Holy Land Pilgrimage, Days 9 and 10: "You told me I was like the Dead Sea, you'll never sin

We've been back for a week now (a week already?!) and we can't believe it! Between a case of King Herod's Revenge (similar to Montezuma's Revenge, but like... more Bible plague-y), jet lag, THE EAGLES WINNING THE SUPERBOWL (Nick says its because he prayed for a Birds' victory at the Western Wall), and never-ending piles of laundry (literally, the last is just in the washer now) - we can finally get our thoughts together about our final days in the Holy Land!

Our last full day in Jerusalem began with us following part of the "Palm Sunday Walk," a trail of churches and holy sites that commemorate Jesus's triumphant entry into Jerusalem and Holy Week events that ended in his crucifixion. Christians in the Holy Land religiously (get it?!) follow the Palm Sunday walk each Lent, beginning with a mass at the Church of Bethphage, then following the Via Dolorosa, passing the Church of the Ascension and the Garden of Gethsemane, eventually entering the Old City by way of the Lion's Gate, finally concluding at the Church of St. Anne and the Pools of Bethesda.

The walk begins at the Church of Bethphage, meaning "House of the Early Figs," on top of the Mount of Olives. The importance of this church is derived from the traditional belief that this is where Jesus mounted the donkey on his triumphant procession into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. To be quite honest, it never occurred to me that Jesus had to use a rock to mount the donkey - and looking at the rock that is said to be the one Jesus used, either Jesus was quite short, or the donkey was the biggest one to have ever roamed the Earth. But hey! Who are we to challenge millennia of religious tradition?

Interestingly, in the fresco above, on the left-hand side, there is a figure whose face is covered by cloth. This symbolizes that any one of us, too, could have been at the jubilant entry of Christ into Jerusalem!

After the Church at Bethphage, we began to descend the Mount of Olives, deeper into the Kidron Valley. Our next stop was Dominus Flevit Church, meaning "The Lord Wept." The church is on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, directly across from the Old City of Jerusalem. According to the Gospel of Luke, this is where Jesus, while riding towards Jerusalem, became overwhelmed with the sight of the Second Temple (now the site of the Temple Mount), predicted the Temple's subsequent destruction, the diaspora of the Jewish people, and wept openly. In remembrance of this event, the church is shaped like an inverted teardrop. The church's grounds still give beautiful vistas of the Old City of Jerusalem!

The church, and the slopes of the Mount of Olives, are literally surrounded by thousands and thousands of Jewish graves. According to Jewish tradition, the slopes of the Mount of Olives will be where the resurrection of the dead will begin once the Messiah returns. The deceased Jews are all buried with their feet towards the Temple Mount, so that once resurrected, they may go to the Temple. The graves have stones on top of them; it is said that visitors to the graves place stones to let the deceased know that the Messiah has not yet returned. When the Messiah returns, according to Jewish tradition, He will enter through the Golden Gate into the Old City of Jerusalem. In an act of religious zeal that only the Holy Land could produce, the Muslim leader Saladin walled up the Golden Gate in 1187 and it remains walled up to this day. As if that wasn't enough, the Ottoman Muslims placed a Muslim cemetery right in front of the walled up gate, believing that the Messiah's precursor, Elijah, would not be able to pass through the cemetery without desecrating himself to enter the gate. Without Elijah, the Muslims believe that the Messiah will not return.

Descending further into the Kidron Valley, we made a stop at the Garden of Gethsemane. The garden sits at the base of the Mount of Olives and is where it is said Jesus prayed with his disciples the night before his crucifixion. The word "Gethsemane" is derived from the Aramaic for "oil press" and the garden is full of olive trees - some over 900 years old and are among some of the oldest known to science! The Church of All Nations, a Catholic basilica, is located right next to the Garden and enshrines a piece of rock where Jesus is said to have prayed before his arrest.

Next, we went to Mount Zion, another mountain just outside the Old City and next to the Mount of Olives, to visit the Church of St. Peter in Galicantu, meaning "crowing rooster," taking its name from Peter's three-time betrayal of Jesus before the rooster crowed. The church is situated on top of what was Caiaphas's Palace, the high priest who informally tried Jesus after his arrest. The church is formed by three levels: the highest level is open and colorful, containing the main sanctuary; below the sanctuary is a chapel which uses part of an ancient grotto as its back wall; and the lowest level is a succession of caves, thought to be where Jesus was tortured and imprisoned before his death.

We had a quick stop at Bethany to see the tomb of Lazarus on our way to some fun in the sun - an amazingly gracious lunch at Iyad's home with his family in Jericho and an afternoon at the Dead Sea!

Our last morning in Jerusalem was the earliest morning of them all! By 5:45 am, we were on our way in silence to the Old City to pray the stations of the cross. An emotionally poignant way to close our pilgrimage, we took turns physically carrying a cross along the path Jesus took, from his trial in front of Pontius Pilate at the Antonia Fortress to the site of his crucifixion at Golgotha inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

After breakfast, we left for Emmaus. In Luke's gospel, Jesus is said to have appeared to two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus after his death and resurrection. Lastly, we celebrated a final Eucharist in the ruins of the Byzantine Emmaus-Nicopolis church.

And there you have it, the Alpha to Omega of our pilgrimage!

Except that it isn't. This pilgrimage certainly doesn't end here. It will take me months, if not years, to process the amazing experience that I shared with my 31 fellow travelers. What I saw and learned and experienced over our 10 days in the Holy Land will color how I experience life and faith forever. The Holy Land for me will always be a land of contradictions, full of so much faith and trust and simultaneously so much suspicion and conflict. On the one hand, how could this, the Holy Land, be so conflicted, and on the other, how could it not be?

These are questions that I will grapple with over and over again during my faith journey. But one thing is for certain: I am not done with the Holy Land, and I am certain that it is not done with me.

Salaam al Maseeh,


P.S. This not the end of writings from our Holy Land pilgrims! Occasionally, we will be posting reflections penned by our pilgrims, about our time in the Holy Land and how our experiences have affected us and our lives. Please stay tuned!

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