Dear Holy Apostles,
I have found it more difficult than I expected to write long updates about the pilgrimage I am on in the Holy Land. Our local guide, Iyad, keeps us very busy, and every evening we have had that exhausted but happy feeling. If you use Facebook, you will see a lot of pictures and brief updates on my page.
I am writing to you from Nazareth in Galilee, the town where Jesus grew up. We are staying very close to the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation, which is built over a cave that from very early on was revered as the home of Mary, and the place where the angel Gabriel visited her to announce that she would conceive a son who was to be named Jesus. Nazareth used to be a small village of several hundred people, today there are over 100,000 people here. It has one of the largest Christian populations in Israel, about 30% of the population are Arab Christians. The rest are Muslim and Jews. It is a wonderful place. As Jerusalem is to New York: huge, chaotic, cosmopolitian; Nazareth is to Philadelphia, still a significant and fascinating city full of history, but a bit more laid back. That’s my sense of the place, anyway.
We came to Galilee, the northern section of Israel, yesterday. Before that we were staying in East Jerusalem, near the old city at the Anglican Cathedral guest house. Jerusalem is an overwhelming and intoxicating place. There is a so much bustle, so many people, so many street vendors selling everything under the sun. In the old city there are holy sites and interesting historical sites literally at every turn. Layer upon layer of history is built up here, and it is a fascinating, beautiful place. One day last week we visited the Western Wall, the holiest place in Judaism. I wrote the prayers you sent with me and more on a sheet of my journal and crammed with thousands more prayers into the cracks of that wall, which is part of a giant retaining wall that Herod the Great built around the Temple mount. On the temple mount itself (a place Jews are forbidden by Israeli law to go) is the Dome of the Rock, the second holiest site of Islam. As a Christian, I am forbidden to pray there. The next day we went to the Holy Sepulchre which is the holiest site of Christianity. There is Golgotha, the place of the skull where our Lord breathed his last. Fifty yards away, housed in a church within a church, is a marble slab which covers what is left of the bench on which Christ’s body was placed after he was crucified to death. It is almost certainly THE place. Archeology proves that around AD 135, the Roman emperor Hadrian destroyed a first or second century structure and built a Roman temple on top of it. He was trying to destroy the memory of every Jewish holy site, including the sites of any sect—like Christianity—that was associated with the Judaism. When St. Helena, Constantine’s mom, arrived in Jerusalem in the early 4thcentury, local Christians (there have always been Christians in the Holy Land) had no trouble showing her the site. She had the Roman temple removed, and used some of the pieces to build the first church of the Holy Sepulchre. This church was destroyed when the Persians conquered Jerusalem in the 7thcentury, and rebuilt by the Crusaders in the eleventh century. Recent archeology has discovered that Christians in the second and third century built a tunnel underneath the Roman temple to get as close as they could to the site that has always been known to be the place Jesus was raised from the dead. The current church is a cacophony of architectural eras, as new churches, and even renovations and additions were added while salvaging parts of the old. Six different Christian denominations share the space. I kissed the spot where Jesus’ cross stood atop Golgotha, and I laid my head on the marble stab of his tomb. I can’t describe how moving and faith affirming it was. Deb and I returned to the church the following morning when it opened (at 4AM!) and witnessed several beautiful services. Thousands upon thousands visit the church everyday, people from all over, speaking dozens of languages—tourists and pilgrims alike. It may seem off-puting that the holiest site of our religion is so chaotic. But, even being jostled in the crowds, it was so moving. Every language, tribe, nation and tongue coming there, in order to fall at the foot of the cross.
I have so much more to tell you and show you. The people are so hospitable here, the food has been excellent, and the coffee is almost worth a 10 hour airplane ride for. So far, this has been an incredible, transformative journey for me and Deb. I do miss you, and love you. Sunday we will worship with our Anglican sisters and brothers in Nazareth whose liturgy in English and Arabic is very similar to ours. Seven hours apart, our prayers will join each other as we give thanks to God together. Know that you are in my prayers constantly as we visit these holy sites.