Highs and Lows of Pilgrimage to the Holy Places

22nd November, 2012
Bethlehem, Herodion and Mt Zion

For all photos for 22nd November, click here to view them on my dropbox site. If you don’t have Dropbox, use this link to sign up and you and I will both get a bonus amount of free storage space.

Again I rose at 5:30am – real time – and finished uploading photos and blogging. Leaving time was 8am, and we were headed for Bethlehem.

We had a new guide for today, Ruby, a Palestinian Catholic. We went to Bethlehem along the Hebron road, heading first to neighbouring Beit Sahour, which is where the “Shepherds Fields” are located (Beit or Bayt Sahour actually means “place of the night watch”). Along the way, we caught our first glimpse of “The Wall”, in this case, a stretch of electrified fencing. We passed a demonstration along the way. The bus passed through the checkpoint without needing to stop (on our way back, we were boarded, but the guards simply walked through and said hullo before exiting out the back door of the bus).

The church at the Shepherds Fields is another one of those by Antonio Barluzzi, the same one who designed the Dominus Flevit and Church of All Nations. There was a mass taking place in there already so we were assigned a “cave” outside the church as our place to serve mass. The roof of the cave over the altar was very low, and Fr Bhin, who was celebrating, had to watch his head. We sang “O come all ye faithful” and “Silent night” during the mass. I tried to encourage the group to sing Richard Connolly’s response to his “Gloria”, but only some were inclined, most complained about it being in Latin, so I ditched the attempt. It would have been nice to sing a full throated “Gloria” in this location. The masses we are celebrating are very nice but I would like to be able sing a bit more. Most of the other pilgrim groups are singing at full voice wherever we go. Why are Australian Catholics so hesitant to raise their voices in song? At least at this mass, Fr Thin led us in singing the Lamb of God. I read the readings – they were those for midnight mass at Christmas. Most of the holy sites have votive masses for the place, which use might use once a year anywhere else. As another of the pilgrims commented, it is as if these places are stuck in a perpetual time warp, liturgically speaking.

Wherever we go, the English lectionary we are provided with is the American one using the NAB – and I now know why so many lf my American friends make such a fuss about it. It is a truly horrible translation. The reading from Isaiah 9, instead of “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” had “They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” I balked on “God-Hero” and read “Might God” from memory. Then in the Titus 2 passage which reads “waiting for the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ” (thus being one of those passages which, though ambiguous, may indicated the divinity of Christ), the NAB had “of the glory of the great God and of our savior Jesus Christ” removing any possible ambiguity, and the point of having this reading as the Christmas reading. Uh.

Just before the mass began, I received a text from Cathy, which prompted me to offer the mass especially for my family back home. During the intercessions, I prayed for the Jewish Christian Muslim Association, of which I am secretary, and at which exact moment was beginning its AGM back home. I prayed that the good relations between the three religions modelled by JCMA may spread to all the world, and especially to this land which so terribly needs it.

Afterwards, while looking over what once would have been the hills in which the shepherds were keeping watch over their sheep, I texted my daughter to say that I was praying for her. This is one of the great benefits of modern technology that we can stay in touch with our loved ones in such an immediate way while far apart. Later when I got back on the bus, I was talking to our driver, who called the Palestinian territories “The Siege”. It was, he said, like a big gaol – “you can’t leave or enter without someone else’s permission”.

We then went into Bethlehem proper to the Manger square and the Church of the Nativity (there is a mosque prominent on the other side of the square). There was a light sprinkle of rain as we were entering through the “Humility Door”, so called because of its very small size. The entry was once very large, but the Crusaders blocked it up to prevent the riding of horses (friendly or otherwise) into the Church. The present church is built upon an older Constantinian Church, and a clear feature is the columns which were original to the church built by Constantine and the mosaics of the original church under the more recent floor (which are covered by wooden panels which were open for viewing). We went immediately up to the entrance to the “cave” under the main sanctuary. There were not too many people in the church (something that we have noticed while travelling is the reduced number of tourists, probably due to the current national crisis) which meant we did not need to wait long. While waiting, I lighted three candles for my family. The traditional place of Jesus’ birth is marked by a star which can only be reached by bending low over the present covering. Next to it is another small shrine which marks the traditional place where the manger was located. After venerating the place of Jesus’ birth, and having my photo taken at the manger shrine, we went back up to the main church, and into the Catholic church adjoining the Orthodox church next door. Underneath this church is the grotto of St Jerome, who lived in Bethlehem when he was translating the Hebrew and Greek bible into the Latin Vulgate. There is also a shrine to the Holy Innocents down there.

