Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Holy Land: "The fifth gospel"

Basilica of the Agony. This is a partial quote in Latin from Hebrews 5:7. Words that follow in brackets have been omitted on the inscription compared to the original Biblical text. “… preces supplicationesque [ad eum qui possit salvum illum a morte facere] cum clamore valido et lacrimis offerens [et] exauditus pro sua reverentia ... [In the days of his flesh, Jesus] offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, [to him who was able to save him from death], and he was heard for his godly fear ."

By Glenn Patrick Juday, Professor of Forest Ecology, School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Articles posted to “SNRAS Science and News” weblog of the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, based on travel May 23-June 1, 2011

It’s Sunday, an ordinary weekday of work for the great majority of the population - Jews and Muslims - of Jerusalem. The civil Israeli weekend is Friday and Saturday. Muslims observe a Friday jumu’ah or day of prayer. Jewish observance of Shabbat (the Sabbath) begins on sundown Friday and extends through sundown Saturday. Observance of Shabbat is somewhat variable across Israel, with the large urban and commercial center of Tel Aviv exhibiting a different pattern (leisure and entertainment featuring prominently) than Jerusalem (greater population observing strict rest).

In Israeli civic life there is a long-term debate over what exact set of publicly enforced Sabbath restrictions, if any, should occur. All Christians of apostolic origin are required to “Keep Holy the Sabbath” by performing their weekly worship on Sunday – the Lord’s Day, as they term it. The observance of the Sabbath was transferred to Sunday (Revelation 1:10, Act 20:7) in the immediate post-Resurrection time. In light of the tradition from its Jewish roots, the Catholic Church provides for the Sunday obligation to be fulfilled from Saturday evening (the vigil Mass) through Sunday afternoon. For our Sunday Mass we are going to the Basilica of the Agony, the church at the site where Jesus spent the night in prayer after the Last Supper.

Eyes filled with Hope

The events commemorated at the Basilica of the Agony include:

Jesus’ intense mental anguish, described in Luke 22: 44 – “And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and this sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground”,

Jesus’ arrest, mentioned in John 18: 1-12 – “… he went forth with his disciples across the Kidron valley, where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered.” “…So the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers … seized Jesus and bound him.”

As a natural human reaction it might seem that commemoration of the events of the Agony in the Garden would generate reactions among his followers such as resentment for the arrest of one who stopped any violent response of his followers, despair for the reception of his message, or gloom for what appears to be worldly failure. But it’s the opposite. What is encouraged is gratitude for such a rabbi who loved his followers to the end, an interior enthusiasm, a willingness to risk, a sense that each person needs a proclamation of hope grounded in truth and charity for all.

As the activities for the day are about to begin the pilgrimage leaders advise the Footprints group, now that they have had a day of personal involvement in the tensions that are part of life in Jerusalem, to be sure to reflect on the privilege of being in the Holy Land, the gifts of faith and hope, and to let the joy that it brings become visible. In other word, remember to smile, not as a forced gesture, but the reverse - as a refusal to let a natural human reaction be suppressed. A recent Church document written in preparation for a special assembly of bishops (Lineamenta) uses an interesting metaphor – “Eyes filled with hope and not with tears of despair.”

Basilica of the Agony or the Church at the Garden of Gethsemane

The Basilica of the Agony, or Church at the Garden of Gethsemane, or the Church of All Nations (because of the wide source of donations for its construction) is a 1924 structure built on the ruins of a 12th century one. It either is, or is very near, the actual site that Jesus spent the night before he died praying to avoid his suffering “… if it be possible, let this cup pass from me …” (Matthew 26:39), and where he was arrested (Matthew 26:50). While in the Jerusalem area Jesus stayed in a house at Bethany (Matthew 26:6), which is higher up the slope that Gethsemane is on, or possibly just over the top of the ridge above. Gethsemane is on the direct path between Bethany and the Golden Gate through the walls of Jerusalem, the gate closest to the Temple. Jesus had to pass through the area, and it was his custom to pray at Gethsemane.

