On this final day of our tour, we started early and never really stopped. Abed wanted to make sure we saw absolutely everything possible before returning home. First we stopped to see some genuine cedars of Lebanon, planted over a hundred years ago at a mission hospital. The cedars are notable because their branches grow straight out, parallel with the ground. Then we visited the traditional site of Jesus’ ascension on top of the Mount of Olives. There is a church at the site, and in the courtyard of the church, a cupola over the location where Jesus ascended into heaven. Abed showed us what looked like a footprint in the stone that is supposed to be Jesus’ footprint, but there is no mention of such a thing in the Bible and no reason to think it is genuine. From there we visited the Church of the Pater Noster, which is thought to be the spot were Jesus gave the Lord’s Prayer as recorded in Luke 11:1-4. The church was new to me, and I found it incredibly inspiring to see versions of the Lord’s Prayer engraved on ceramic tiles all over the church. You could find the Lord’s Prayer in Bengali, Sudanese, Ojibway, Welsh, Polish, Finnish, Indonesian, and in dozens of other languages. It reminded me of the coming day when the knowledge of the glory of the Lord will over the earth as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14). I purchased a large poster containing versions of the Lord’s Prayer in many languages that I hope to have framed.
About half the group walked down an extremely steep road that twists and turns its way down the side of the Mount of Olives. Along the way we stopped at Dominus Flevit, which means “the Lord Wept,” a church fashioned in the shape of a teardrop, near the site where Jesus wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:37-42). Our group reunited to visit the ancient olive trees of Gethsemane, some of them two thousand years old. When Jim King asked me, “Is this the place?” I could confidently tell him, “Yes, this is the place where our Lord prayed and where he was betrayed and arrested” (Matthew 26:36-56). Nearby is the breathtaking Church of All Nations. On the inside the church is painted in dark blue colors, with stars above, to cause the mind to think of Jesus praying alone in the garden at night. Many people think it is the most beautiful church in the Holy Land, and I would rank it and the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu as two of my favorites.
Then we got back on the bus to travel to West Jerusalem to view the Knesset building, the giant Menorah, and to spend some time at the Shrine of the Book, which houses part of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
By now it was 1 PM. The time was important because we were scheduled to be at the Garden Tomb at 4:30 PM for communion. So now we were down to crunch time. Back to the Old City we went. Taking us to the Cardo, the shopping area in the Jewish Quarter, Abed sternly told us we had one hour to eat and shop and then to meet at a certain location no later than 2:30 PM. Ken and Mary Heffley decided to eat at a coffee shop near the Zion Gate. Everyone else scattered. Marlene and Pam Stewart went shopping while Ed Keuer and I ate lunch at an Arab barbecue. That term is misleading because it was more like a small stall, but that is misleading because it had marble walls and a marble floor. But that makes it sound fancy, which it wasn’t. It was a tiny hole-in-the-wall place in the Arab Quarter. Very clean, with a big chunk of raw lamb hanging behind a glass. When we ordered (actually Abed ordered for us), the owner cut the meat from the lamb, took it across the narrow walkway and cooked it. Abed said that we would love it, and he was right. He said the restaurant had been there a thousand years, which I took as an exaggeration, but then again, who knows? The owner brought out a plate of hot pita bread, some sort of parsley dip, vegetables and sour cream, and we ripped off the bread and used it to dip in the various salads. No need for forks or spoons. “If I wash my hands before I eat, I know my hands are clean. If I use a fork, I don’t know whether it’s clean or not” Abed said.
After rounding everyone up, we headed for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is one of the oldest churches in the world, having been built, destroyed, rebuilt, re-destroyed, burned, neglected, rebuilt again, added on, remodeled, dug out, argued over, fought over and divided up countless times over the last 1700 years. Today it is under the shared control of various Christian groups, including the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox churches. Over the centuries the church has been the focus of bitter religious disputes, which is ironic given that this is the supposed location of the death and resurrection of the Prince of Peace. But as with so many things in the Holy Land, the church is a paradox. Many evangelical Protestants find the vast church to be cold and off-putting. Its great antiquity cannot be disputed, and since it may indeed be the site where our Lord died and rose again, it is certainly worth a visit.