After visiting the Church(es) of the Nativity, we were taken to a local souvenir shop to buy gifts for our friends and families. Unfortunately, most of the olive wood artifacts in this shop were either not the ones I was looking for, or too expensive for me. However, we were assured that only goods bought in Bethlehem were actually made there, so I bought some tiny pieces just so I had something from Bethlehem to bring home. Next to the shop was The Wall – and this time, it was the real McCoy. Huge concrete blocks towering over the shop and down the side lane, right outside residential homes. Our bus driver said to me: “Go down there and take a look”, so I walked down the lane where there were (besides a lot of graffiti on the theme of division and freedom) something called the “Wall Museum”, which consisted of large posters telling the story of Palestinian women’s experiences of the building of the wall and the consequences for their daily lives. It was a little like listening to the personal stories in the Yad Vashem museum. It is so sad that a people who were the victims of a great injustice should themselves be the cause of great injustice towards others.

We had a packed lunch from Notre Dame which we ate on the bus while driving up to the Herodion, the remains of one of Herod the Great’s palaces – and the one where he died and was buried. The palace was built on top of a huge artificial conical shaped mountain. It was only in this century that the palace on top was excavated, revealing quite a complex. In this complex (at least on this level – apparently it went up several floors and down even further into reaches not yet excavated. We went inside the “baths” which sports (for its roof) the oldest dome still standing in the world! The tomb itself no longer exists, but there was a model on the side of the hill on the way up to the top to give us an idea of what it looked like. The mountain fortress was used later by the Jewish rebels in both the 66-70AD war against the Romans, and again by the Bar Kochba rebels 70 years later. The excavations also uncovered a synagogue in the complex – certainly not from Herod’s time (he was not really what you would have called an “observant Jew”), but from the later time when used by the Jewish rebels. It was in fact Herod’s “triclinium”, ie. his dining room. A major feature of the excavations is the cistern water system constructed by Herod for the water supply to his palace, and which were extended further by the Bar Kochba rebels in the (vain) hope of using them to avoid capture by the Romans. We went down into these tunnels deep into the mountain, and came out on the side near where the tomb would have been, and where we could see the remains for Herod’s private theatre (the “home theatre system” of the first century AD!).

On the way back to Jerusalem, we passed the recently excavated foundations of a five sided church, known as the “Kathismos”, the place where Mary traditionally rested on her way to Bethlehem (“Kathismos” means “sitting”). I simply make a note of it here as I want to look up more information on it when I get home. I have found that one of the most fascinating aspects of this trip has been the Byzantine history and churches between the Roman and the Islamic period. That could be another whole study tour…

Also on the way home, we passed by the valley on the outside of the Old City of Jerusalem known as “Gehenna” in Jesus time – “Hell” in most translations of the Gospels. This was used as the municipal dump in the 1st Century, and is associated in tradition as the place where the original pre-Israelite inhabitants of Jerusalem performed the sacrifice of their children to Molech in a fire. Hell does exist, and I have the photos to prove it! I also noted a stairway going down into the valley, and wondered if this might be “the Stairway to Hell”…

A number of my fellow pilgrims wanted to do an evening walk to the Cenacle, that is, to the place where the “Upper Room” was traditionally situated. The original “Upper Room” does not exist anymore, of course, but there is good reason to think that the room which goes by the name of the “Cenaculum” is on the same spot. This location has many points of significance for the Church: it is where Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, where he appeared to his disciples on Easter Sunday, and where the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the disciples. In so many ways, it is the birthplace of the Church. So it should have been a great big spiritual experience to be there, yes? Well, no, really.

