Facing the Looming Shadow

Near the tomb, inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Near the tomb, inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

by Pringle Franklin

Third in a Series about the Holy Land

JERUSALEM—-The joy and wonder of Bethlehem could not last; I knew this dreaded time would come, yet I had been resisting the plunge into darkness. No pilgrimage to the Holy Land would be complete without walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death tread by the holy feet of Jesus; rather than remaining skittish, I willed myself to absorb the passion of Christ with deeper comprehension.

I was here to identify with Jesus, yet I did not wish to experience his pain. Alas, to be an authentic pilgrim, one must taste the agony of Christ as well as savor his miracles and victories. The halcyon days back in Galilee, of multiplying the loaves and fishes or turning water into wine, of healing the lame and giving sight to the blind, were behind us; the grim olive press of the Garden of Gethsemane lay around the next bend, casting its long, dark shadow.

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Inside the Garden of Gethsemane

Inside the Garden of Gethsemane

At first glance, Gethsemane appeared harmless, a small but lovely garden, home to tall wildflowers, aromatic rosemary bushes, and twisted, gnarled olive trees whose buried roots date back to Biblical days. Off to one side sits the Church of All Nations; the centerpiece of this reverent place is the Rock of Agony. The large rock marks the spot where Jesus draped himself for support as he poured out his fervent prayers to God, asking whether the cup of suffering could be removed from his lips.

While Jesus struggled to accept his mission, frightened to the point of sweating blood, his three best friends let him down. Instead of praying that they “not fall into temptation,” as Jesus had asked, Peter, James, and John fell asleep, too weak to help their Master in his greatest hour of need. According to Luke 22:45, the disciples were exhausted from sorrow, as Jesus had forewarned them about his approaching death.

Perhaps their utter helplessness gave Jesus the final proof that the human race would not survive without his self sacrifice. These three favored disciples loved Jesus deeply and yet, left to their own resources and inclinations, even they would fail. Like a row of falling dominoes, the entire Adam project would tumble down, one soul after another.

Was this the Rock of Ages, the place where Christ manifested himself as the willing Savior? 

Jesus leans against the Rock of Agony before his arrest

Jesus leans against the Rock of Agony before his arrest

The atmosphere around me felt charged with solemnity. I felt as if I had actually stumbled into the sacred heart of Christ, and that I had become witness to its living, beating presence. The stained-glass windows, featuring white crosses, were radiant with a background palate of purple, the royal color. As bright sunlight passed through the windows, the interior of the sanctuary took on a soft lavender hue; from somewhere, a whirring, repetitive tone filled the air, sounding like a heartbeat.

At home in the morning when I sit in quiet to contemplate and pray, often I play a soothing CD entitled The Frequency of Love that serves as beautiful white noise, to help safeguard me from distraction. The frequency of the repetitive whirring noise in the small church reminded me of this music, and I felt myself relax into its arms. It is a sound that I associate with coming into the presence of the divine within me.

As I sat on a side pew and prayed, surrounded by this acoustic comfort, silently I thanked Jesus for his willingness to take on the burdens of the world. One could sense the agony of his terrible choice within this still and meditative place. And the number one truth that came back to me from the depths of this “sacred heart” was this: the victory had been won by the complete unselfishness of our Lord.

In John 17:19, Jesus says, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Jesus took his own teaching to the highest level. In considering this, I pondered: how could I offer more of myself in return?

My mind felt extremely alert, and I felt as if every cell in my body was awakened by the Holy Presence.  Of all the places that I visited in the Holy Land, this was the spot where I sensed the deepest connection to the Risen Christ. As I stayed there contemplating, longing to linger, an attendant in the church stepped toward my bench and flipped a switch. The gentle whirring sound slowed and ended; looking up, I saw that it had been coming from a heavy-duty fan mounted on the wall. I felt it was no coincidence that the fan should have been humming like a heartbeat during my short visit.

Somehow my mind memorized the look, sound, and feel of being inside this sacred space. I realized I could return to it at any time in my memory whenever I needed to gain hope and strength from the presence of the Lord.

The Church of All Nations

The Church of All Nations

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After leaving the Church of All Nations, we lingered in the adjoining garden where Jesus had awaited his accusers: Jewish chief priests and elders, as well as Roman officers of the Temple guard. The garden is surrounded by a steep hillside leading down from higher parts of the city; Jesus would have seen the torches of his enemies as they snaked their way down the footpath to reach him that night.