Arriving in the early morning (a “trick” Steve Ray uses to get his groups into pilgrimage sites efficiently) in front of the Basilica of the Agony, our coaches quickly unload their passengers on the sidewalk of the none-too-wide major commuting highway that runs up the Kidron Valley across the street from the basilica. Anxious commuters on the highway, who assumed that they had started early enough to avoid the day’s heaviest traffic and certainly pedestrian bottlenecks, communicate a distinct lack of enthusiasm for our simple need to cross the street. Some do so vigorously. We manage to get across as a coherent group in a quick burst of movement, hoping not to have strained interfaith harmony excessively. We proceed up a side street north of the basilica along a high stone wall and enter a quiet olive grove with scattered ornamental garden plantings, a real contrast with the busy street scene on the other side of the wall.

“Garden” in the site name for the Garden of Gethsemane is a translation of chorion, a “place” or “estate” (Mark 14: 32), or kepos, a “garden” or “orchard” (John 18: 1). Gethsemane is at the base of the Mount of Olives (also called Mount Olivet) with a view over the Kidron Valley to the nearby city walls of Jerusalem. The word Gethsemane is derived from the Hebrew “gat shemanim” which means "oil press" – implying that that the “garden” was an olive grove, or at least included one.

The olive (Olea europaea), is a small tree native to coastal areas of the eastern Mediterranean and Southern Europe. It is a productive, long-lived, and a relatively high value agricultural product that can be produced on slopes with stony, thin soils. Its oil is today recognized for its health benefits in the human diet. In the Bible, olive oil was used for the anointing of the elect or chosen. The way the early Church Fathers interpreted it, at Gethsemane the anointed one (the Christos) came to the place where the oil of anointing was pressed, where he was pressed down with the weight of the guilt for sin. It is a standard practice, which everyone in the region knows, to prune olive trees to stimulate the maximum production of fruit rather than wild shoot growth. And again in the metaphorical narrative, at Gethsemane Jesus was seen to offer himself up to be pruned to yield more:

“For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” (John 10:17)

There are eight very old olive trees in the garden courtyard at the basilica. At the very least, they create an appropriate spiritual atmosphere for visiting Gethsemane. Upon entering the garden grove, the question spontaneously arises in the minds of visitors – could these trees date back to the time of Christ? I find myself impressed with the dimensions of these trees.

I operate a tree ring laboratory, and I spend long days counting backward in time the rings of living trees and even of some long-dead trees. After years of this work, for me the American War of Independence has become a recent event. To really perk my interest it takes trees alive before Columbus landed. Most of my direct experience ends with trees alive at the time of the Crusades – the same time frame as all these 12th century churches or ruins we have been visiting. But I have walked among trees that were alive at the time of Christ, for example California redwoods. Working with living mater that has been alive since long ago is not a startlingly new or different thing to me, just the comfortable backdrop of the work I love to do in the outdoors and in my tree ring lab. Olive trees do not produce good annual rings (technically, for the initiated, they lack distinct ring boundary definition), so ring counts won’t work to establish their age. And the oldest-looking of the Gethsemane olive trees are hollowed out, as rot has removed the original central trunk while the living outer perimeter continued to expand.

The age estimates of the Gethsemane trees in published guides and references vary quite a bit. The first written record of their existence dates from the 15th century, so they are at least 600 years old. But these tree veterans could easily be older. One thousand years is reasonable, and a millennium and a half is conceivable. One barrier to the survival of any trees alive in Jesus's time is the comprehensive destruction imposed by the Imperial Roman campaign against Jerusalem in the Jewish War of AD 66-70. The Roman forces stripped the landscape of all trees and wood for campfires, siege ramps, scaling ladders. The Mount of Olives was largely denuded. The Romans had entered a flourishing, rich countryside and made it desolate. The historian (and participant in the war) Josephus said, “No stranger who had seen Judea of old, and the lovely suburbs of its capitol, and now saw this devastation could have restrained his tears and lamentations at the hideous change.” In the end, the belief that no olive trees in this exact spot survived the Roman siege of Jerusalem can only be based on inference. An olive tree in Portugal has been radiocarbon dated to about 2,000 years old, so it may be possible.