The walk there was fun – I hadn’t been out much in this city yet, and it was good to get my feet on the earth and in the streets. I was using my iPhone GPS with downloaded maps, which worked very well for us to find where we wanted to go. We headed from Notre Dame (near New Gate) down to the Jaffa Gate, along the outside of the walls. Along the way I was approached by one of the Orthodox Jews, who wanted to know where I was from (a blessing was giving) and how many children I had (more blessings) and then how much I was going to give “to the poor of Jerusalem”. Okay, 10 shekels is worth a blessing, I thought (about $3 bucks). I caught up with the rest of the walking group, as we rushed toward our destination – closing time for the Cenacle was 5pm, and it was nearing that time.

We asked for directions several times, and were helpfully put on the right path. The final bloke we asked said, “I will show you – how many in your group?” As soon as he started organising us, I thought, hullo, we’ve gained ourselves a guide and he will want to be paid. I warned the rest, and resolved to give him 10 shekels at the end of our “tour”. “You want to see King David’s tomb?” No, we want to see the Cenacle. “After King David’s tomb?” No, now. “It is closing.” Yes, that is why we ant to go there now. So, he took us up to the room. It is a handsome room, and even though it did not exist in the time of Jesus, you could imagine all the stories happening there. One thing I didn’t expect was to find a michrab in the room (the traditional decorated cavity in the wall of a mosque that faces Mecca). Had this room been used as a mosque? “Yes, until 1948”, said our guide. He took a group photograph of us for us, and then we said thank you and I gave him 10 shekels. But he tried to touch everyone else in the group for 10 shekels each too. That wasn’t on. Some gave him the money just to get rid of him. Afterwards a Jewish gentleman said to me: “How much did you give that man?” 10 Shekels, said I. “Good”, he replied. I didn’t tell him that he got more out of the others.

Well, having been touched for money a couple of times tonight, I thought nothing of the third time. We went down below to the traditional “Tomb of David”, where many Jewish men were praying. I went inside and stood there for a while. This is one site that the archeologists and historians tell us could not possibly be correct, but tradition makes up for a lot, and it was something to be in the place where the people believe my namesake is buried. On the way out – you guessed it – another 10 shekels into the hand of the attending youth.

After this, I thought it would be a relief to get into the Church of the Dormition – built by the same German Kaiser who built the Lutheran Church on the Mount of Olives. This, however, is a Catholic Church (natuerlich) – the Kaiser must have been quite an ecumenical chappy. Down in the Crypt of this church is a representation of the Tomb of the Virgin. It is a very peaceful place, and I decided straight away to light my customary 3 candles for my family. I put my money in the slot and went to pick up the three candles from the table, and some little old bloke was there, a) insisting that I give him money, and b) that I could only have one candle. I told him quite firmly he wasn’t getting any money – I had already put my coin in the box, and that I was lighting three, not one candle. After a bit of a scuffle, I wrenched the three candles out of the box, and lighted them and placed them in the stands, and began to pray. Then the little blighter started blowing my candles out and picking them out of the stand. No, stop that, I argued, and grabbed the candles back and relighted them. Then he started becoming quite vocal. Fr Ian behind me said “David!”, and very reluctantly, I gave up the fight. Fuming (and not at all in a state of mind for prayer, I stormed off around the corner, where I discovered another bank of candles burning. Here again I placed in my coin and lighted another three candles. Unmolested, I completed my prayers for my family, when I noticed a prayer book inviting people to write their petitions down and assuring them that their prayers will be included at Mass the next day. I took the opportunity to ask for prayers for the Jewish Muslim Christian Association of Australia. Let them puzzle that one out, I thought.

Finally then, I walked home with Geoff. The streets were now all lit up, which gave me an opportunity to take some rather nice pictures of Jerusalem at night. When we got back, I settled down out on the terrace to smoke and write up my blog and upload photos. Geoff joined me and shouted me a beer, and we had a long talk about historical matters.

Dinner was at 7pm (not so busy here now, with only one other pilgrimage group in the dining room). Afterwards, I did a little more writing and uploading pictures, before heading to bed at 9pm. We have an early start at Holy Sepulchre at 5:15am…

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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