From then on, everything would change rapidly. Peter, who had sworn in a moment of false bravado never to abandon Jesus, would soon deny even knowing the Nazarene. This scene is commemorated at the Church of St. Peter on Mt. Zion. The church was built over the ruins of the home of the high priest Caiaphas, and it was here in the courtyard by a fire that Peter denied his Lord, three times before the cock crowed. Jesus turned and looked Peter squarely in the eye at that precise moment, just as the guards were leading him away to a prison.

Until now, I had always pictured our Lord confined in a primitive cell.

However, we went into the church and discovered that Jesus had actually been lowered into a pit. As we stood above and peered down, it was like gazing into a dry, deep well. My shoulders hunched and my bones felt momentarily weak as I imagined the bloodied, bruised Jesus lying in a heap at the bottom. Alone, reeling with the pain, frightened.

Jesus was lowered into a pit after his arrest

Jesus was lowered into a pit after his arrest

Next we were allowed to take a stone staircase several flights down to reach dungeon level. Openings had been carved in the rock wall, allowing us to peer inside. Nails and straps attached to the limestone walls attested to the torment that captives such as Jesus had endured here. Inside this underground prison, it felt as if the sun had disappeared from the sky.

I felt repulsed by this place, wanting to see it, yet wanting to flee. If I could barely stay near the malicious pit for 15 minutes, how did Jesus find the fortitude to remain here under the control of evil men? Before his arrest, at the Rock of Agony, Jesus had received comfort from an angel, to strengthen him for this battle. His mind must have returned to the angel’s encouraging words now that he was walking the loneliest road in the world. If only someone who loved Jesus had been there to comfort him…..

In my imagination, I inserted myself into the dungeon, kneeling beside my Lord, touching his back, stroking his hair, offering whatever small help one could manage. If only….my mind hopscotched through various possibilities of my romanticized heroism. Then a very real idea struck me, quite forcibly, and jerked me out of my self-serving reverie: it was not too late.  Whenever I responded to another person with patience, kindness, honesty, charity, or other unselfishness for his sake, it would be counted as having been done unto him. If I were truly longing to comfort the suffering Christ, God would happily supply me with opportunities.

The next time I felt like being self-indulgent, I would remind myself of Jesus lying in the pit.

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Way of Sorrows

Way of Sorrows

From there, we began walking the Via Dolorosa, or Way of Sorrow, which winds through the narrow streets of the Old City. It leads from the place of Pilate’s judgment to the crucifixion site, now covered by the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, with 14 stations of the cross marked for pilgrims along the route. For $1 U.S., you can buy a useful fold-out pamphlet which explains the significance of each station.

Most of the way, open air shops and stalls line both sides of the street. Amidst the buzz of market life, one pauses to see Station 3, where Jesus fell under the cross for the first time; or Station 4, where Jesus passed his mother along the way; or Station 5, where Simon the Cyrenian was stopped while coming in from the country and forced to carry the cross.

In some ways, this trek felt inauthentic, diminished by the vendors selling souvenir crowns of thorns, statues of the Virgin Mary, Jerusalem T-shirts, beaded necklaces, exotic and colorfulIMG_4105 spices, leather pocketbooks stamped with geometric designs, Israeli flags, decorative yamakas, as well as food and drink. The shop owners would perch on low stools beside the street, watching the river of pilgrims pass by, hoping to entice some to tarry and make a purchase.

But perhaps it had been a bit like that in Jesus’ day, as he made his way toward Calvary, and the Roman guards beat their way forward against the throng of curious onlookers. Sometimes mean-spirited people would spit in the faces of the condemned. Of course there had been some acts of mercy: Station 6 depicts a woman named Veronica, who lived in a house along the way and wiped the sweat from the brow of Jesus. Today a chapel of the Convent of the Little Sisters of Jesus stands where Veronica once lived. We did not venture inside, but continued marching uphill toward Golgotha, the place of the skull.

Stations of the Cross take you in the footsteps of Jesus

Stations of the Cross take you in the footsteps of Jesus

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We were traveling as a band of 45 pilgrims and two priests, trying to stay together amidst a tide of other tour groups. Several of our older members were using canes, and with the uneven paving stones and the crush of bodies, the way was precarious. It was such a struggle at the end of a long day that we did not pause at every station. When we finally reached the courtyard of the Greek Orthodox Holy Sepulchre, we lined up en masse and waited to get inside.

