This morning we left the kibbutz and the Golan Heights heading to Capernaum. This was St. Peter's home. This ancient holy site is marked by a church; Mass was in progress so, strangely, we were not allowed to enter, but why the modern rocketship-looking church was built so closely over the remains of the 2000 year old structure below, making it dark and enclosed, diminishes its energy, its holiness. I wish the architect of this church had created a different, less heavy looking structure, and not a church that looks as if it could sit down and totally destroy the beautiful remains of where Jesus performed miracles. One has to peer underneath this monster building to see the site, a very unfortunate and caged-in setting.
But we are in holy land. Almost everywhere we go is where Jesus walked. The sanctity of this land belongs not only to Christians, but to Jews and Muslims as well. It is an amazing gift to be here, to walk this land and in a small way, touch its history. Some in our group grumbled about the massive tour groups here, but they are to be expected. We are also a part of them. To me they don't really take anything away from this experience as we live in this overcrowded, modern time, but I am very glad I don't have to park our bus between two other behemoths also bringing tourists to see and experience these places.
Afterwards, our group, already lucky enough in our travels, enjoyed taking a cruise across the Sea of Galilee, or Lake Kinneret, as it is also named. Such gorgeous days we are having here! Warm sunshine, perfect for being on water. The boats are built to look like the ones Jesus used, but much bigger than his was. I was wondering how seventeen of us plus the crew would fit on such a small boat; I guess I should have figured it out. In 1986 the remains of a boat from Jesus's time was discovered in the mud on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. This was not only an important archeological discovery, but its religious historical significance was immense. This could have been a "Jesus boat"! And that is what it is called. How this boat was recovered is a compelling story; you can google it to learn more if you are curious. The creative processes the scientists used had to be invented as they went along in their very careful reclamation of this ancient boat.
After lunch overlooking Lake Kinneret, and watching the Israeli airforce fly over as a part of today's celebration of their Independence Day, we drove to Yardenit to watch people being baptized or re-baptized in the River Jordan. No one in our group chose to do this, but I wanted to see a baptism in the river. Should you choose to come here and be baptized it costs only about $9 US, a bargain, but you'll also need to buy a filmy long white gown, which is not such a good deal. I did stick my feet in the cool water, enjoying relief from the 90+F heat, but when I felt a rather large fish biting my toe I quickly jumped out. I don't eat fish so they shouldn't eat me (yet), plus it was a less than pleasant surprise. I hope the people being baptized aren't distracted by fish biting their toes or other body parts.
Before entering Jerusalem we stopped at the top of Mount Scopus to view the magnificent vista, to learn a few of the numerous holy buildings we were seeing, and to follow the tradition of making a toast to our entering the city. Pomegranate wine is sickly sweet, but may be a part of this tradition, and it was 16% alcohol, so that helped it go down. We repeated Zvi's Hebrew blessing, only a few words of which I remembered from my two summers as a counselor at Birch Hill Camp, a Jewish camp in upstate New York. We non-Jewish counsellors would hang around outside the hall where the others met for services on Friday nights, listening (but not being invited in), curious, but all I remember is "Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha'Olam..." which means "Praised are You, the Eternal One our God, Ruler of the Cosmos...", an almost familiar beginning of a prayer that could be chanted in nearly any religion, any language. And now we are here, in holy Jerusalem.
The next day was another gorgeous, pure sun and blue sky day for us to begin our explorations of the City of David. We travelled through the tunnels underneath the Western Wall, picking our way over slippery rocks and still pools and puddles of water, holding onto muddy walls to maintain balance. Emerging into warm sunlight again felt wonderful, plus we were right at the Western or Wailing Wall. Two groups of people were singing and celebrating something; a Bar Mitzvah was being held in the far left men's corner. People were praying at the wall, the men separated from the women; there were many more women than there were men in their respective areas.
Hearing the history of Jerusalem is exciting and disturbing even though most of us are having trouble retaining it all, in any kind of order. Frequent repetition helps, as would written handouts, especially for visual learners as I am. The archeological sites seem vast; we gazed down at a dig that had recently been a parking lot. Zvi is certain there is much more to be found under this whole area. Seeing pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls became one of the highlights of this trip for me, not only for their historical significance, but to think of these being written so long ago, so painstakingly, showing the importance of humans' telling our stories, passing down the rules and experiences of our lives to others following us. I believe it is a part of the human condition to want to be remembered, to have something to leave behind. We were here. We existed. This is how we lived, what we believed, how we worshipped, what we loved. Whatever comes afterwards, the living might know and understand something of our existence, our education, our spirituality, our families, our art. What trusting gifts are left to the future!
This afternoon several of us went on an optional tour to Bethlehem, passing into Palestinian territory. Our guide here, as expected, was Palestinian, a very knowledgeable and pleasant man who gently and thoroughly shattered much of what we thought we knew about Jesus's birth. We learned the "birth to grave" significance of swaddling clothes, that the stable in which Mary gave birth was most likely a cave; we learned there was no wooden manger since there is a scarcity of wood in this part of the world. If Jesus was laid in a manger it was a large trough made of stone. It didn't seem as if any of the Christians in our group were upset by these revelations; standing in the environment here made these new understandings rather obvious.
The lines to see the actual place where Jesus was born were tremendously long, so the group, minus one other woman and me, voted not to wait. Travelling all the way to Bethlehem and not see where Jesus was born seemed insane to me, so I asked our guide how long the Church of the Nativity was open that day, and how the two of us could get back to our hotel on our own. We would wait in the lines to see where Jesus was born. Impossible, he said. He offered to take photos with her phone and my camera for us, but that was not at all what we wanted. But then as he was heading down the exit from the cave, with her phone and my camera in hand, he quickly beckoned for us to follow him down the stairs. We went. A guard yelled at me, but our guide explained something in Arabic, and so the two of us, out of our whole group, went down the exitway to see the birthplace of Jesus. Marked by a star on the ground, it was unassuming and plain, but we saw where Jesus first entered the world, and felt something akin to a benediction bestowed upon us.
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