Bishop Brian Dunn led 35 pilgrims on a journey through the Holy Land
Sept. 1-12, 2019
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As pilgrims we all journey together, whether here or there. We welcome you.
Our Journey At a Glance
Sept. 1: Toronto to Tel Aviv
Sept. 2: Arrival in Tel Aviv
Sept. 12 - On our way home!
Lord Jesus Christ you were a pilgrim in this Holy Land.
Now you lead and guide us on our pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem.
As we follow in your steps, we ask the grace to keep our eyes on you.
Open our hearts that we may find you not only in ancient stones, but in your people and in each other.
Let your words be a fire burning wihin us.
Write your Gospel upon our hearts.
Give us a spirit of prayer lest we return full of facts but not of grace and love.
Lord, teach us to pray in the very land where you taught your disciples so that we may say:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgie us our trespasses, as we forgivethose who trespass against us, and deliver us from evil.
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Pray for our Pilgrims:
Bishop Brian Dunn, Diocese of Antigonish/Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth
Departure - September 1
Prayer for our Diocese today:
Travel: Left Halifax at 3 pm for Toronto, then overnight flight to Tel Aviv
Arrival in Tel Aviv
Prayer for our Diocese today:
On board our bus we were each given a map, a rosary, and a portable wireless audio system so we could hear Tony and his fascinating narrative from any distance: tools both ancient and modern to keep us connected to the journey and our faith.
After a brief rest and expansive dinner we gathered in a conference room to introduce ourselves, sing, and listen to Bishop Dunn: where we could not visit Jaffa, he brought Jaffa to us, explaining how this once-famous seaport represented a turning point in the early church. Jonah as a ‘runaway prophet’, doing the opposite of what God wanted, headed to Jaffa before launching for a route in the opposite direction of Ninevah. It was also in Jaffa that Peter realized doing God’s work would save not only the Jews, but all people. We are too often like Jonah, tempted to run the other way when God calls. As a pilgrim we become more like Peter, discovering something new about Jesus as we reflect on these holy sites and on ourselves. We are called to explore the places where Jesus walked, ministered, died and was resurrected, but need also to explore what we need, then find the words to express those needs so the Lord can respond.
That inner exploration can be more uncomfortable than being folded for 10 hours into an airplane seat, and as rigorous as the travel day has been, the days ahead hold much more. But that is why we are here, and how we will discover deep within the knowledge and words we are called to seek, find, and share. There will be heat, much walking, great dryness, and lengthy days. And we cannot wait.
Day 2 - September 3
Prayer for our Diocese today:
While our group may be 35, we are a drop in the sea of pilgrims who come to Israel on any given week, incuding this one. In fact, Tony our guide tells us the pilgrimage industry is the 4th largest source of Israel’s income, behind Information Technology (3rd) and metal manufacturing (2nd). Israel’s top income generator? Diamonds. There are no diamond mines in Israel – the raw gems come from South Africa. What Israel possesses are the finest diamond cutters and polishers in the world. Israel is also a leader in waste and wastewater recycling, burning garbage to generate electricity and recycling sewage into fertilizer and water for irrigation. With 40% of its land as desert, Israel has made agriculture its 5th top moneymaker. When geography gave it arid climate and rocks, Israel continues to make money, from enterprises historical, religious, traditional and brand new.
Historically, the sea and land trading routes charted its evolution, similar to our own country. Canada was charted and settled by Europeans seeking sea routes to Asia and profiting from the exports of furs, fish and lumber. In Biblical times, the Via Maris connected 10 Roman cities in the Middle East to Africa. Driving upon it today, we find Caesarea, the port city from which St. Paul sailed and where Herod the Great built his palace. The currency of today is water. Back in the day it was salt. Roman soldiers, we were told, were paid in cubes of salt. They could return to Rome and sell the salt for much more profit than if they were paid in coins.
The theatre of Caesarea not only still stands, it is still busy. A modern stage and lighting system glint within the sandstone walls and seating, a fusion of modern tech and ancient wisdom. The acoustics, with no help, are superb.