But it seems almost beside the point. If the site of the chorion or kepos (Garden) of the “oil press” (Gethsemane) was not exactly here, it had to have been very close and very similar on the slope above the Kidron Valley along the route from Bethany to the Temple. Even it these olive trees of today were not alive then, they go back a substantial fraction of the time toward the first century AD. The olive trees in the adjacent Kidron Valley probably give a better idea of what “dressed” (pruned) olive trees would have looked like in their prime in the first century. As our Christian guide Amer observes, the Christians of the Middle East think of themselves like the olive tree – repeatedly pruned, but a living link with antiquity, challenged to produce good fruit.

The Western Wall

Without a doubt, the Temple Mount, now occupied by the Islamic Haram Ash-Sharif (in Arabic the “Noble Sanctuary”) is one of the most dramatic places on Earth. Of course, in Jewish belief the Temple is regarded as having been the unique dwelling place of the Divine presence, and this belief is fundamental to Christianity as well. But just to recount the events in the additional Jewish narrative of salvation history imputed to the Temple Mount, and the significance attributed to them, is to appear to lose all restraint in religious language. According to the Talmud it contains the Foundation Stone where the world was created and expanded, it was the place where God gathered the dust to create Adam, it became the place to carry out Divine injunction for a center of national life, government, and religious observance (Deuteronomy 12, 14, 15, 16, 26), the place where all prayers are focused, and more and more events of transcendent significance.

When the Jerusalem Temple was constructed, a basic challenge had to be met. In order to create a level courtyard and build a Temple complex on a monumental scale in the hilly Judean uplands, a major earth-leveling project was required. The solution adopted was to build a massive retaining wall and add fill to raise the grade to a uniform and higher level. Some of the largest stones used in antiquity were put in place for the retaining wall. After one of the greatest engineering and construction efforts in antiquity, a suitable large level expanse took shape, with a magnificent Temple in the center of it.

After the Imperial Roman destruction in 70 AD, came the Islamic conquest in 640. Shortly after, the Al-Aqsa (meaning “the farthest”) Mosque, was built over the Temple complex. The mosque, with its courtyard, covers 35 acres or one sixth of the area within the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Completed in 692 AD, Al-Aqsa Mosque is one of the oldest surviving Islamic structures in the world. The Dome of the Rock with its bright gold covering, was built over the former site of the destroyed Temple, and in many ways serves as an instantly recognizable icon of modern Jerusalem. Given the de-facto control of much of the Temple Mount for what is regarded today as the third holiest site in Islam, the Israeli government enforces a ban on prayer by non-Muslim visitors to the upper courtyard precincts.

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, Jews at various times were forbidden to live in Jerusalem, or allowed to visit only once per year. But after permission to settle was again granted about 425, the practice of praying at the base of the exposed section of the Western Wall, the HaKotel HaMa'aravi, began. The practice among Jews has continued to this day, with restrictions and interruptions, including no access during the period of Jordanian control from 1948 to 1967. For nearly all that time the undeveloped level area at the base of the Western Wall on which pilgrims could gather for prayers was only about 30 meters long and four meters wide. After the Israeli seizure of East Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967, about 135 houses in the Moroccan Quarter (which was largely destroyed along with the old Jewish Quarter in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War) were demolished. Following the demolition, the area at the base of the Western Wall became a great plaza over 60 meters long and 40 meters deep, capable of accommodating a few hundred thousand people.

During particular periods of tension at this juxtaposition of two great holy places, young Muslim fanatics threw stones down at those praying at the base of the Western Wall. A handful of Jewish fanatics in Jerusalem occasionally incite the Arab Muslim populations by calling for the Al Aksa Mosque to be torn down and a Third Temple to be built. Great numbers of sober minded people agree that the result would be a Third World War, instantly. The great majority of Israelis are not interested in moving events in that direction and have accommodated Islamic prerogatives.

