We wake up after a wonderful night’s sleep to discover that at the Ritz Hotel breakfast this morning is as good as dinner was last night. There is a wonderful selection of fruit salads and … as near as you can get to a ‘full English breakfast’ as I guess is possible in Israel-Palestine including sausages and scrambled egg! I am in my element! Even the arrival of the anticipated rejection email to Julia from the other church her name was sent to this month fails to dampen our exhilaration!
Today we are going to walk round Jerusalem with Phil as our guide. We like Phil. He is brilliant at this sort of thing – so knowledgeable about things, so patient with us, and always happy to throw in some great spiritual and biblical insights as he guides us around the various places he has taken us to during our month over here. We begin by walking round the city walls and enter the old city by the Lions’ Gate and the beginning of the Via Dolorosa. We don’t religiously follow the various Stations of the Cross as we walk down it through the Moslem Quarter but stop off at various points of interest. We begin with visiting the Pools of Bethesda where Jesus healed an invalid (John 5:1-15) and the ancient Crusader Church of St Anne. The Church has wonderful acoustics so our group spontaneously starts to sing a couple of verses of ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’. We sing it slowly so the sound resonates around the church. People stop and listen. Some start to record it, and afterwards applaud and come and thank us. If we had known that it was going to sound that good we could have had CDs produced and sold them like Daniel did on the boat on the Sea of Galilee the other week?! I jest of course.
We continue along the Via Dolorosa to the Struthion Pool, a large cuboid cistern housed below the Convent of the Sisters of Zion. It also houses an area of Roman pavement that could possibly be ‘the Stone Pavement’ or ‘Gabbatha’ (John 19:13) where Jesus was judged by Pilate. It is one of those special places and there is a lovely mural of Christ carrying his cross on the wall by this section of pavement. After leaving the Convent we go for coffee at a cafe by the Armenian Church of our Lady of the Spasm?! It is supposedly the place where Mary the mother of Jesus witnessed her son go by carrying his cross (John 19:26) … an event which seemingly caused her to have a spasm … perhaps it translates better in Armenian?! Over coffee I get into conversation with a group of Polish Jews who live in England and are over here for a week or so. They are very friendly and interested in why we are over here in Israel-Palestine. Things are going swimmingly until I suggest that it would be great if a ‘one state’ solution could eventually be arrived at in which Jews and Arabs could amicably share the land as one nation? They agree … as long as the ‘one state’ is Jewish!? Sadly I know that many Palestinians would also agree about the ‘one state’ solution … as long as the ‘one state’ was entirely Palestinian?! No one seems happy with ‘two state’ solution!?
After coffee we go to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or perhaps ‘Unholy Sepulchre’ might be more appropriate? We enter through the site of the Coptic Church and Monastery on the roof, and work our way down to the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic sections. The division and intransigence between the various denominations is illustrated by an old ladder, high up on the front elevation of the church building. Umpteen years ago a window needed mending, but the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholics fell out over it and the work stopped mid-stream. It has never been started again and the ladder is still where it was left all those years ago?! The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is mayhem with loads of people jostling each other as various tour groups vie with each other to get to see the various ‘holy things’ contained within the building. There are numerous priests of the various denominations all herding the tourists around, and numerous tour guides bullying their various groups to go this way or that as quickly as possible.
Some of us want to get to see the Holy Sepulchre so we join the long queue. I opted out last time I was here, and regretted it afterwards, so I don’t want to miss out this time. Once we are in the queue there is no way back. I am glad that I am 6’4″ and weigh around 16 stone because it is like a Rugby scrum in the queue. I easily hold my own and keep ploughing forward as the opportunity arises, and the rest of our party follow in my wake. Even so it takes us an hour to get in to the actual Holy Sepulchre itself … and when we get there it is not really worth all the fuss to be honest. It has been made so ornate that it seems cheap and trashy? Some of us then go on to another section of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the Cross of Christ is supposed to have been. There is a hole in the floor where you can reach in and touch the alleged place. We join the queue and soon find ourselves at the place. Just as we are about to place our hands in the sacred hole a very officious Jewish guide stands in front of us and attempts to usher his group in front of us. It is another awful example of Jewish ‘chutzpah’ or ‘getting in other people’s faces’ that some Jews think is creditable. I have had enough of this arrogance so display some ‘chutzpah’ of my own. I tell him in no uncertain terms that he can’t do this! He tells me he can. I tell him no he can’t … and since I am rather bigger than him, and have two nuns, and several very nice students backing me up … he gives way!
When we finally emerge from the holy hell that is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre we find the rest of our party and have some lunch before going on to visit the amazing Jewish Archaeological Park and the Western (or Wailing) Wall. We walk through the huge Souk or Market with its winding alleys and colourful stalls. The Jewish Archeological Park houses the remains of the Jewish Temple with piles of stones lying around in fulfilment of Jesus’ prophetic words concerning the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 AD, that ‘they will not leave one stone upon another’ (Luke 19:44). We also see the steps that led up to the entrance to the Temple. Steps that Jesus himself would have used. Steps where perhaps Peter preached from on that first Day of Pentecost in the Christian Era, just above the numerous Jewish ‘baptismal pools’ which the Jews used for their cleansing rituals before entering the Temple. Baptismal pools which the embryonic Christian Church would also have used to baptise the 3,000 new converts on that first Day of Pentecost who responded to Peter’s exhortation to ‘repent and be baptised’ (Acts 2:38). We sit quietly and reflectively on these steps for quite a while …it is another of these precious places.
From the Archaeological Park we go back through the Israeli Security Check Point to the Western Wall. The men go to the larger section of the Wall, and the women to the smaller section. There are lots of Orthodox Jews praying there, and I join them to pray with them. Last time I was here I prayed especially for my son, David. I pray for him again this time, giving thanks that my prayers eight years ago for him have been largely answered, and I pray for the rest of my family as well. The cracks and crevices in the Western Wall of the Temple are full of bits of paper containing the prayers of those who have come to pray at the Wall.
We return to our hotel, in time for another excellent dinner, exhausted but exhilarated after a truly wonderful day. The streets are buzzing with life and activity as we walk back through them. There is an amazing vibrancy about Jerusalem and we look forward to discovering more about this amazing city over the next few days!