas’ palace. What remains is the cistern where Jesus was imprisoned awaiting trial. There is a moving mosaic on the outside of the Church next door showing Jesus bound by the ropes used to lower him (likely after flagellation). With that image in mind we descended as a group into the cistern (by stairs) for prayer and reflection. The church is called St. Peter in Galicantu (crowing rooster). It is a modern church that commemorates Peter’s denial of Jesus, and like so many things in the Holy Land sits adjacent to excavated ruins from as far back as the 1st century.

After a  somber morning, we lightened the mood with an enormous lunch at the Qumris’ house in Jericho where the sun was now shining and where we laughed through a parody of West Side Story called West Bank Story. Sharks and Jets are reimagined as owners/employees of side-by-side fast food establishments: Hummus Hut and Kosher King. As with all good comedy, it reminded us of the very real conflict we have seen here. We worked off lunch with the touristy, but actually quite fun swim (well float) in the Dead Sea.

Day 11: St. Columba's Holy Land Pilgrimage
Parishioner Lisa Battalia writes ...
Since some of our pilgrims left this morning, we spent time after dinner last night to share insights, highlights, and significant personal moments on this journey. There were many expressions of deep gratitude for each other. It was, needless to say, quite emotional as was our next and last day ...

We left St. George’s together at 5:30 am and walked silently to Herod’s Gate and into the Old City. At that early hour, we were surprised to see hundreds of Muslims moving past us in the opposite direction, apparently on their way out of the City after spending the night in prayer at the Al Aqsa Mosque. As we got deeper into the narrow, steep streets, they were strangely quiet and shuttered after the usual daytime bustle of the souk (the shopping streets of the Old City). There were occasional noisy garbage trucks and early risers heading to work, but John encouraged us to embrace the City as it was, recognizing it would have been filled with people conducting their lives even as Jesus was lead through it towards his crucifixion. We brought our Stations of the Cross books, as well as a wooden cross, and took turns carrying it on our shoulders to each of first nine stations. We reflected on the importance of what happened, and recited prayers with deep emotional resonance to the events that took place at each spot on Jesus’ journey. For the last five stations, we left our cross outside and entered the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It was our second visit, but much different this time. The church was quieter and our reflections and prayers were focused on the difficult moments, Jesus stripped of his clothing and nailed to the cross. We ended in a tight circle near Jesus’ tomb and hummed a hymn together before walking quietly together back to St. George’s.

A bit later, we drove to Emmaus. It was on the road to Emmaus that the risen Jesus appeared alongside two disciples. They did not recognize him as they recounted for him all the terrible and strange things had happened in Jerusalem. It was only when Jesus broke bread that they realized who had been walking with them. We learned from John that several places are considered possible candidates for the location of Emmaus, which was meaningful, he suggested, as “we each must find our own Emmaus.” 

We visited Emmaus Nicopolis, the site of the ruins of a Byzantine church. An open air mass was being held there, as we gathered at a small spot in the trees with an altar and benches and celebrated our last Eucharist together. Before leaving we also visited the ruins of a baptismal fountain and ended on a note of levity as we posed David Griswold — our very own deacon — in the “reliquary niche” dubbed the Deacon’s House.

It was a bit hectic when we returned to St. George’s, everyone packing to head home or to Jordan or a for few extra days in Tel Aviv. The busy-ness possibly deflecting the sadness of saying good bye to each other and this place from where we learned and shared and prayed and took care of each other. A place from where, I suspect, we will all return changed.

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