When Pope John Paul II came on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he scheduled a stop to pray at the Western Wall in March of 2000. He had declared the year 2000 as a Year of Jubilee, culminating a multi-year plan of prayers, devotions, and dedications as described in the Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente (As the Third Millennium Draws Near). Following Jewish custom he prayed and then placed a written prayer, a kvitle, in a crack in the Wall. The following note, hand-signed by the pope and stamped with the Vatican seal, was later placed in Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial.
“God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring Your name to the nations: we are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of Yours to suffer and asking Your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant. Jerusalem, 26 March 2000. Joannnes Paulus II.”
It was one of the great attempts at reconciliation in recent times or maybe ever. A major theme of his Third Millennium preparations was what he called a “purification of memory,” a call for past injustices to be forthrightly acknowledged while men and women of today not become the object of contempt for what was done in earlier times, before people of today even existed. John Paul II led by example. In Israel, up to the time of John Paul’s pilgrimage visit, the average citizen lived his or her life almost entirely unaware of fine documents issued from interfaith meetings or even milestones in Christian-Jewish relations. But this one simple, dramatic, gesture of praying at the Wall compelled their attention, and it laid the basis for a new and better atmosphere. In May 2009 Pope Benedict also came to the Western Wall, prayed, and left a note during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Ever since, Catholic pilgrims have felt no hesitancy to approach the Western Wall and to pray likewise.

Our pilgrim group passes through the security screening area and then into the great plaza. A low crowd-barrier divides the visitor’s area from the prayer section. We divide into men’s and women’s groups to enter the separate sections provided. At the base of the wall, religious students and scholars occupy small study chairs, their sacred books and commentaries spread on writing surfaces. A number of visitors place notes, and our pilgrims observe a quiet time of touching the wall, some for extended periods.

Yet, no matter how poignant, for Christians the experience cannot be as profound as for Jews. Jesus speaking in figuratively said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19). John makes sure that the reader catches the anagogical sense of his meaning when he follows up with, “But he spoke of the temple of his body” (John 2:21). Christians who follow Apostolic succession believe that what the Temple previously uniquely provided – specifically a priest vested in linen offering a sacrifice and the opportunity for communion with the divine – is now available universally. The Temple that seemingly unites in the sense of common origin, belief, and veneration, divides in another.

If we were to de-particularize the story, and just tell the tale of “Group A” going through a series of experiences similar to the tale of the Jewish people and their relationship to this land it would make a sad, dramatic, inspiring, barely believable tale. If the tale of “Group B” were to follow the outlines of Christians in the Holy Land it would be made up of periods of suffering, achievement, charity, survival against the odds. If the tale of “Group C” were to trace a route through time similar to the story of Islam here it would follow an arc of triumph, setback, and determination. And so, here in Jerusalem today, trapped by a conspiracy of geography and history, three of the world’s great religions are locked in an awkward embrace.

As our Footprints group reassembles and leaves the Old City we move counter to the current of a swirling mass of people – Israeli children, tourists, military units, rabbis, the curious. It’s a vibrant scene of a cross section of humanity. A case can be made that the system of management of access to the holy sites and life in these spiritually charged precincts which is maintained today by the secular Israeli government, though far, far from perfect, is one of the most balanced and effective seen through the long history of this city. But just as Jews are denied full control of a holy site, other claimants are denied too, as we shall see next.

Upper Room on Mount Zion

After exiting the plaza, we take a very short ride up to Mount Zion. Actually Zion or Tzion is a mis-transliteration of the Hebrew letters into English based on passing through the German language first – it should be rendered Tzadi rather than Tzion. But to say the phrase “We are going to Mt. Zion” is essentially startling. That’s because there are two different meanings. On the one hand the name Zion refers to a specific actual location - or actually a changing set of locations over time. The first was the place where a Jebusite fortress that was conquered by King David stood. Then over the years, a couple of the high points in the local topography around Jerusalem assumed the name Zion or Sion, culminating in the hill just outside the city wall to the southwest of the Old City where we are headed.

But the name Tzion appears over 100 times in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). Over time it became a metaphor for Solomon’s Temple, then the city of Jerusalem, and finally it morphed into meaning the Promised Land to come. So to say "I’m going up to Mt. Zion" is, in that sense, to say you are going to Heaven. In American culture the term has largely lapsed, but at one point it was used extensively. To Christian African American slaves and later the still-oppressed free blacks it meant a longing by a wandering people for a safe homeland or a spiritual homeland. American settlers moving on to the western frontier frequently talked or sung about going to the promised land, and sprinkled a legacy of Zion place names (e.g. Zion National Park) across the west.

