Down the winding and steep path we passed the ancient and modern Jewish Cemetery where rocks placed on the graves were both a testament to a visit, and a hope that no stones of this city will ever be knocked down again. Just a few feet farther we entered the compound of Dominus Flevit, the Chapel of the Tear where Jesus wept over Jerusalem. It's in this courtyard that grows a type of thorn tree that may have been used for the crown of thorns.
On down the path we entered the Garden of Gethsemane. Here Jesus prayed his passionate prayer for God's will, not his own to be done, and he was so filled with anguish that "his sweat was like great drops of blood". Many of the olive trees are older than the story which means they were witnesses to this event. We spent time on the steps remembering the story and then in the Church of All Nations to pray at the same stone where Jesus wept and prayed.
This was one of the many moments of blessing today. While there had been a crowd around us as we entered the Garden, by the time we gathered in the church, we were nearly the only ones left, so we had ample time to pray. It's almost as if God went before us to prepare our way with no crowds to interfere with our experience. I can say from my own experiences, this was unusual and welcome. It's also a testimony to the number of pilgrims coming to the Holy Land (Terra Sancta). Over the past few years the numbers have dropped drastically, which is an unfortunate and tragic reality for the people of this place who depend on the tourist industry.
We boarded the bus and traveled up toward Mount Zion where a complex of buildings houses a variety of things and remembers several events and people. The Dormition Abbey is the landmark, near the southern Zion Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, that was built to remember the eternal sleep that Mary (the mother of Jesus) began here. Next door is the Upper Room, a room dedicated to the remembrance of the Lord Jesus' Last Supper and the place where the Disciples experienced Pentecost. Next to that is the tomb of King David, above which is a Christian Chapel, and above that is a Muslim Mosque. It's the only known building in the world where the 3 of the world major faiths are housed together in one place.
We read about the Last Supper in the Upper Room, considered the death of Mary in the Abbey, and had time to pay our respects at David's grave. In the latter, a young Jewish man called me over to the side of the grave where he prayed with me and for me a blessing over my family. He gave me a branch of hyssop as a sign of the forgiveness of sins. We shared words of blessing and of peace before departing. It wasn't the first time I've had such an encounter...I pray it is not the last such in Jerusalem.
We left Jerusalem for Bethlehem, just a few miles south, entered through the security checkpoint and the "wall" before heading to the New Store for some shopping. What we didin't expect was a tour of the olive wood carving factory where all of the pieces in this shop are made. While most of them are started on a large hand-operated duplicator, each piece is hand finished through a 12 station detail "production line."
The Church of the Nativity is undergoing major renovations right now which are supposed to be completed by the Christmas season. (It looks like there is still a long way to go and I doubt it is completed by then.) The scaffolding, while covering up the interior on nearly every wall, didn't cover the significance of this amazing and world's oldest church. From the humble doorway to the simple staircase into the grotto, the holiness of this place is palpable. With no line (yes, I said, no line), we casually made our way down the 14 steps were we were able to touch the stone floor, read the story and sing Silent Night without any distractions from other groups. We were also able to tour the other caves and the beautiful Catholic Church where we read the rest of the story and sang another hymn. It was the best visit to this church we have ever experienced.
Just a few miles from here, outside of the modern city, is a series of fields still used by shepherds, watching over their flocks. Somewhere in these networks of caves is where the Angels visited the shepherds that night so long ago, and announced the birth of the Messiah. It announced more that that too, as it brought this good news to a surprising group of people, thought to be at the low end of the socio-economic spectrum, shepherds. That means this event was for everyone, and these shepherds became the very first evangelists, telling the story of the Good News to everyone they met!
We finished up the day back in the modern city of Jerusalem at Mehane Yehuda Market, an active shuk that brings together vendors of just about anything you can imagine, especially fresh fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, along side bakeries, coffee shops, pubs, micro-breweries, and candy stores all in one large city block. It's an experience that isn't easily forgotten. It is also the market where Peggy and I shopped regularly when we lived just a few blocks from here during our sabbatical. It was a pleasure walking among the shops again, and sharing it with our group.
After dinner some shopped, others rested, and Peggy and I took a walk to the Old City. It was a beautiful cool evening for a stroll along the streets of Jerusalem. We stopped for a Turkish Coffee at a Muslim Market, paused a the Damascus Gate for a picture or two and then headed back to the hotel to rest for our last day as one large group. We have another amazing day in store tomorrow as we enter the Old City and walk along Jesus' journey to the cross.
And now that the Turkish Coffee is wearing off, it's time to rest myself.