IMG_4118The scorching sun beat down overhead; nearby, a huge group of Indian pilgrims — all of the women decked out in bright saris — made their way forward as a pack; behind us, a tour group of Chinese pilgrims jostled us, restless to move forward. This site was the Motherload of sacred places because the church contained Calvary and the tomb where Jesus had been laid to rest. Of course, that means it also contains the place of his resurrection. I had not realized the garden tomb had been so close to the execution place, which was just outside the walls of the city. I questioned our guide Hanni about this, and he assured me that this was so. “He was laid in a nearby tomb,” Hanni said.

When we entered the mammoth basilica, my eyes fell upon the sight of a dozen Indian women kneeling around a pinkish rock slab. The women were prostate over the rock, wiping the holy oil from it and rubbing it on their skin. Some were crying; others were praying. Soon I learned that this was the Stone of Anointment where the body of Christ had been placed after his death. IMG_4129Somehow I managed to slip in beside these devotees of Jesus, running my fingers across the oily stone and feeling the mixture of grease and grit. I removed my decorative European scarf and ran it across the Lord’s resting place, picking up some of the oil. I wasn’t quite sure what collecting the oil was supposed to do, but I wanted to dive in and experience it.

“You might have just ruined your scarf,” Sam told me, scandalized. I simply shrugged; from my point of view, its value had been enhanced.

Next we queued up to pass by the Rock of Calvary, now enclosed in an elaborate corner of the basilica. Pilgrims wait in line and pass single file until they reach an altar that marks the spot of the three crosses, with Jesus’ in the center. Underneath, you are permitted to squat down and stick your arm into a hole opened up in the bedrock by an earthquake following the death of Jesus. Naturally, every pilgrim is anxious to touch the place where the sacred cross stood.

Just as my turn approached, an Asian man jumped in front of me; oddly, he was not part of a group, but running solo. Even more strange, he was carrying a squirt bottle of Ajax disinfectant and a rag. I looked at our official “minder”, a black-robed Orthodox priest sitting in a nearby chair, to see if he would chastise the man. The cassocked priest did not move but only gave a look of annoyed resignation.

The Asian man, long black hair pulled into a simple ponytail, bent down and sprayed the rock, rubbing it vigorously. Now, I do not understand much about all of the Orthodox Church frenzy, but I had figured out that people valued the chance to soak up the holy oil anointing these sacred places. Why was this guy in here spraying Ajax and rubbing it all off? I felt like I was being cheated!

After several seconds, the priest motioned for the cleaning man to come over and sit near him; it was kind of like a teacher putting a kid in time out. I took my turn and touched the rock, but I was too distracted by the man’s antics and my curiosity about what would happen next to feel any religious fervor. As I filed past Mr. Ajax, he looked up and gave me a beatific smile, as if he had seen the heavens open to reveal the Lord and his angels. Clearly he had no remorse. Afterwards I learned that the man has “Jerusalem Syndrome”, meaning he is a local crazy; he comes to the basilica daily and repeats the same ritual.

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IMG_4124On the other side of the basilica, a small chapel covered the site of the empty tomb. This chapel dates back to time of Constantine the Great; yet it looked nothing like I had imagined, and I found it disappointing. I had expected a cave carved out of rock, a large stone that served as doorway, and perhaps a replica of the discarded funeral linens that had once wrapped the body of Jesus. So many people wanted to slip in and have their turn that we had perhaps five seconds within to look around. If I did not already know the Lord, I would not have found him there. The tomb bears the title “Christendom’s most sacred place”, but I believe I have felt closer to God sitting in my backyard in the grass and focusing my attention inward during times of morning prayer.

With the gaudy ornamentation of the church, the crowds, the gold-leafing everywhere, the public show of passionate devotion, as well as the unblinking faces of myriad saints painted on icons, the Holy Sepulchre felt more like a superstitious circus. How did we know that any of this was authentic?

Many layers of time and the rise and fall of empires — Roman, Byzantine, Caliphates, Crusader, Ottoman, British — have left their mark on the landscape. In the beginning, no one even knew it was important to preserve anything; it took time before the personal history of Christ became widely recognized as worth commemorating.