Between 1948 and 1967, when the Old City was under Jordanian rule, Mount Zion III (the current one) was a designated no-man's land between Israel and Jordan. Israelis were not allowed access to the Jewish holy places, even though access had been agreed to as part of the 1949 armistice. Mount Zion was the closest accessible site of Israeli access to the ancient Temple. Israelis would climb to the rooftop of a building there to pray. In 1964, when the no man’s land was still in place, Pope Paul VI visited Mount Zion during the first modern papal pilgrimage to Israel in 1964. Taking note of the visit as an act of solidarity, the Israeli government named the winding road leading up to Mount Zion Derekh Ha'apifyor (Pope's Way).

And ironically, the site we are going to is a place where the Israeli government maintains control of a building on a site of immense importance to Christians. The management of the site forbids them from celebrating Mass and restricts public prayer to a handful of occasions. What site is it?

The preeminent biblical archeologist Bargil Pixner conducted excavations at the site in the 1980s and offered a cohesive case that this was, in fact, the place of the Cenacle or Upper Room of the Last Supper, which then served as the Church of the Apostles from the first Christian Pentecost. His archeological work simply confirms long, long Christian tradition of the area. If so, this was the place where the Catholic or Apostolic priesthood was established, and the site where the Church per se was born. So why the problem in custody and use of the site?

Many Jews today believe that the large commemorative Gothic cenotaph (an empty sarcophagus) built by the Crusaders in the sublevel of the Cenacle is the Tomb of King David (died ~ 1,000 BC). However passionately this belief is held, it unfortunately collides with well-established facts. For example, the surface that lies under the memorial to King David is a Roman-era synagogue, and very possibly one built by the earliest Christians, before the term "church" and conventions associated with church structures had developed.

In reality the site was under Christian ownership for most of the years before the Islamic conquest, then destroyed, then rebuilt in the Crusader Era, and finally came under Franciscan custody. The Franciscan Superior for the Holy Land even retains the title “Guardian of Holy Mount Sion.” Various Ottoman rulers used this belief in a tomb of David here as the pretext for destruction of Christian structures and expulsions from the site, since they endorsed reverence for David as a prophet, but not the Christian beliefs associated with the place. Between 1948 and 1967 when this site was the closest approach that Jews could make to the Western Wall, their attachment to the legend of David’s Tomb deepened. The Franciscans still hold a valid title to the site, but ultimately, to no avail, because the Israeli government declines to enforce title. Religiously motivated vandalism of Franciscan sites closest to the Upper Room is not uncommon when the issue of regularizing the control and use of the site for Christian worship comes up.

Over the centuries, the Franciscans on mount Zion/Sion have experienced several rounds of expulsion, partial destruction of the Crusader church, rebuilding, and expulsion. Following one expulsion, the church structure at the Cenacle was adapted into a mosque, but never fully used as one. And, a bird has an interesting story to tell about this.

In a corner of the small and essentially hollowed-out, partially restored shell of the Crusader Church, is a mihrab – an Islamic alcove indicating to the Muslim faithful the direction to face Mecca during prayer. The mihrab was built with pieces of the partially dismantled church’s ruins. The Muslim builders recycled a perfectly good stone pillar for use as a main support for the arched stone covering over the mihrab. The pillar, while beautifully carved, seemed suitable for their use because it appeared to them to lack Christian symbols. The carvings only depicted a pelican and its young. But these are one of the most ancient and distinctive Christian symbols of all, although very few Christians would recognize them as such today.

An ancient legend of the pelican was that the mother would pierce her breast with her beak to feed her young with her own blood and pieces of her own flesh. It’s obviously not literally true, but it had widespread acceptance in the realm of ancient folklore. The parallel with the Christian belief about Christ offering his own body and blood to feed his followers (John Chapter 6) is obvious. This symbol was adopted into Christianity by at least the 2nd century when it was mentioned in the Physiologu, a Christian adaptation of popular animal legends and symbols. One of the surviving expressions of this early Christian tradition of the pelican symbol is one of the verses of the beautiful hymn Adoro Te Devote”

Pie pellicane Iesu Domine,
Me immundum munda tuo Sanguine:
Cuius una stilla salvum facere
Totum mundum quit ab omni scelere.