Beyond the theatre are remnants of the hippodrome where ancient gladiators battled for their lives and the dubious honour of doing it again in Rome. The worn but sturdy stones guarding centuries of stories are within a few feet of the Mediterranean Sea, among the most beautiful bodies of water in the world. It was not good enough for King Herod, who insisted that his new palace contain a massive freshwater pool. It was a feat of engineering, but may have also been the cause of Herod’s demise. Tiles covering the floor around the pool were lead-lined. Constant exposure to lead in the water could have caused the dementia and slow death that claimed this king of the Jews.
Our next stop is Haifa. Where Mount Carmel falls into the sea, we celebrate Mass at Stella Maris.
The monastery contains a shrine with the cave in which Elijah took refuge.
We then ascended Mount Carmel to Megiddo. It was here that Elijah gathered the false prophets to discredit them. From the monastery is a stunning panoramic view of the Plains of Armageddon, where Elijah drove the prophets to be killed. The river still flows, but as a tiny stream that requires careful search as our bus rides by on the highway.
Our final stop for the day is Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, where we will make our home for the next three nights. After only two full days in the country, it strangely feels like home. Tony our guide greeted us with a Welcome Home, as home is not where you are born, but what you believe in. With each moment, a buffet of awesome proportions.
Day 3 - September 4
Prayer for our Diocese today:
Boats plied the water beside us, in front of us and like ours, were filled to their gunnels with people. Be fishers of men, Jesus asked his disciples, and these modern-day ferrymen continue to deliver, providing safe and smooth passage across one of the Bible’s most famous landmarks.
Many places in the world can relate to the life-giving qualities of a freshwater sea: the beauty, nature, livelihoods and climate that it provides and provides for. In a desert land, the Sea of Galilee was, and is, that much more revered, for its symbolism as well as its presence. Viewed from above, it is shaped as a heart. It could also be seen as shaped as a pregnant woman. With the Jordan River that meanders from it through the desert to the Dead Sea, it is also seen as the symbol of Christ’s birth, the major waterways in Israel offering a symbolic map of Jesus’ life. Today the sea bears us back in time and forward to sites of Jesus’ teaching and miracles, and in such tranquility it is hard to imagine the sea in a storm. Yet the boatmen tell of vicious squalls with five-metre waves dashing boats to bits, surviving only by deep faith. A symbol of our lives, relaxing in the calm seas and weathering the storms, with faith as our guide. We celebrate with a dance - Christians dancing to Hava Nagila without hurting themselves or capsizing the boat. A gift in itself.
The storm came as the flurry of appointments, stops and visits that was our schedule for the rest of the day. It was as if revisiting the everyday life of Jesus and his disciples the day became a mirror for our own busy lives we thought we had left behind.
Our first stop was Church of Seven Springs, built upon the site of the miracles of the loaves and fishes. A construction fence marks an area off limits and under repair following an act of violence by a random extremist, and stands as a testament to the power of faith and love. The damage was limited to an outer area of the church which meant the shrine and its intricate mosaic floor were unharmed, a floor that took a devout artisan (one who gifted the floor to the church) an estimated 15-20 years to complete.
We celebrate Mass at the Mount of the Beatitudes, in an outdoor chapel where greenery served as walls, the valley below our stained glass window. Birds chirped as we sang our opening hymn and as we finished, we noticed a family of three standing near the entrance. Bishop Dunn invited them to join us, assuring them “You all are welcome here.” They seemed a bit surprised, then grateful as they politely declined and moved on.
Lunch offered the option of St. Peters fish, a lake fish with sweet white flesh, pleasant if you didn’t look it in the eye while dining. Some plunged into the experience of eating what Peter and his brothers would have caught and eaten. Others opted for chicken.