Much thanks is due to St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine the Great. Late in her life, Empress Helena traveled from her native Greece to Palestine, Syria, and Jerusalem, and she is credited with helping establish the authenticity of the Christian sites around 300 A.D. Many have been covered and preserved by Greek Orthodox and Catholic churches throughout the centuries. While the bearded church fathers have completely transformed the look and feel of these rustic places, thanks to them, these holy sites have survived inside the wide tent of Christendom.

One might think: is this the exact spot where the cross was planted? Is this the exact spot where Mary saw Jesus on the Via Dolorosa? At the very least, we were very close, and walking through the old city of Jerusalem, one could still feel the direct tie to the life of the person Jesus of Nazareth. Everyone always says once you visit the Holy Land, you will never read the Bible the same way again.

Now I understand: you can visualize the gnarled branches of the olive trees; the rise and fall of the rocky desert hills; the winding, narrow streets within the walled city; the crowds of people passing by wearing robes and head coverings. You have felt the overhead sun scorching your back; you have experienced a throat parched with thirst. You have dipped your flat bread into a bowl of hummus swimming with olive oil and tasted the rosemary and spices. You have picked up the scent and sense of the ancient days when the Master walked the earth, and you have felt him pass nearby.IMG_4010

From Border Guards to Modesty Police: And All We Wanted Was Jesus

Border crossing into Bethlehem from Jerusalem

Border crossing into Bethlehem from Jerusalem

by Pringle Franklin

Second in a Holy Land Series

BETHLEHEM –The most famous birthplace on earth lies about 10 minutes outside of Jerusalem, but it feels like dropping into another world. One must cross a heavily guarded border post to enter Bethlehem. Depending on your point of view, it’s either considered the West Bank or the Occupied Territories. Muslim and Christian Palestinians live here, and an enormous concrete barrier topped by barbed wire, along with armed guards, restricts movement out of this dirty, impoverished neighborhood into modern and prosperous Jerusalem. (They are only 6 miles in distance.)

Violence and mistrust make such crossings tense; we stayed on our tour bus when we crossed into Bethlehem, just a bunch of innocent pilgrims buffered from the stress of having to present ourselves for inspection. Our guide handled whatever business needed to be done on our behalf. Some Palestinians are denied entry, for security reasons. In fact there was a random knifing in Jerusalem while we were there. No system is foolproof, but the Israelis have proven themselves formidable against threats and don’t take any chances about keeping their citizens safe. Therefore they carefully screen those passing through.

IMG_3967Naturally the Palestinians resent such restrictions, and graffiti artists have spray painted protest slogans and sorrowful images on the high-security prison type wall; one painted the Statue of Liberty weeping into her hands. Another spayed a Christmas tree (a symbol of Bethlehem) locked up inside a circular cage of concrete barriers.

Being on the Palestinian side, where a few scattered and neglected olive trees were layered in heavy grey dust and many of the concrete buildings looked ramshackle and jumbled with junk, it felt depressing.

If Bethlehem was a humble place when Christ was born, a backwater village in a backwater region under under Roman rule, it retains much of that same ethos today.

As an American, it’s hard for me to comprehend the deeply held resentments in this volatile region, but based on the kind and decent people we met on both sides, I think peace would be possible if the hardline extremists would simply allow everyone to raise their kids and worship their God in freedom. Until the violence ends, the peacemakers don’t stand a chance.

But we were not here to investigate such matters; after passing through the borderline, I refocused my attention on the history of the Bible.

•••••

IMG_3956Before long, we had gathered for teaching and worship on the hillside known as Shepherds Field. Sitting there, looking down on concrete low-rise buildings and the dry, rocky terrain, I tried to imagine the shepherds when the angel chorus heralded the arrival of the Christ child.

I had seen this scene depicted countless times on holiday cards and in Christmas pageants; it was mind boggling to actually be sitting in the fabled place. The Biblical story was real, and it happened somewhere very close to where we were listening to the account in Luke 2.

After our service, our guide led us to a small grotto with low ceilings naturally carved out in the side of the hill. This cave was used for penning up the sheep at night. The shepherds would sleep inside with their flock or, if the entrance could not be blocked, he would lie in the opening and serve as the gate.

It is fitting that the angels would reveal the wondrous news to the lowly shepherds, men with little if any formal education who smelled rustically rank and earned a meager living, because Jesus would refer to himself as the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep.

