Pilgrimage to the Holy Land -
As we flew over the tower blocks of Tel Aviv on our descent to Ben Gurion airport, I felt a sense of excitement mixed with trepidation about the week ahead. Excitement at my first sight of the land where Jesus lived; trepidation about the current political situation there and whether we would be confronted by the scenes and issues so familiar to us on the news. Once we were through the fairly rigorous customs procedures and driving away from the airport, I soon realised that actually much of life continues pretty normally in Israel, as we drove on the motorway up the hill towards Jerusalem.
We spent three nights in Jerusalem, which was without doubt the most incredible of cities. The sights, sounds and smells were constantly changing as we walked through the souks of the Christian and Arab quarters, visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to venerate the holiest sites of the crucifixion and the resurrection and took time out to sit and look across to the golden Dome of the Rock, the holy Muslim shrine, from the Mount of Olives.
For me, the Mount of Olives was the most moving place in Jerusalem. As we descended the same hill as Jesus on his triumphant journey into the city on Palm Sunday, there was even a man with a donkey standing there. Father Duncan celebrated the Eucharist there as it was a Sunday: even though competing with the sound of a noisy tractor at times, it was so moving to be worshipping in that place.
The Western Wall
Altogether more difficult for me was the Western wall, the holiest site of the Jewish faith. Perhaps it didn't help that there was a passing out parade that day for the Israeli army which meant the site was full of teenagers with machine guns starting their national service: but personally I found it to be a rather uncomfortable place. There is no doubt that Jerusalem is a very beautiful city and on the surface life continues as normal but you cannot help but be aware of the tension under the surface, often only shown in a symbolic way, such as the large Israeli flags flying very prominently from buildings in the Arab quarter. After a couple of days in Jerusalem it was time to head north to Galilee and our base for the next couple of nights: Nazareth.
Personally, I found the two days we spent in Galilee to be the highlight of the pilgrimage. The area around the Sea of Galilee has hardly changed since the time of Jesus and it was so easy to imagine him there as we visited the sites so familiar to us from the Bible stories. We had a boat trip on the Sea of Galilee and in the middle of the lake the engine was switched off and we listened to the silence as we sang the verse from Dear Lord and Father of Mankind: 'O Sabbath rest by Galilee, O calm of hills above, where Jesus knelt to share with thee the silence of eternity, interpreted by love'.
Although a demonstration of the fishing methods used by the disciples (on both sides of the boat) failed to yield a catch, we did stop for a lunch of St. Peter's fish at a kibbutz by the shores of the lake and this was followed by a baptism in the lake. It was a truly moving day; one which I shall never forget.
Our two days in Nazareth over, we headed south again, through the Jordan valley to Jericho, which one day may become the capital of a state of Palestine. This trip involved us crossing into the West Bank, the Palestinian land currently occupied by Israel. Jericho itself is an oasis in the middle of the desert and the Mount of Temptation, which rises above it, is said to be the site where Jesus was tempted by the devil during his 40 days in the wilderness. The journey up the mountain is now by cable car and at the top, a monastery is built, impossibly it would seem, into the vertical face of the rock, as well as the usual tourist paraphernalia at these sites, 'Temptation Cave' being one of the tourist shops on offer.
A Boat on Lake Galilee
Back down again and onto Qumran, the site where the Dead Sea scrolls were found, and then to the Dead Sea itself. Being a desert and also the lowest place on earth, some 1,400 feet below sea level, it is incredibly hot here, at one point the coach thermometer registered 40 degrees Celsius. Floating in the Dead Sea is an amazing experience, but you wouldn't want to do it for too long and you definitely need a shower afterwards!
For our last couple of nights we moved on to Neve Shalom, a joint Jewish and Arab community in the peaceful countryside between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. There was a chance here to relax and swim in the more traditional way in the outdoor swimming pool and then sit on the terrace with a drink in the warm Mediterranean evening.
For our final day, we visited Bethlehem. Sadly Bethlehem is not the town of the carol 'O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie' but rather a town at the centre of the Israeli/Palestinian dispute surrounded by a 'peace' wall with entry by checkpoint only. However it is still a wonderful place and of course the site of Jesus' birth. We visited the Church of the Nativity and the cave where Jesus was born, where we sang the famous carol. Father Duncan presided at another moving Eucharist in the chapel of a convent in the town, before we headed to the Palestinian Conflict Resolution Centre in the shadow of the security wall and under the gaze of the Israeli security from the watchtower above.
Sometimes it is difficult to see hope for the future in Israel and Palestine, but there is always hope through the work of places such as the Palestian Conflict Resolution Centre and Neve Shalom, which show a way of non-
The Nativity Church
So the land where Jesus lived was full of the wonder and the messiness of human life two thousand years ago, and remains so today. This was an intense, moving and faith-
Thank you to all my fellow pilgrims for a wonderful journey together, and to Father Charles and Father Duncan for taking so much care in making this a true journey in the footsteps of Christ.
Reported by Martin Dollery