I didn’t get to see much of the church because we lost Betty Hawkes. No one noticed that she had not come back to the group after the free time. Just as we were entering the church, Abed got a phone call saying that Betty was at the Jaffa Gate. You’d have to know Old Jerusalem to understand this, but that’s a long way from the Cardo. Somehow she got lost and found a policeman who directed her to the Israeli Tourist Station. When she told them the name of our tour agency and our hotel, they eventually figured out which group she was with. That led to the cell phone call Abed received. Did I know where the Jaffa Gate was? No, but I could find it. Abed said take that narrow road, go right, go to the end of it, turn left, go to the end of it, turn right, go to the Jaffa Gate, just before you get there, you’ll find the Israeli Tourist Station. So taking Mark and Nick with me, we started on our rescue mission. You must understand that the “streets” are really narrow cobblestone walkways through the Arab Quarter. We passed vendors selling food, clothes, trinkets, scarves, pictures, cameras, and every souvenir you could imagine. When we finally reached the Jaffa Gate, Betty was sitting in the tourist office, smiling and looking glad to see us. The officer in charge was very friendly. I think this sort of thing happens all the time, especially during more crowded times of the year. Betty is such a sweet soul and felt embarrassed, but we told her not to worry. When we got back, our group was still inside the church so Mark and Nick and I did our own tour.
Now it was about 3:30 PM. Instead of going back to the bus, we walked through the Arab Quarter to the Damascus Gate. On the way there we had our only unsettling event of the entire tour. While walking through a plaza, an Arab man began to shout at us. “You are from America. I have no money. America gives money to Israel. No money to help me. Bush is bad. Down with America. Down with Israel. I am going to go to America and do harm.” He continued to shout in that vein for several minutes. Eventually Abed motioned us to keep on moving. He followed us for a while, continuing to shout at us. I don’t think any of us felt threatened, and the man didn’t threaten us personally, but he shouted loud enough so that everyone stopped to listen. I should add that this was the only time anything like that happened. We were otherwise treated with kindness and courtesy everywhere we went.
Finally we made our way to the Garden Tomb. Nearby is Gordon’s Calvary. Many evangelicals think this is the true location of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. It certainly is closer in spirit than the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Garden Tomb Association undertakes the care and oversight of the area and has done so for over a century. Gordon’s Calvary is actually a set of skull-like indentations in a nearby exposed limestone hill. Above it is an Arab cemetery. Beneath it, and partially obscuring the view, is a bus station. From time to time the sound of the buses disrupts the quiet of the Garden Tomb. No one can say with certainty that this is where our Lord was crucified, but in certain respects it does fit the biblical picture. The people who administer the Garden Tomb make no extravagant claims, preferring to let the setting speak for itself.
The tomb itself is ancient, and visitors are invited to go inside and view it for themselves. It appears to have been unfinished, as if it had been used once and then never used again. Inscriptions on the wall indicate that Christians from early centuries visited the tomb and noted its significance. After everyone had visited the tomb, we gathered nearby for a communion service. As we started, I noted that this was the reason many of us had come to the Holy Land, not just to tour ancient sites, but finally to come to the place where our Lord died and rose from the dead. I found it hard to speak the words that were in my heart, but I managed to say, “It’s been a long journey, but we are here at last.” Ken Heffley led us in prayer, Jim King read Isaiah 53:1-6, we sang “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” Mark read Mark 15:1-15, Nick read John 19:16-30, Ed Keuer prayed, we sang “Jesus Paid It All,” then Bob Dahms and Paul Boesche served communion. We closed by singing “Crown Him With Many Crowns” and a prayer by Georg Rupprecht. We took home with us the communion cups carved from olive wood as a commemoration of that never-to-be-forgotten moment in the Garden Tomb.
Soon our pilgrimage would be over. On the way back to the hotel Abed told us to expect a 2 AM wake-up call. I asked everyone to bring their digital photos to our room for downloading. We agreed to meet to meet in my room for a final get-together at 8:30 PM. At that meeting many people shared with deep emotion what it had meant to come to the Holy Land. We laughed and told stories and then there was a knock at the door. The hotel staff brought in a cake with a sparkler on top because tomorrow is Marlene’s birthday. So we sang to her, shared the cake, and the group surprised her with several gifts. Then we prayed together and left to go to our rooms and pack for the trip home.