We learned that the shepherds did not own their guarded flock. A rich man would possess the sheep, and he would hold the shepherds personally accountable if even one lamb was eaten by a lion or was lost in the wild. The shepherds devoted their entire lives to guiding, calling forth, and protecting the sheep. By contrast, goats are too independent to follow a shepherd, so they were left to wander in herds with much less oversight, our guide told us.

Naturally this reminded me of Jesus saying that his Heavenly Father would separate the sheep from the goats at the final judgment,

Our shepherd, the Rev. Jeff Miller, in Bethlehem

Our shepherd, the Rev. Jeff Miller, in Bethlehem

rewarding the sheep for their devotion and casting out the goats for their waywardness. The agrarian folk listening to Jesus would have understood immediately the difference between sheep and goats.

These days the shepherds’ cave is a simple chapel, and its blackened ceiling indicates many years of campfire smoke from those taking shelter there. The angels appeared to the shepherds at night, when they were in this grotto. The bright light would have astounded the herdsman and their flock, as it emblazoned the sky above and filtered through the entrance to the cave. No wonder the shepherds were filled with dread.

In this ancient era where sundown meant total darkness, except for the moon or the stars, and people relied on torches to navigate through the inky night world, the shepherds had never encountered luminous objects like this.

The golden white light, along with the voice of Gabriel and the Hallelujah chorus, would have been shocking. This was God reaching down from his throne to touch the lowliest of men, and so the shepherds obeyed the call and went down into Bethlehem to worship the child. They would perhaps have left someone behind to stay with the sheep, our guide said. Imagine being the sleepy guy who volunteered for that job and missed out on visiting the Holy Family in the stable.

••••

As you remember, Joseph and Mary had been forced to travel several days from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem because of a census. Our guide told us that Bethlehem was a small community and most likely only had one place for travelers to stay. We hear in our English language Bible that “there was no room at the inn” and imagine an ancient Motel 6 with every room filled. But it wasn’t like that.

There was one large room shared by all travelers, who would find a spot on the floor. By the time Joseph knocked on the door, every place had been occupied.

The innkeeper would have been familiar with Joseph, our guide explained, and he kindly offered to set up a place for them in the stable behind his inn with his animals. As God’s provision is perfect, this actually gave Mary more room and privacy to deliver her firstborn son.

Today the grotto is completely unrecognizable, covered by the Greek Orthodox Church of the Nativity that owns and protects the sacred spot. We had to wait in line with hordes of pilgrims from around the world for the chance to stick our hand down inside a hole in order to touch a moist and mysterious rock that is said to be the place of the Virgin birth. The hole is marked by a 14-pointed silver star, and you have to kneel under an elaborate altar to reach it.

The Star marks the spot of the Holy birth

The Star marks the spot of the Holy birth

The church is true to the Greek Orthodox style, meaning it looks like a cross between a shrine and a sultan’s palace — gold chains holding red lanterns, elaborate velvet drapes, gaudy gold ornamentation crammed from ceiling to floor, along with ubiquitous flat painted faces of saints looking out from the gold-leaded icons.

IMG_3988IMG_3986It did not feel like the simple stable that welcomed the Baby Jesus, but of course it was still a hot ticket for pilgrims and not to be missed.

••••

My spiritual euphoria hit me back on the shepherd’s hill, inside an intimate white domed chapel with bluish mosaics of the angels on its concave ceiling. We circled up to sing “Angels We Have Heard on High”. As the glorias in excellais reverberated around us and filled our ears, I felt like I was singing along with the original heavenly choir on that miraculous night. The sound of our voices rose and swirled toward the top of the dome, hanging there with a sweet echo as our hymn ended.

Love and awe flooded my heart, and my soul was at peace. This is a memory that I will always carry within me.

IMG_3960Plus, we sounded great, much better than we did on the bus. It was almost as if we were receiving a little help.

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So let’s talk about food.

In general, the fare in Israel is fresh, healthful, lots of salads and grains, and a seemingly endless supply of roasted chicken and rice. Often I will catch the exotic scent of turmeric and coriander, cumin and cardamon, hanging in the air outside a nearby restaurant or kitchen.

