Grant Court Hotel, Jerusalem
Yesterday I noted that tours have a rhythm. They start with a burst of energy, settle down into a daily routine, and then pick up again as we enter the final few days. That certainly happened today as we paid our first visit to Old Jerusalem. In order, these are the sites we visited:
Wohl Museum of Archeology
Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu
Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum
Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
Bethlehem Souvenir Center
In between we fought the ever-present Jerusalem traffic, a task made more challenging because of the narrow, winding streets. We were blessed with unbelievable weather today. Clear skies, bright sunshine, temps in the upper 50s. Plus there were no crowds at the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu. Marlene and I both regard this as our favorite church in the Holy Land. Built over the site of Caiaphas' palace, this was where Jesus was put on trial before the high priest, scourged and then thrown in a pit for a few hours in the middle of the night. It is also the place where Peter denied the Lord three times. We sang in the church and the high stone arches made us sound like a mighty choir. We all walked down the narrow steps so Abed could show us where Jesus was scourged and then left alone in the dungeon. I read Psalm 88 and then we sang "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?" It was a deeply moving experience for all of us to be in the same prison where our Lord suffered in the hours before his crucifixion.
Our trip to Yad Vashem was sobering in a completely different way. You can never understand the modern state of Israel without visiting Yad Vashem. The new building (opened last year) brings you face to face with the Nazi's systematic attempt to destroy the Jewish people. No one said much as we left the memorial. What could you say about such monstrous evil?
Then it was on to Bethlehem where we crossed an Israeli checkpoint and passed through the newly-constructed wall that divides the West Bank from Israel. We ate lunch in a little restaurant owned by a Christian family. They have two items--and only two-on the menu, falafel (fried balls of ground chickpeas and spices, served in pita bread with various condiments) and shawarma (a popular Middle Eastern sandwich made from shaved turkey or lamb placed in pita bread along with various condiments and spices). Abed took a scoop and starting making falafel and dropping the balls in the hot oil. Mark and Nick tried their hand and made some nice-looking falafel balls.The meal was inexpensive and very tasty. Because it is January and tourism is down, we were almost alone in the massive Church of the Nativity. To get to the church, you first walk across a broad plaza and then come to a very small entrance. I had to bow down to enter the tiny door to the 1650-year old sanctuary. Until a few hundred years ago, the church had a massive opening, but the priests bricked it up, leaving an opening so small I had to crouch down to enter the church. They made the opening small because soldiers and noblemen liked to ride their horses right into the sanctuary. The priests felt that was inappropriate so they lowered the entrance to force the great men to dismount before entering the church. The same is true of salvation. If you want to go to heaven, you’ve got to "get off your high horse." Until you do, you’ll never be saved.
We had time in the grotto to sing "Away in the Manger" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem." This was most unusual because in previous visits, we were so rushed by other groups, we barely had time to enter the grotto, and when we did, it was so crowded you could hardly move. We then went next door and downstairs to visit the traditional site of the inn that had no room for Mary and Joseph.
Finally we visited the Bethlehem Souvenir Center, a wonderful store operated by a Christian believer named Edward Tabash. Mr. Tabash welcomed us warmly, thanked us for coming, and gave an impassioned plea from his heart regarding the Israel-Palestinian situation. Neither side has the answer, he said. Both sides say, "This land is ours," but we should say, "This land is the Lord's." He fervently urged us to pray for all the leaders because only through prayer can hearts be changed. Later we talked and I have no doubt of his genuine love for the Lord. Then it was back on the bus and back to the hotel. We left at 8 AM and arrived back at 7 PM. Touring is not a vacation. It stretches the body, soul and spirit, and as Abed says, the Holy Land gets in your blood and calls you back again and again. He's right about that. This is our fourth time, and I'm already thinking about when we can come back again.
One final note. Almost everything we saw ten years ago has changed and been greatly improved so that when you return, you not only see many things for the first time, a lot of the things you saw before are not the same.