There are a few translations into English that take strong poetic license in order to preserve the rhyme, but here is my attempt at a more literal rendering:

Blessed pelican Lord Jesus,
Immerse me in your blood to clean what is foul,
Of which one drop has the power to save,
The whole world of all its sin.

The legend of the pelican became popular in Christian art in the first centuries following the events in the Upper Room and was taken up by many later writers, including Shakespeare, especially when they wished to invoke a vaguely archaic past. In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet (written about 1600) modern readers unaware of the background of this legend may be confused when the character Laertes says:
"To his good friend thus wide, I'll ope my arms
And, like the kind, life-rendering pelican
Repast them with my blood."

The Essene district

It has long been known that the area of Mt Zion III (Mt. Sion) was the district occupied by a distinctive sect at the time of Jesus – it was the Essene Quarter. And the story of the Essenses offers an intriguing possibility to fill in a puzzle. The Essenes formed one of the three main philosophical sects of Judaism in the late Second Temple (early first century) time period, along with the Pharisaic movement, and the Sadducees (or Zadokites). The derivation of the word Essene (in Hebrew "Isiyim," in Greek "Essenoi") is not certain, but modern scholars increasingly accept its derivation from the Hebrew designation for "osey hatorah," (observers of torah). The Essenes had a communal and largely celibate way of life, and ritually immersed in water every morning. They generally ate together after prayer, were devoted to charitable works, and were somewhat secretive. These characteristics and their location suggest an explanation for an otherwise obscure passage in Christian scriptures.

When Jesus was preparing for his final period in Jerusalem, his disciples were looking for a place to observe the Passover Seder. Jesus confidently gave the following instruction, which seems sketchy in the extreme.
“He said to them, ‘Behold, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house which he enters,’ …” (Luke 22:10).

Cultural expectation plays a big role in the ability to see the information content here. The key word is “man.” Carrying water was an almost exclusively female task. Aside from a communal sect segregated by sex, when would you see a man doing the task? You wouldn’t. And if it were a cult that put great emphasis on the ritual of morning immersion, members would be going regularly to the main public source of water for Jerusalem, the pool of Siloam. So, the instructions Jesus gave were not so random after all – if you know the neighborhood.

Nearby is the Church of the Dormition of Mary. According to Catholic, Eastern and Oriential Orthodox Churches, the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus went asleep for the last time in her Earthly life on Mount Zion, and her body was spared the decay of death as she was taken up into Heaven together with her soul at the time of her death (the Assumption). The imposing structure of the Church of the Dormition was built under the sponsorship of Kaiser Wilhelm II just before WWI, on land that was given as a concession to an ally by the Ottoman rulers. Our Footprints group enters the basement and prays around an empty sarcophagus with a very lifelike statue of Mary in repose on the top. An Orthodox group quietly waits and then its members smoothly take our places as we leave.

Hinom Valley

The coaches thread their way along the winding streets between the wall of the Old City and the Valley of Hinnom (Ge Hinnom). Hinnom, along the western and southwestern portion of the walls of the Old City is one of the two principal valleys surrounding Jerusalem. In the Hebrew Bible, this was where followers of Caananite gods, such as Moloch sacrificed their children by fire. Even some Israelites followed the practice:

“He [Ahaz] even made molten images for the Ba'als; and he burned incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and burned his sons as an offering.” (2 Chronicles 28)

Eventually, these "abominations" made such an impression on the Israelites that they judged the valley fit only to be the garbage dump for Jerusalem. The name of the place for this smoky pile of refuse with its acrid pall and sinister past became the definitive metaphor for the hellfire of everlasting punishment, so that "Ge Hinnom" became Gehenna, the Biblical term for Hell:

"Where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” (Mark 9:44)

The coach winds along the twisting upper portion of the valley, and then leaves it along the top of a local ridge. Fortunately, then, our group can say that at least metaphorically we have been to hell and back.

