Wednesday, January 18, 2012

News From Tel Aviv, Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Dear Friends of Liturgy Pacific,

The past days have been quite intense and exhausting.  As a result I have lagged in sending you any updates on my journey.  What I plan to do now is to write a bit of travelogue without too many photos.  My plan is to learn how to upload my photographs to Picasa and then, for those who request access, to send you the address.

Now I will let you in on what has been happening since we arrived in Jerusalem on Friday, 13 January 2012.

Vancouver Clergy on Mount of Olives
Saturday, 14 January 2012

In keeping with the spirit of Sabbath, we had a free morning.  Most of us slept in until quite late and then were ready for our afternoon in Jerusalem.  After lunch in a nearby hotel we travelled to the Mount of Olives for what must be described as one of the most beautiful views of the City on a crisp but clear day.  From the Mount of Olives we could see the entire Old City and get a sense of the rugged travel that took place during the last week of Jesus' life as he traversed the hills and valleys between Jerusalem and Bethany where he is thought to have stayed with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. After spending time on the top of the Mount of Olives we began our walk down the hill to Gethsemane.

The traditional site of Gethsemane, like all the non-Orthodox sites in the Holy Land, is under the custodianship of the Franciscan Order.  Gethsemane is located at the foot of the Mount of Olives, just over the left shoulder of Gary Gaudin (on the right) in the picture above.  The walk down is quite steep, even with the benefit of a modern road and must have been quite difficult in the time of Jesus.  When we entered the site, we were greeted with a lovely garden with many olive trees.  The church itself is less than two hundred years old and includes in the sanctuary a stony area remembered as the place where Jesus prayed on that fateful night.  I spent a few moments in prayer here and, in hindsight, found it one of the more peaceful Christian sites that we visited in Israel.

Saint Anne's
From Gethsemane we hiked up the steep hill road that leads to the Lions Gate on the northeast side of the Old City.  The walls that we presently see were erected by the Ottomans and do not date back to the time of Jesus.  Once we entered the Old City, after a bit of a pause to catch our breaths, we went to Pools of Bethsaida, a site that can be considered as being the likely location of the healing miracles told of in the Gospels.  While we were there we entered a church on the site dedicated to Saint Anne, traditionally named as the mother of Mary.  The acoustics in the church are phenomenal.  Our guide, Uri, told us of a tour of African-American Christians who, upon entering the church, burst in spontaneous song, filling the space with incredible music.

We left Saint Anne's and made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  It is here that I experience the most inner conflict on our trip.  At the Holy Sepulchre we met Hana Bendcowsky of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish Christian Relations.  The Center is intended to facilitate the relationship between Jews and Christians and between the various Christian traditions in Jerusalem.  She led us on a tour beginning on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre where a community of Ethiopian monks live, denied any other place to live or to worship in the confines of the holy place.  We then moved to the square in front of the Holy Sepulchre itself.  After a wonderful introduction, some of the group continued with Hana on a tour of the building while I undertook a spiritual journey into this, the most holy place in Christian history.

When one enters the door of the Holy Sepulchre, the first 'station' is the Stone of Unction.  It is here that tradition commemorates the removal of Christ's body from the cross and the body's initial preparation for burial.  It is also the place where my emotions overcame me and I wept.  Regardless whether this site is or is not where this took place, it is the place where for Christians for almost two thousand years have prayed.  I then turned to what is known as the 'Greek' Golgotha, the site of the crucifixion.  Here too I wept.  From Golgotha I walked around the church until I came to the Edicule where tradition locates the tomb of Christ.  I joined the line-up and was waiting to enter, listening to the closing sounds of Vespers being sung by the Franciscan Friars in the chapel behind me.  I was very close to entering when the two Armenian monks managing the line stopped us and hemmed us in with moveable metal fences.

At this point the foolishness of our Christian divisions assaulted me.  An Armenian choir approached, chanting in beautiful a cappella, accompanied by a deacon with thurible.  Their voices competed with the Franciscans until the Franciscans finished their vespers.  The Armenians continued, joined by a presbyter emerging from the Edicule, chanting texts and blessing the choir --- not the pilgrims waiting to enter.  As they finished, several of their cronies were allowed to enter the Edicule in advance of those who had been waiting.  Finally, I and several of my colleagues from the inter-faith clergy were allowed to enter.

By this time I was crying, but from anger not devotion.  As I bent down to enter the Chapel of the Angel, the antechamber to the tomb, I began to calm.  Just as I reached a level of peace, a Russian monk entered and shouted at the Russian women who had preceded us into the Tomb, telling them to hurry up and finish.  My peace was shattered, but I bent down and entered the second chapel where the Christian tradition states Jesus lay in death.  I laid my hand on the stone and thought, "Father, forgive us for we know not what we do!"  I left quickly and bought a candle from the Coptic chapel.  My hope is that my candle might represent just one more prayer that we might be one as Christ is one with God.