Our final stop was Capernaum, the historic remains of the town where Jesus was raised. Archeology has unearthed pieces of the seaside village that was also home to Joseph’s family and Peter, who lived with his wife and her mother. A stroll through the ruins was to imagine Jesus playing in the streets while his mother made supper, sitting in synagogue as he earned his Father’s word, wielding a hammer under Joseph’s watchful eye, the olive harvesters working dawn to dusk as donkeys powered the stone presses to make oil. For some pilgrims, the final stop in the high heat of a busy day meant a shortened visit and the need for rest. But even then, one pilgrim seated at a shaded table soon became two, then four, then more. A pilgrim’s journey is personal, but a pilgrim never journeys alone. Hours later, as pilgrims discussed what the day meant to them and how they were being called, the morning boat ride across the Galilee became not only a favourite memory, but a lasting touchstone of peace in the chaos of a busy day, an oasis to give respite tonight and a fresh start to new discoveries tomorrow.
Day 4 - September 5
Prayer for our Diocese today:
To observe the original remnants of the town of Cana and the church is to reflect on the miracle story not only of what Jesus did, but why. The wedding feast was about to begin and there was no wine to serve the guests. This could bring great dishonour upon the host. The town gossips alone would be kept busy for years at this hapless family’s expense. So Mary quietly asked her son to do something about it. Jesus said it was not his time and argued he should do no such thing.
Yet, with no further words from Mary he did what she asked him to do. Jesus’ respect for his mother overflowed as the miracle wine itself.
Just as the joy overflowed in our little chapel where eight couples renewed their wedding vows in a ceremony performed by Bishop Brian Dunn. Cana is a reminder of the relationship between God and his mother, and between God and families.
In Nazareth, the largest Arab town in Israel, we find the largest concrete basilica: The Church of the Annunciation. This mammoth monument to Christianity is built upon the site of a modest family home, where the Archangel Gabriel appeared to the betrothed Mary informing her she was chosen to be the Mother of God, and where she gave her answer: Behold, I am the servant of the Lord: let it be to me according to your word.
The remains of where Mary lived is beneath the church and visible in a grotto on the lower level to and from which a procession for the noon Angelus, in Latin, takes place.
The multilevel church is topped by a tower resembling a lighthouse- a symbol of Jesus as light of the world. Concrete was chosen because it symbolized Israel and the strength of its love for Christ. Viewing it from the outside, with its concrete blocks and narrow windows, then inside with its many gates protecting rooms and artifacts from touch, it resembles not a church, but a fortress. Perhaps it has to, in a country where Christians are leaving due to lack of work or persecution, and where Christian children must attend expensive private school to be schooled in their faith, while public schools teach other faiths free of charge. It was near Nazareth that Jesus was dragged to the Cliff of Precipice and nearly thrown to his death for claiming to be the Messiah; he would eventually give up on sharing his message in Nazareth and move to Capernaum.
Yet on the Nazarene hilltop where the Church of the Annunciation gleams in the midday heat, there was no question of the devotion to Christianity of those who built the basilica, those who maintain it, and those who have travelled from nearly every continent to crane their necks at the light of the world, touch the engraved doors, admire the mosaics of Mary submitted by countries around the world, sit in the cooling embrace of its main chapel, and stand, transfixed, in front of a humble stone cavern where a young girl said the yes that echoes around the world to this day.
Mount Tabor stands alone, an upside-down teacup rising from the eastern Jezreel Valley – also known as the valley of Armageddon. It was at the top of this mountain that Jesus “was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.” Leading from the base of the mountain to the top is a steep thread of a road winding in corners too tight for tour buses to make. “It’s only 1 mile, maybe 1.5, maybe 2, everyone can make it, I’m sure,” Tony our tour guide offered casually. The afternoon was warm, made breezier by the collective sighs of relief from a group realizing he was kidding. Vans were ready (for those paying attention) to whisk pilgrims to the top, where the view, magnificent church and flowering gardens could be fully appreciated. See video on our Facebook page.