Kibbutz Ramat Rachel

Kibbutz Ramat Rachel is situated on a hilltop overlooking the old City of Jerusalem, the Judean Hills beyond, even the Dead Sea on many days. The kibbutz is a unique Israeli form of collective or community living with a focus on self-sufficiency. It grew out of the Zionist Movement in the later 19th century – the conscious effort to gather Jews and settle on the land of Israel. This one was established in 1926 and has about 400, counting all of the members including children. Most kibbutz (plural kibbutzim) started out organized around agricultural activity, but a number have readily adopted some other main occupational or commercial pursuit. Ramat Rachel has strong horticultural roots but has capitalized on its scenic setting to operate a hotel, banquet hall, sports center, treatment facilities, educational centers. Our Footprints group has lunch in the kosher-certified cafeteria of the hotel.

The Kibbutz also operates Eyal's Farm, an ecological learning center named in memory of Eyal Yoel, who was born and raised there. He was killed in action as an I.D.F. reserve soldier in 2002. He loved animals and nature, and he planned to work in the field of environmental quality and nature preservation.

“The farm's staff raises and cares for a variety of domestic animals, tends a vegetable garden and fruit tree orchard, manufactures organic compost, and builds structures using environmentally friendly methods. The farm also conducts a range of activities for children and adults. It hosts classes of children with special needs, some of them wheelchair-restricted, …”

These same interests are reflected in the programs of our University of Alaska School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, and our Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station and its students. It seems that working with plants and animals and preserving nature are universal human impulses. Anybody who has the opportunity to live a full life pursuing them is fortunate indeed.

As usual for any attractive place for human living in Israel, the Ramat Rachel summit is a major archeological site. It is being actively worked by volunteers under the direction of researchers from Tel Aviv University and Heidelberg University in Germany. Kibbutz Ramat Rachel even operates a (paying) participatory archeological volunteer guest program. Work at the site has uncovered a series of ancient royal gardens, the first full-scale excavation of such a feature in the eastern Mediterranean that dates to before the time of Alexander the Great and Hellenistic influence.

The archeological site has features indicating times when royal decrees would be dispatched from the site. It is only two miles from the Old Town of Jerusalem. This suggests a kind of green retreat for periods of low-key royal administration in a garden setting. Some archeologists speculate that the site might have had a spiritual function as a location of peace, tranquility, and a link with nature. Much like it did for one dead Israeli soldier, and much like it does today.

Overlook of Jerusalem and salvation history

We load the coaches and head south of the old city, and arrive at the Armon Hanatziv Promenade. The name is Hebrew for "Commissioner’s Palace," and dates from the British Mandate. This linear park was constructed to provide a scenic overview, and it is a favorite because the view is so attractive and comprehensive. The cross currents of history don’t ease off even in such a simple, pleasant place. In the park to the east of the promenade is the Hill of Evil Counsel, where tradition from Byzantine times says the decision to arrest Jesus was made. Also according to tradition this is the spot where Abraham first saw Mount Moriah. Nearby is the aqueduct built by Herod to provide water for the Second Temple. The view eastward extends to mount Nebo in Jordan where Abraham first saw the Promised Land.

Steve Ray starts a rapid-fire narrative of the events of Biblical history. For more than 10 minutes he sequentially rattles off one crucial event after another, and points to the place it occurred, with only a few out of view. It’s a lesson in geography and history all at once. Rather than isolated, disconnected events, people, and places, it all flows in a way that the pages of a book cannot quite do. This integration of so much information that is so familiar to Christians has led Catholic archeologists and historians who work in the Holy Land to call the land itself “the Fifth Gospel.”

We share the park and green space with a group of young Israeli men and women of the same age as my undergraduate students at home, laughing and loosely listening to a lecture. Except they are all in military uniform and a number are overseeing weapons, as the pleasant afternoon unfolds. There is universal conscription of Jewish Israeli males (three years) and females (two years), except for the growing practice of exemptions, which is a very sore point. For those in the IDF, Sunday is a mandatory "culture day," and they are assigned to visit a museum, attend a concert, or hear a lecture or some such.