This morning I was eating a beet green salad with raisins, granola, and honey for breakfast. I love kale and spinach and everything leafy and green, but I don’t ever eat them as my morning meal. One morning on the Sea of Galilee in Tiberius, our hotel chef suspended a honeycomb dripping amber sweetness onto a platter. It was divine mixed into plain yogurt along with a fig paste.

The pilgrim package includes room and board, and all of the hotels lay out bountiful buffets for breakfast and dinner. The food is local, Middle-eastern styled in the spices, with lots of raw food and fresh, crispy vegetables, as well as pickled peppery things which I could not always identify.

IMG_3905We are discovering much about the Middle East by sampling traditional meals. My favorite food was the roasted eggplant wedges prepared in a Palestinian restaurant run by the third generation of a family. If peace could ever come to this volatile region, I suspect it would happen over a table laid out with olives, hummus, pita bread and savory caramelized roasted eggplant. Such good soul food generates goodwill.

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IMG_4054JERUSALEM—Every tourist in town wants to visit the famous Temple Mount, so it pays to get in line early. If you arrived at mid-morning, you’d be waiting in the hot sun for hours.

Once in the queue, the first thing I noticed was the separate VIP entrances for Jews. The entrance for the Chosen People was wide, as if to accommodate a large influx, but the way designated for the rest of us was quite narrow. The Jews were ambling right through their gates; our line was slow moving. We were subjected both to limited personal space and extra security.

I had nothing better to do while waiting, so I looked around to see how the system here worked. I was surprised to see that the Jewish men and women used “genderized” gates. Men went through a wide portal on the left, women entered through a duplicate portal on the right. This reminded me that in Orthodox synagogues, men and women are segregated into sections during the worship, and I imagine the purpose is to prevent the fairer sex from distracting the men. Heaven knows men really are so distractible: a shapely leg, a slender neck, a long mane of dark, rich curls — any of these can highjack a guy’s attention and shoot down his intention to focus on the Lord.

IMG_4034So while the Jews were given this extra aid toward purity, we lascivious Gentiles were tossed together in one line, left to our own will power to keep our thoughts in check. It’s okay though, because all of us females had been forced to wear extremely modest clothing due to the Muslim rules on the hilltop. The Jews control access to the Western Wall at the base of the Temple Mount, but the Muslims control and patrol the actual Temple Mount. You had to pass through this initial security gate to reach either destination.

The sun was scorching, so I had worn a white linen sundress. Since I live in a subtropical climate back home, I know firsthand that white is the best color to help offset the effects of the burning ball of fire in the sky. But my color choice would soon become the cause of tribulation. For additional modesty, I wore a silk wrap around my shoulders and chest and a broad-rimmed straw hat over my head, as well as sunglasses. The only part of me that wasn’t covered was below my elbows and a bit of leg between mid-calf and my sandaled feet.

“Good point,” I said, grabbing an extra skirt with an elastic waist; in case of emergency, I could wear this skirt hanging low under my dress and manage to cover my ankles. I stuffed this gauzy skirt in my pocketbook, just in case. It turned out to be a good thing.

THE GUARD CHASED ME DOWN

Once we passed through the Israeli security, we shuffled along a steep uphill boardwalk to take us to the Temple Mount. On the hilltop, we were busy snapping photos of the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic Shrine built in the 7th century A.D. The beautiful tiled walls and bright golden dome are captivating.

IMG_4052

To Muslims, the site is sacred as the place from which the prophet Muhammad ascended to Heaven; to Jews and Christians, this spot is holy because it is Mt. Moriah, where Father Abraham brought his only son Isaac as an offering to the Lord, and the Lord provided a ram as a substitute. Moriah means “the Lord will provide”, and luckily, He provided for me.

We had only been up there about five minutes when I noticed one of the Islamic guards glaring at me. I tried to slip behind Sam and other members of our group to step out of his line of sight. My strategy failed; next thing I knew, he was walking briskly in my direction and then told me to halt. What in the world had I done? Was he worried about my exposed ankles?

“Your dress is too light,” he said, gesturing toward the section covering my lower half. The linen dress was sheer, but I was wearing a slip.

the offensive dress

the offensive dress

Even so, the bright sun must have struck my form in such a way that, as I walked past this guard, he had seen the outline of my legs. He was prepared to expel me, but I pulled my brown paisley skirt from my bag.

“Look, I have this,” i said.

“Put it on — IMMEDIATElY,” he ordered. “IMMEDIATELY.”