Our evening closed with a Rosary and reflection on Mary, including this from Pope Paul VI:
Finally, we wish to point out that our own time, no less than former times, is called upon to verify its knowledge of reality with the word of God, and, keeping to the matter at present under consideration, to compare its anthropological ideas and the problems springing therefrom with the figure of the Virgin Mary as presented by the Gospel. The reading of the divine Scriptures, carried out under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and with the discoveries of the human sciences and the different situations in the world today being taken into account, will help us to see how Mary can be considered a mirror of the expectations of the men and women of our time. Thus, the modern woman, anxious to participate with decision-making power in the affairs of the community, will contemplate with intimate joy Mary who, taken into dialogue with God, gives her active and responsible consent,(102) not to the solution of a contingent problem, but to that "event of world importance," as the Incarnation of the Word has been rightly called.(103) The modern woman will appreciate that Mary's choice of the state of virginity, which in God's plan prepared her for the mystery of the Incarnation, was not a rejection of any of the values of the married state but a courageous choice which she made in order to consecrate herself totally to the love of God. The modern woman will note with pleasant surprise that Mary of Nazareth, while completely devoted to the will of God, was far from being a timidly submissive woman or one whose piety was repellent to others; on the contrary, she was a woman who did not hesitate to proclaim that God vindicates the humble and the oppressed, and removes the powerful people of this world from their privileged positions (cf Lk. 1:51-53). The modern woman will recognize in Mary, who "stands out among the poor and humble of the Lord,"(104) a woman of strength, who experienced poverty and suffering, flight and exile (cf. Mt. 2:13-23). These are situations that cannot escape the attention of those who wish to support, with the Gospel spirit, the liberating energies of man and of society. And Mary will appear not as a Mother exclusively concerned with her own divine Son, but rather as a woman whose action helped to strengthen the apostolic community's faith in Christ (cf. Jn. 2:1-12), and whose maternal role was extended and became universal on Calvary.(105) These are but examples, but examples which show clearly that the figure of the Blessed Virgin does not disillusion any of the profound expectations of the men and women of our time but offers them the perfect model of the disciple of the Lord: the disciple who builds up the earthly and temporal city while being a diligent pilgrim towards the heavenly and eternal city; the disciple who works for that justice which sets free the oppressed and for that charity which assists the needy; but above all, the disciple who is the active witness of that love which builds up Christ in people's hearts. (Paul VI, Marialis Cultus, February 2, 1974, n. 37)
Day 5 - September 6
Prayer for our Diocese today:
To this point we have enjoyed the lush embrace of the Sea of Galilee.
It seems miraculous that anything can survive in soil and air so unforgiving. Yet it does. Date palms. Camels. And places like Jericho, the oldest city in the world. Jericho is in Palestine, taking us to our first checkpoint. We are warned to keep our cameras down, but otherwise all is smooth. No doubt months of paperwork went into our arrival before we arrived. Having a local bus driver doesn’t hurt, either.
We celebrate Mass at the Church of the Holy Shepherd, an oasis of concrete and greenery deftly fenced against the desert heat and religious strife. Its fence could not protect from the sounds of service from the nearby mosque, equipped as many are in this region with loudspeakers to broadcast for miles the songs and readings of their ritual celebrations. This one started midway through our prayers of the faithful and continued well into the Bishop’s homily, but neither reader nor shepherd gave ground. Each maintained their tone and intent, as we maintained our attention. It was a relief when the broadcast ended, and we could board our air-conditioned bus. For those who live and worship there, it never ends, the heat or the broadcasts designed to convert or repel. A sobering thought.
On our way out of town we see the sycamore tree upon which Zaccheus climbed to see who and what was causing such a stir. That a tree could live so long, in such dry and hot conditions, is beyond belief. That this particular tree held a man who witnessed the presence of Jesus is stunning. If only that tree could talk, or better still, we knew how to listen to it.
We wind our way to the Mount of Temptation, where Jesus spent 40 days in the desert resisting the doubts and tricks manifested by Satan. We rise to a plateau offering a clear view of the mountain, and numerous distractions from the hot and lengthy travel.