From the Holy Sepulchre we walked the Via Dolorosa back to our bus, a 'way of the cross' lined by shops, narrow streets, covered markets and all the commercialism one might desire in an exotic place.  I found myself thinking, "This might well have been the way it was.  Shopkeepers saying to themselves, 'I wish those Romans would find a new route!  This really is bad for business.'"

Havdallah at Emmaus
We boarded our bus and travelled just outside Jerusalem to Emmaus where there is a community of French Christians who have committed themselves to inter-faith engagement, the Community of the Beatitudes.  This Community is a mixed community with consecrated brothers and sisters as well as married couples and individuals.  Here we were joined by members of a nearby Reform congregation, Birkat Shalom, for Vespers, Havdallah (marking the end of Shabbat) and supper.  I spent supper at table with Rabbi Bruce Kadden (a member of our group from Tacoma), three members of the Emmaus community and one member of Birkat Shalom discussing our lives, our faith and our hopes.

Then it was back to Jerusalem and bed in anticipation of our continued journey together.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

A small group of us went to the 8.00 a.m. celebration of the eucharist at Saint George's Anglican Cathedral in East Jerusalem:  Rabbi Philip Bregman (Vancouver), Rabbi Edward Cohn (New Orleans), the Rev'd Gary Gaudin (Vancouver), the Rev'd David Sherwin (Ottawa), the Rev'd Susan Sauceda Sica (New Jersey) and I.  We had a bit of an adventure trying to find Saint George's and were finally saved by the Dean of Bradford, the Very Rev'd Dr David Ison, who is in Jerusalem on sabbatical, who happened to be walking by as we wondered which direction in which to go!  Dr Ison is studying the relationship between Christians and Muslims in the hopes of helping improve these relations in Bradford where there has been a significant immigration of Muslim families.

Canon Hosam Naoum presided at the eucharist, the congregation consisting mainly of visitors and non-Arabic residents of Jerusalem.  It was a wonderful quiet celebration with Canon Naoum exhibiting a style of presidency I might call 'flexible formality' --- the interweaving of tradition with the reality of working with a congregation with a significant number of visitors.

Our return trip to the hotel was less eventful and, a short while later, we were on the bus heading for Yad Vashem, the newly renovated national memorial to the victims of the Shoah (the Holocaust).  As a student of German literature and history this is a story I know too well and wish that I did not need to know.  In 1976 I served as a chaperone for a group of high school students who travelled to Germany.  One of our stops was Dachau, one of the first concentration camps.  Ever since then I have been struck by the banality of the leaders of the Holocaust and by their insistence on documenting what they were doing.  I agree with our guide, Uri, that to call these people 'monsters' is wrong.  They were not 'monsters'; they were human beings.  If we call them 'monsters', then we de-humanize them as if the darkness inside them was not something that is very much alive today and about which we need eternal vigilance.

From Yad Vashem we headed into the West Bank and Bethlehem.  As we drove to Bethlehem we faced the political currents that can trouble relations between Christians and Jews in Canada and the United States.  The security barrier is in evidence, cutting through neighbourhoods and impeding Palestinian access to Israel.  Settlements that many deem illegal are very much in evidence, one of which is an aggressively large and modern high-rise complex that dominates the sky-line.  Yet it has to be said that the incidence of violence and terrorist attacks have decreased along the demarcation line.

Church of the Nativity
Interior of the Church
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is a tourist attraction of significant status and the relative peace has increased the number of Christians travelling to the church.  Regulations required a change of driver, so Avi, our Israeli driver, was replaced by David, our Palestinian driver.  Uri, our Israeli guide, was replaced by Isa ('Jesus'), our Palestinian guide.  Here again the divisions between Christian are evident.  The more recent Roman Catholic Church of Saint Catherine is adjacent to the Byzantine Church of the Holy Nativity and the two churches are connected.  Nigerian Christians thronged to enter the grotto where Jesus is supposed to have been born, waiting an hour or more to spend a brief moment in this place.  I was offered a chance to skip the line, a privilege due to the influence of a local dignitary, but Paul Schmidt saved me from this.  Both he and I had discussed our feelings about this site and he reminded me that there were those for whom this site was truly significant.  Why should we claim a privilege that those for whom this site had deep significance could not dream of?

Under Saint Catherine's there are some catacombs and caves, including one traditionally thought to be the residence of Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate.

From the church we made our way to Beit Jalla, a small village near to Bethlehem.  There we spent more than an hour with Gershon Baskin, founder of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a public policy think tank established after the first intifada (1988).  Baskin represents what is considered the left-wing of Israeli politics and has personally experienced the murder of a family member who was kidnapped by a Palestinian group.  Baskin was involved in the negotiations that resulted in the release of the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, held captive by Hamas in Gaza for more than five years.  One of the prisoners released in exchange for Shalit was the murderer of Baskin's family member.  The evening was a significant encounter with the complexity of the political situation and the challenges of trying to find ways forward.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Early Monday morning we left Jerusalem and travelled east into the West Bank, then turned north to follow the Jordan River north into the Galilee.  In the Judean wilderness we passed Bedouin encampments with flocks of sheep and camels, including one waiting patiently at the sign marking sea level for tourists who wanted a photograph.

