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Published: October 10th 2017
It was different from the very beginning - extra boarding security, and justifiably so, at the El Al Airline counter in Toronto as we waited to board for an almost eleven-hour flight to Tel Aviv, Israel
. We must have been two of very few non-Jewish passengers on board and our flight was excellent, with attentive service from the flight attendants. We got our first surprise just as we began our descent into Israeli airspace when the young male flight attendant asked "Do you know that you will arrive at a very special time for Israel and that everything will be closed?"
In ignorance, we both showed surprise and inquired as to why. We had no idea when we selected our date of arrival that we would land at the time of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement for Jews and their most Holy of holidays. Tel Aviv
is not a city that is often in the news in North America so to some extent my degree of unfamiliarity would naturally be fairly high. As we circled the city several times and took our final approach, I was struck by the preponderance of modern apartment buildings and other construction, signaling the
desirability of living there for many Israelis, especially it being the capital with close proximity to the Mediterranean. I am told that Israelis love the beach. As the plane touched down, I felt an inner sense of belonging as if it was meant that I come to this land, as two teardrops spontaneously dripped down my tired cheeks. I can't explain this unexpected emotion.
We had specific instructions on how to get to the convent, which would be our home for the next three months - "Take the Nesher shuttle to the American Colony Hotel then get an Arab taxi to take you into the Muslim quarter of the Old City, as Israeli taxis are not allowed into the Muslim sector."
Having been dropped off, I waited on the sidewalk while Jeanette approached the hotel staff. Unfortunately, all drivers had already left and it would be impossible to get a taxi because Yom Kippur would soon commence. All traffic is prohibited by law from being on the road after six in the evening during that holiday. So, in a moment of mild but hastening trepidation, we stood on the sidewalk and contemplated our next decision. Suddenly, a taxi sped
around the corner and, in desperation, I immediately leaped onto the road and flagged it down. Stopping, the driver politely declined our request because he was not Arab. With increasing concern, I pleaded with him to call an Arab taxi for us which he promised to do then hurriedly sped away. After what appeared to be an eternity of waiting fueled by our building anxiety, the same taxi amazingly returned. With a smile, the driver told us that he felt very sorry about our dilemma and offered to take us to the nearest point to the Old City after which we could walk to the convent. He did so and dropped us off at the Lion's Gate entrance. His fare was very reasonable and we were most grateful, as we made our way past Israeli soldiers and headed up the narrow street dragging our suitcases behind us. I kept his telephone number in case I needed him in the future.
The reason I have spent this much time relating what happened to us is because we were both touched by his kindness and that incident, along with the welcome we received along the way to the convent by others
(one shopkeeper even offered to help us with our bags and take us to our destination) made us feel most welcome by both Israelis and Palestinians.
I returned a few days later to thank the shopkeeper whose name is Fadi and promised to accept his offer to have tea with him sometime.
Despite the debilitating effects of the jet-lag following about fifteen hours of total flying across nine time zones, we could not resist the invitation that very night, to attend Yom Kippur celebrations in a synagogue
, thirty minutes’ walk away through the narrow streets of the Old City. The smell of food, the sights and colours of merchandise on both sides of narrow pedestrianized roads were an amazing introduction to what will be our home for several months. And the ceremony! At the entrance, several Kippahs (or Yarmulkes)
were available for the men to wear and I respectfully donned one before taking my seat. Strangely we worked our way through the book from the back and tried to follow along to the magnificent singing of songs of atonement and praise to God. It mattered not that Hebrew was foreign to me but the melodious sounds of the sweet
voices most assuredly and appropriately brought thoughts of God close to the heart.
During the week, a visit to the Western Wall (wailing wall)
was surreal indeed and touching the remnants of King Solomon's Temple
, as I prayed, not to stone, but to the Almighty Himself, brought overwhelming feelings of closeness to God that is impossible to explain in English, the only language I know fluently. I am sure that Hebrew or Aramaic would be more expressive.
However, nothing is yet to reach the depth of personal and emotional feeling
that powerfully consumed the totality of my being as did my walking the Way of the Cross (commonly referred to as the Stations of the Cross)
during the week. Starting close by, we began our path along the Via Dolorosa
, the route that Jesus
took, carrying the heavy wooden cross, after been beaten mercilessly, to his crucifixion at a place called Golgotha
(which means the Place of the Skull). Led by Franciscan monks
, a large crowd followed as we made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
located on the spot that tradition accepts as the place that Jesus met His human exit, as well as Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb of the Saviour's resurrection.
(There continues to be dispute among archaeologists and theologians concerning the exact locations. Specifics follow in a subsequent blog)
. As bystanders, shopkeepers and others watch the Christians
and other curious visitors take the well-trodden path past them, I contemplated the impossible - knowing the agony and suffering He must have felt as the humankind He willingly gave His earthly life for, looked on, the powerful priests having released a notorious criminal in His stead. Yes, it all happened here in Jerusalem. Mel Gibson's cinematic portrayal of the gravity of His suffering in "The Passion of the Christ"
finally brought a semblance of reality to Hollywood's depiction of this world changing event.
Only a few meters down the street from our residence lies the excavated Baths of Bethesda
where multitudes of invalids came to bathe under the five roofed colonnades. It was here that Jesus healed a man who had been paralyzed for thirty-eight years. (John 5:2-9)
We visited the Garden of Gethsemane
just after closing time when a kind guard let us in. Looking at those 2,000 plus year old olive trees
was surreal, knowing that the Lord was betrayed
Gee about to enter Damascus Gate.
One of several gates we use to enter the Old City.
and arrested on that very soil. (Matthew 26:36). I plan to return and spend more time there in quiet contemplation.
In ending this first week in Jerusalem, I must express the great warmth and peace that I feel living here at the convent, surrounded by pilgrims from several parts of the world, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion, the Chemin Neuf Community, the Palestinian employees, both Christian and Muslim, as well as my fine fellow volunteers from Australia and Ghana. Everywhere we walk in this section, the warmth and good nature of the Palestinian people shines through.
Sitting at a sidewalk cafe, I watch as Orthodox Jews
, arrayed in traditional wear, scurry through the throngs of people, not ever appearing to make eye contact with anyone. I did engage one Orthodox gentleman at a store but with a friendly smile he indicated that he only spoke Hebrew. It is an inkling of the tensions that exist here in Jerusalem. Soldiers are everywhere, sometimes as many as ten or more located on the corner just a few meters from our residence. Perhaps somewhat intimidating for some visitors but especially so for the people who live inside the old city,
Walking the vicinity. Mount of Olives in the background
Lying at the bottom of the Mount lies the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested after betrayal by Judas Iscariot.
I believe, as fear and animosity so obviously taint an otherwise warm and friendly environment.
In this city, whether it is in the countless churches, mosques, synagogues and on the narrow streets of the Old City, prayer is perpetually heard. Our complex, the Ecce Homo Convent,
has been a place for pilgrims from around the world since 1860 and is built upon the place where the presentation of Jesus to Pontius Pilate and the crowning of thorns
is commemorated. Hence the name Ecce Homo ("Behold the Man"
). The Struthion cistern, the Lithostrotos and a Roman road below our building, date from the time of Herod (35BC), are visited by thousands.
A lovely Palestinian lady aptly summed up her city this way, "It is a city of prayer but not yet peace”, the word "yet" reflecting a deep sense of hope. Experiencing this Holy City is an episode of my life that I will forever savor.
And there is a lot more of Jerusalem and Israel that Jeanette and I plan to immerse ourselves in, wholeheartedly! So far, we are just scratching the surface, believe me.
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