“Okay, will do,” I said, stepping over to the side. The man continued to monitor me. There was no place to go inside and change, as the only buildings up there were off limits to non-Muslims.

“How am I going to do this without exposing myself further?” I asked. Perhaps if my knees showed while I pulled up the second skirt, the guard would become irate.

Fellow pilgrim Elizabeth Hagood was nearby, and she was quick thinking. “We’ll form a screen around you,” she said. So as Elizabeth and her husband Maybank and Sam stood around me, blocking me from world view, I managed to slip the second skirt into place underneath the sundress. When I emerged from behind the human screen, I was adequately robed. The guard nodded in satisfaction and marched away.

But the modesty guards weren’t finished yet. About 10 minutes later, we walked up the steps leading to the esplanade around the Dome of the Rock. Another of the guards walked toward me. “Hello there…..my friend,” he said, looking me over.

What had I done now? I nodded but did not say anything. We had been told that it was not culturally fluent in the Arab world for women to speak to men that they did not know, and that if an Arab man greeted us on the street, we should not look at him nor speak to him.

While I waited to see what would come next, the guard surveyed my pilgrim’s stick. Several days earlier, I had found a lovely bamboo pole in the woods and had been carrying it around ever since. I had decorated it with three bird feathers, sticking out of the top. My pilgrim staff got a lot of attention; it was definitely more of a head turner than I was. The guard must have wanted to get a closer look at it, for security reasons.

“Are you enjoying yourself?” he asked me.

I had to reply.

“Yes, we are,” I said.

“Good, good,” he said, smiling. “Have a nice day.” He walked off, and I breathed a sigh of relief. So far, so good.

On the tabletop of the Mount, our church group split up briefly; we were given about 10 minutes to walk around the famous shrine on our own. Only Muslims were allowed to venture inside, but it was permissible for us to walk the perimeter of the building, admire its beauty, and enjoy the panoramic view of Jerusalem. Our guide told us that Jews did not wish to come up on the Temple Mount because no one knows precisely where the Temple of Solomon or the later-built Temple of Herod had been located. Therefore, Jews did not wish to offend God by inadvertently stepping on the spot of the Holy of Holies. Only the high priest had been allowed inside this central area, and even he could only venture in once a year to offer the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).

The Holy of Holies!! When I heard this, my heart rose up within me. As a Christian, I believe that my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. I trust that I have been sanctified by the blood of Christ. Therefore, I have nothing to fear. If I were to tread upon the sacred spot, I would consider it a great blessing and expect that something from that ethereal place might shimmer around me.

Despite wishing that I could divine the location, I did not discern any cosmic vibrations or gut-level hunches or angelic apparitions to guide me. Soon enough, my thoughts shifted. I began trying to peer through the lattice grills in the Dome of the Rock to catch a glimpse of what might be going on inside. IMG_4057But there were guards at the doors and I did not want to get in trouble again, so before long, I gave up. The overhead sun was burning down. Wanting to enjoy a moment of shade, I stepped under the cover of an open-air pavilion.

UNDER THE VEIL

Almost immediately, I felt someone nearby was looking at me; I turned to my left. A young mother sat there, her toddler squatting by her side, playing contentedly with a toy truck. She was completely veiled in black, every bit of her covered except for her brown eyes which gazed out through a slit. We were a study in contrasts: she was all in black, I was all in white. Only her eyes were exposed, while my eyes were concealed behind sunglasses.

Yet when I saw her, something about her body language — the way her hip and shoulder naturally leaned down toward the young child by her side — evoked a feeling of nostalgia in me, the mother of three boys. I remembered feeling a visceral attachment like that to my young boys.

Out of the blue, a look of recognition and understanding passed between us. She smiled warmly at me — and while her face was covered, I could see the kindness in her eyes. As I smiled back, a jolt of current jumped between us. In that mesmerizing instant, it was as if she were unveiled and I were veiled; as if she were the older mother and I were the younger mother; as if she were Westerner and I were the Arab — we had co-mingled and become reverse parts of the same person, the universal Mother.

The feeling of unity was overpowering; I could not utter a word. I stood there, caught in the electricity of the feeling, paralyzed by the onrush of the unexpected emotion reaching me from her gazing eyes. Whatever our differences may have been, and they were immense, those differences were created by mankind, not by God; for He is always trying to pull us together to see that our basic relationship is as brother and sister souls formed and fashioned by the One, Father God.