Rabbi Yehuda (r) and Rabbi Weinberg
As we left the Judean wilderness, we turned off the highway to climb up Mount Gilboa for a visit to Ma'ale Gilboa Yeshiva located on a kibbutz on the summit of the mountain.  Here we spent an hour with Rabbi Yehuda Gilad who is the head of this modern Orthodox yeshiva where young men study Torah in conjunction with completing their military obligations.  Rabbi Gilad is a refreshing voice and I wish that he were in Vancouver.  He is a firm believer in the importance of inter-faith dialogue and encourages his students to ask questions about the traditions.  We had a very engaging discussion and many of our rabbinic colleagues expressed their interest in spending time with such a teacher.

Uri at Rachel's grave
Golan Heights
From the summit of Gilboa we descended back into the valley and journeyed north to the Sea of Galilee.  The countryside is beautiful and lush with numerous farms and orchards.  After lunch we visited a cemetery where a number of the earliest Zionists are buried.  The site is wonderfully peaceful and Uri told us of the struggles of this early community and read from their poems.  Uri invited us to spend some quiet time in reflection.  As we were sitting quietly, I looked across the lake at the Golan Heights and realized how they loom over this valley.  It is not difficult to consider how these heights have loomed large in Israeli security concerns and how the return of the heights is a continued matter of debate in international discussions.  Since we had heard some poems, Uri had invited us to consider writing a poem.  For the first time in many years I gave it a try and decided to compose a sparse poem of six lines:  one word, two words, three words, three words, two words, one word.

but then 
the far hills
may seem calm
yet are

Uri at 'Pete's Place'
Our visit to the cemetery was followed by a trip to a site called 'Peter's Primacy'.  The Roman Catholics consider it the site where Jesus ate with the apostles following his resurrection.  During that meal Jesus asked Peter three times whether Peter loved him.  Our visit allowed the Christians to share with our Jewish colleagues the political implications of the title of this place --- to speak of Peter's primacy is to speak of the primacy of the See of Peter.  Some of us started calling it 'Pete's Place' as a neutral alternative!  Our next visit was, however, more significant.

Peter's House
Synagogue in Capernaum
Along the shores of the Sea is Capernaum, a town well known by Jesus and the home of Peter.  Capernaum has within its confines a well-preserved synagogue from the fifth century CE as well as the remains of a home traditionally associated with the mother-in-law of Peter.  This house has been remodelled again and again and is presently shielded by a large contemporary church.  What I find significant is that this village may indicate that Jews and Christians lived in close proximity with no signs of hostility well into Byzantine times.  The synagogue shows no signs of desecration nor of conversion to a church.  The Insula Sacra (the Latin name for Peter's house) likewise shows no sign of anti-Christian activity.

Above Capernaum there is a site that is considered the Mount of the Beatitudes.  We climbed the heights to catch the sun setting over the Sea.  The grounds of the church are filled with lovely gardens and a peaceful aura.  While we have no idea where the Sermon on the Mount was given, this would have been a truly beautiful place.

After our visit to this site we went to Kfar Blum, one of the earliest kibbutz settlements in the Galilee, to spend the night at their hotel.  The kibbutzim have risen to the challenge of a commitment to corporate life in a capitalist environment.  After dinner Uri gave an excellent presentation on the history of the military conflicts since the creation of the state of Israel.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Wading in Dan
Where Canadians here?
As the sun rose, we prepared for our last day together as a touring group.  From Kfar Blum we travelled to Tel Dan, a nature park and archeological site.  Tel Dan is watered by the River Dan with a number of quick flowing streams that feed into the river's strength.  We hiked through the park and paused for several of our members to wade through a gentle pond before continuing on to the actual archeological site.  Barbara Kadden, the wife of Bruce Kadden, had been a student working on the site years previously.  As we were leaving the site, a couple of our members found what appears to be an inukshuk, perhaps left by an earlier Canadian visitor!

Our visit to the peaceful waters of the Dan ended as we began our climb into the Golan.  Our first stop was to Tel Faher, one of the battles of the 1967 war.  Here my camera battery died and I forgot that both my iPhone and iPad were camera ready.  From Tel Faher we continued up into the Golan, passing Druze villages as well as the remains of an Ottoman fortress high on a hill.  The fog descended upon the Golan and we were able to spend only a little time at Emek Ha Becha, the 'Valley of Tears', the site of a major tank battle between the Israelis and the Syrians during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

We left the Golan and travelled to Beit She'arim one of the cities where the Sanhedrin found refuge after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

Then back to Tel Aviv and a final celebratory dinner.  We parted to return to our own homes.  The journey was over.

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