A camel ride for $5, a brief trot along the driveway but enough to instill tremendous respect for these clever beasts of the desert and the people who train and ride them for hours, days or months at a time. Fresh pomegranate juice, squeezed as you watch. A market laden with fresh dates and olive oil, fragrant herbs and silky footwear made of camel leather. In the mountain’s shadow we enjoy the blossoms of this arid land.
Winding down a tiny road in our comfortable bus (not on a camel), we are standing at the base of the mountain itself. As Scripture is read we breathe in the dry air, stare at the rocks and dust layering the jagged mountainside, visualize what it would be like to be here, without ice cream bars and water bottles and our hats and sunscreen, for weeks, alone but for our faith and the churning doubts planted within us. As we make haste for the cool safety of our bus two small children approach, hands out, eyes wide, drifting from person to person, begging. We are advised not to give them anything, as sending them home with money would encourage their parents to keep sending them out to beg, rather than sending them to school. Resist the temptation, in this moment sounding much easier than it feels.
We pass a checkpoint again to exit Palestine back to Israel as we seek the Jordan River. It is a recent agreement between Jordan and Israel that allows us to access the river this way. Prior to the agreement, the Israel side of the river was a buffer zone, heavily guarded, razed and riddled with land mines. Today, the area is a national park. Fences remain as lands are slowly defused and remediated; the former checkpoint station stands empty.
The baptismal areas on the banks where Jesus entered the water for his baptism are lined with those plunging into the mud-colored stream and those recording the event.
We make our way to the edge of a small amphitheatre, and as the Jordan flowed quietly in front of us, Bishop Dunn led us through the renewal of our own Baptismal vow, sprinkling us with water from the Jordan borne on the branch of a nearby bush. The drops of water feel so wonderfully cool in the intense heat of the afternoon; rather than evaporate, they penetrate to refresh soul as well as body.
For the rest of our journey, all roads lead to Jerusalem.
We cross into Palestine again, another smooth transition, and soon the city of Bethany arises from the rocky peaks in front of us. We were told it wasn’t busy because it was Friday – a holiday in preparation for the Sabbath at sundown – but the tiny streets remain crammed with cars and bikes driven by people who cared not that a large bus was bearing down on them. The driving, the sales people, even the heat itself has become more aggressive as we draw closer to Jerusalem. Generations of strife can manifest in many ways.
The path to the Church of St. Lazarus is a cooling trail of greens, purples and pinks, with trees overhead and gardens below forming a tunnel of tranquility from the rasping actions of downtown.
With new rising among the old, we wander to stand in front of an oval alcove lined with ancient bricks. The tomb from which Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead is behind those bricks, deep into the earth, but also deep into the property of the mosque next door. Unable to excavate further, the alcove stands as a testament to faith in the modern day, that the tomb remains a powerful symbol even when it cannot be seen. Again in the gardens, returning through the tunnel to the honking horns and barking vendors that lie in wait, there is a moment to pause: what dead within us might Jesus raise today? Faith, hope, passion, talent? A cool breath scented with new growth, to keep the question close to heart as on the steaming pavement buses battle for space and men insist on selling postcards to the weary.
Leaving Bethany, we get a clearer view of the wall separating Palestine from Israel. Israelis can enter Palestine fairly freely. Palestinians can leave only with special permission that can be very difficult to obtain. To come to such a land, why? Bethlehem is in Palestine, the birthplace of Christ and a city already less than 20% Christian. We as pilgrims are called to visit here. Those Christians who live here are called to stay, for all of our sakes. The evening air is heavy with the sound of car horns, fireworks, and broadcasts from the nearby mosque. It is a world anything but peaceful, yet in the midst of it all, just as it is in our hearts no matter the chaos in which we live, the Prince of Peace beams brightly. To stand where the shepherds stood, awestruck and hopeful, we pray will bring disparate worlds that much closer.
Day 6 - September 7
Prayer for our Diocese today:
We awoke in the City of David, where unto us was born a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.