For about 30 seconds, I experienced an eruption of love for a complete stranger whose face I was not even permitted to see. And then the moment passed, and I snapped back into my separateness. Part of me wanted to say something to her, but no words seemed adequate to express what I felt. As I stepped out of the shelter of the pavilion, I said a silent prayer for the young mother and her son, grateful for our unexpected connection.

SHE WAS WAILING AT THE WALL

Later that afternoon, we visited the Western Wall, also nicknamed the Wailing Wall. This limestone wall is sacred to the Jews because it was built by King Herod the Great during Roman occupation, as part of the retaining wall for the Temple Mount. Jews do not use the title Wailing Wall, a derogatory term coined by non-Jews in bygone eras to describe the wailing and tearful prayers of Jews who would cry about the loss of their Temples and loss of control of their most sacred site.

IMG_4044The Western Wall is considered the closest part of the lower section to where the Temple actually stood. And since the Jews do not venture up to the Mount, this part of the wall is their best physical connection to the old Temple. Every day, scores of Jews and visitors line up at the wall, and this may be the most iconic place to visit in Jerusalem if one wants to feel connected to the Jewish tradition.

As seen earlier at the entrance gates, here the men and women were segregated again. Men in their yamakas entered to the left, and women — most wearing black, knitted head coverings — entered on the right, with a barrier in between. Luckily, Gentiles were not kept in a little corner here but were allowed to mix in freely with Jews of their same gender.

I had written down six or seven prayers in advance on little pieces of paper, to stick into cracks in the wall. My friend Laura Wichmann Hipp had inserted a prayer here for me and my family on her pilgrimage some years ago, and I had been deeply touched that she had remembered me. I planned to return the favor, leaving a prayer for her and hers, as well as prayers for each of my children and a few others. But soon I faced an obstacle: there was no room at the inn.

Everywhere I looked, the narrow openings were already bursting with folded pieces of paper. In addition, hundreds of the little folded notes littered the ground; I guessed that new visitors would remove the prayers of others, letting them flutter down, in order to insert their own. No way was I going to do that. Such behavior seemed worse than unknowingly walking over the Holy of Holies.

I felt sure I could find a receptive spot, if I kept looking. I kept inching along the wall, away from the more crowded center. No vacancy could be found.IMG_4142IMG_4040

Eventually I ended up at the farthest end, where about 15 Israeli women were sitting in rows of folding chairs and praying from little books. I wormed my way around them and into the corner of this narrow section, finally seeing a few gaps where I could stuff my notes, praying over my requests silently as I forced them into the tight space. In my efforts, I dislodged one or two other prayers, which floated like falling leaves to the ground.

Oh no!! My heart skipped a beat; quickly I bent over and retrieved them. In short order I had re-inserted them into the face of the wall. When all my work was finished, I stood beside the whitish limestone wall, placing my outstretched hand against its rough surface. A 20-something year old Israeli woman stood to my right, shaking and weeping as she prayed, her face against the wall. Her back was to me.

IMG_4149Yet I felt the burden of her heart, as emotions gushed out of her shaking body. The wall was her means of access to the throne of God. My access, of course, is through the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, who sits at the right hand of the Father, who intercedes for us day and night. So I stood there behind her, eyes closed, connecting this woman and her tears to the Savior, gently asking Jesus to hear her prayers, to deliver her from her woe, to fill her with his peace. My focus was steady, and I continued to channel loving energy toward this young woman for several minutes.

She seemed unaware of me and yet, her breathing calmed and her weeping ebbed. Seeming relieved, she finished her prayer and stepped away from the wall, keeping her face toward it as she backed away, as is the custom.

For the first time, I put myself in her shoes. What would it be like, not to have the certainty of God’s immediate forgiveness? This gift of Jesus to the world — the ability to approach God as our Father and to seek reconciliation based on the atoning sacrifice of Christ — is so central to my soul that I cannot imagine functioning without it. I could feel the love that this woman had for God, and her respect for this sacred place, and I trusted that He loves her and heard her prayers. But I was acutely conscious of the opening in the curtain which Christ made for us, and more mindful of the gift of being able to approach God under that mantle of this perfect love.

I was reminded of the words of Jesus as he looked down over the city: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!”

Matthew 23:37

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