Ein Kerem

Our last stop of the day is Ein Kerem, one of the most picturesque suburban districts around the perimeter of Jerusalem. It is the local tradition from very early centuries AD that the village was the summer home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, and served as the birthplace of John the Baptist. During Elizabeth’s late-in-life pregnancy with John, she was visited by a family relative - Mary, who was pregnant at the time too, with Jesus. This incident is called the Visitation, and has been depicted in art frequently over the centuries.

Pictures of the village of Ein Kerem in the 1950s, perched on a steep slope, a few years following Israeli independence, show a stony, treeless slope with a few olive groves. During the 1948 war, Arab villagers evacuated while soldiers, foreign Arab military units, and local militia took up positions. In the end Jewish forces took the village. Little physical damage to the structures occurred, and as the new Israeli residents, a number of them displaced people, settled in, the area took on the character of an artistic colony and retreat from the adjacent urban zone of Jerusalem. A few medical education and research facilities were constructed along the ridges to the east, but the village stayed a quiet little place.

As the coaches turn off the main highway on to the secondary road and work toward the village we enter the head of a valley with nearly continuous forest cover and beautiful views down the valley. As we come around the first corner and encounter it for the first time there is an audible gasp from the pilgrims. It’s the greenest area we have been to in the hill country of Judea. The area has been transformed by an extensive and determined reforestation effort. Nestled into the trees in this quiet, peaceful setting at the beginning of the ridge above the secondary road is Yad Vashem, the memorial to the millions of Jews murdered during WWII in the effort to eliminate them as a people.

This place performs a kind of whiplash on a visitor. While the apparent scene, at face value, can be attractive and even appear tranquil, the story behind the scene can be tragic. People losing their homes and way of life, a people targeted for extinction, here are masked beneath a bucolic exterior.

Ein Karem is a pilgrimage site for a steady flow of Christian visitors in large numbers. The Church of the Visitation covers an ancient sanctuary built against a rock declivity. It is venerated as the "stone in which John was concealed," at the time that Herod the King ordered all male children less than 2 years old to be killed (Matthew 2: 16-18). Herod was an Edomite, and many of his Jewish subjects believed he had no right to sit on the Davidic throne. When the wise men (Magi) from the East announced their desire to offer gifts to the newborn king whose sign they had seen (Matthew 2: 1-12), Herod developed his plan to preserve his dynasty. He had the male children of Bethlehem and the surrounding area killed. Perhaps we could regard this brutal incident as an early type of whiplash – the joy of birth and new life, and the hope of a messiah, versus the cold and calculating murder of innocents by a squalid petty ruler.

“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children.” (Jeremiah 31:15)

Olive trees in the Kidron Valley

Ancient olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane

One of the oldest olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane. This tree is hollowed out in the center but continues to grow outward. It is quite conceivable that it is well over 1,000 years old.

A number of units of the Israeli Defense Force take their oath of service at the Western Wall, a ritual which goes back at least to the sacramentum, the ancient Roman military oath. Recruits for the IDF 55th Paratroop Brigade are sworn into service at the Western Wall, the very place where this unit fought a costly and successful battle in 1967 to place the site under jurisdiction of a Jewish state for the first time in over 1,800 years.

Prayer notes (kvitle) placed in cracks of the Western Wall.

Pelicans carved on a pillar used to support a mihrab – an Islamic alcove indicating to the Muslim faithful the direction to face Mecca. The pelican was an early Christian symbol for Christ, and the pillar was part of an early Church built to venerate the site as the place where the Upper Room or Cenacle once stood. The Israeli government seized control of the site in 1967. Christians are not allowed to pray here.

Edge of the village of Ein Kerem and its terraced slopes in the lower valley, with forest cover of Aleppo pine on the slopes above.

(Photos by Glenn Juday)

Previous posts in this series:

  • Holy Land: Tourism, security, and religion
  • Holy Land: Jerusalem
  • Holy Land: One pilgrim, one suitcase
  • Holy Land tour: Cana to Mt. Tabor
  • Holy Land tour marches on
  • Holy Land: On to Nazareth
  • SNRAS professor shares Holy Land pilgrimage
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