A visit to Bethlehem Nativity Souvenirs, a Christian co-operative selling all manner of fine items: rare icons, jewellery, and everything from keychains to soup spoons made of olive wood, including these intricate pieces of art. This carving is by Zacharia, considered one of the best carvers of olive wood in Bethlehem. (See video of a piece up close on our Facebook page).
The picture held aloft was a gift from the co-op to Bishop Dunn.
At Shepherd’s Field, we entered the chapel where surrounded by murals inspired by Luke 2:8-11 we joined voices in The First Noel. By the second verse we had formed a heavenly choir in three-part harmony. There is no joy like singing of a beloved Christmas carol.
Shepherd’s Field is southeast of Bethlehem in Beit Sahur (Home of the Night Watchers). The fields below are still used for grazing sheep.
We celebrated Mass in ‘Cave Number 1’, one of several caves shepherds used to shelter their flocks for the night.
Then it was back to Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity. The oldest Christian church, it was commissioned by Constantine the Great in the year 330 in honour of his mother, Helena, atop the site of the stable where Jesus was born.
The original church was destroyed by fire in the 6th century, and the current basilica was built several years later. Today there is the Greek Orthodox church with the entrance to the grotto, and an adjoining Catholic church inside the basilica. Entrance is a tiny door abut 4 feet high, designed to keep out horses of enemy soldiers.
Lineups can be several hours to enter the grotto where Jesus was laid in the manger. Today, though, our wait is about an hour. Standing in line gave time to view the stunning artwork and icons in the Orthodox Church leading to the entrance of the grotto.
It also gave us time to hear more from Johnny, our tour guide for the day. Johnny was born in Bethlehem and has lived there all his life, among the 20 per cent of Christians struggling to live a life of peace in the City of David. As a resident of the West Bank he must have a special permit before he can leave the walled-in region of Palestine. He has been waiting nine years for his permit.
As we inch toward the grotto, the line narrows to a tiny doorway and 27 steps leading downward. Heat billows upward from the hundreds of visitors who have passed through the enclosed space on this warm day.
At the bottom, the space opens and to the left is the silver star marking the birthplace of Christ.
A moment is available to kneel and touch a finger or an object to be blessed to the points of the star. It is smooth, and surprisingly cool given the warmth of the room.
Then it is done, and there is a quick visit to the manger in a separate room to the left before exiting back into the church. The touch of a moment that will last a lifetime.
Beneath the Catholic church is the cave of St. Jerome, where he lived for 36 years. St. Jerome is known for translating the Bible into Latin and is the patron saint of translators, Biblical scholars, librarians, students and archeologists. His feast day is Sept. 30.
We cross the border for the final time from Palestine to Jerusalem, where we will spend the last five nights of our journey. This time in crossing the border, two young soldiers boarded the bus, armed with machine guns but taking only a quick look before waving us through. All was quiet, however, until we drove safely through and were on our way.
A small typed poster taped to a door inside the Church of the Nativity said: If you enter a tourist, you will leave a pilgrim. If you enter a pilgrim, you will leave as a holier person.
As we awaited our bus in the shade of a café, a rare moment of relaxation in a whirlwind week, the impact of touching a site so revered, so storied, so much a part of our culture has yet to be fully revealed. That we were different after emerging, that much is certain.
Day 7 - September 8
Prayer for our Diocese today:
We celebrated our first full week in the Holy Land with morning Mass on Mount Zion.
Prayers were offered for our diocesan intentions and for the safety of folks at home as Hurricane Dorian as it swept across Nova Scotia on the weekend. We have been following progress of the storm over the past couple of days and continue to send prayers to those who are without electricity or suffered property damage in the fierce wind and rain.
Then we headed deep into the desert. We think we know heat and dry spells where we come from? Nothing we live in compares to the baked mountains of rock and sand that tower over us reaching hundreds of miles wide and thousands of years deep into the culture of the peoples who lived and fought here and live here to this day.
The desert is both stalwart and sly. As the breeze lulls you into a sense of being cool, it sucks water through your skin without you noticing. It appears monotone and lifeless, until a moving dot on the horizon takes shape – a Bedouin traversing the mountain, a herd of goats, a sudden crop of flowers or trees that have sourced water and staked their claim.
We arrive at Masada National Park (model shown here), containing the ruins of Herod the Great’s palace – one so grand it remained unfinished at his death.
You can hike up the mountain. We took a cable car. Tony our guide assured us there are no vultures here, but best not to tempt them.
Following Herod’s death the mountaintop fortress was used as a base by Jewish independence fighters against the Romans, and was so effective it became the last holdout in the conflict. Under siege and about to be overrun by Roman soldiers, the zealots killed their families and then themselves to avoid being enslaved. An archeological dig discovered pottery shards with Hebrew numbers upon them: lots to decide who would kill the remaining fighters and then fall on his own sword.
As a Roman fortress the ruins tell another story of surviving in harsh climate and times. The bathhouse – what we would see as a luxury, the Romans saw as a necessity, comfort in the grip of an unrelenting duty. Soldiers required to stand watch for 12 -hour shifts would soon break down physically if not cared for by a hot room with massage, then a warm room to begin the cooling process, then the cooling bath room. Soldiers who are clean and ache-free work much harder and are less trouble.
These days, it is not death by Romans we risk by coming here but sunstroke and heat exhaustion. Shade and hydration are the only defences.
It is atop Masada that we glimpse the Dead Sea, winking at us as a turquoise ribbon on the arid horizon. But it is an invitation for which you must literally watch your back. The Dead Sea is fed by the Jordon River from the Sea of Galilee but has no outflow. The sea is located 400 metres below sea level (that’s down further than Cape Smokey rises … Cape Smokey being Nova Scotia’s tallest mountain at 340 metres.)
The Dead Sea is in fact dying, rings on its shoreline showing the drop in water level each year due to evaporation higher than replenishment.Eons of desert heat have turned the contained sea into a thick briny soup in which no creatures can live, and into which humans must enter carefully. But the Dead Sea supports major industries in salt production and cosmetics. Israel’s richest kibbutz (collective communities often self-supported by agriculture) turns Dead Sea mud and minerals into health and beauty products sold worldwide.
Just don’t dare get the water in your mouth. Or your eyes. Or submerge your face while swimming. In fact, don’t try to swim at all. Inch out far enough to sit and let the water float you. These are our instructions before entering the water. So many rules for water that from a distance is so beautiful to eyes aching for relief from the baked amber of the desert. But rules that we endeavoured to follow. Swims need to be short, no more than 15 minutes. Then it is back up several hills and sets of stairs to scrub thoroughly in the cool shower. Letting the sea water dry on your skin will leave irritating salt burns. Trying to take the unprocessed mud with you will work for about six hours, after which time the mud begins to break down into a pungent salty sulphury mess. Imagine the settlers in the time of Jesus, struggilng for days and weeks to cross the desert to see cooling waters that would only add misery to their hardship.
It’s no Maritime beach, but the Dead Sea is a rich symbol of desert harshness with a beauty and bounty all its own. It also gives new fullness and richness to the Living Water, and how very blessed we are to have that abundance in our lives.
Day 8 - September 9
Prayer for our Diocese today:
We begin on the Mount of Olives, in the Church of All Nations. In front of the Stone of Agony where Jesus shed tears of blood.
We encircled the Stone for Mass, and had the church completely to ourselves. It was a blessed start to what would prove to be a challenging day physically and emotionally. Two days ago we were in Bethlehem celebrating the birth of our Lord. Today, we will relive his last days on Earth, and gain a newfound appreciation of how physically fit Jesus must have been. We walk a fraction of his daily journey and are exhausted.
Next to the church is the Garden of Gethsemane. We could not go in, but could admire from a distance the 2,000-year-old olive trees, and imagine the moment of tranquility before the soldiers came.
We retraced the route of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
The road is narrow, steep, and slippery with stones worn smooth from generations of footsteps and vehicle traffic.
At the bottom are stunning views of Jerusalem, including the gold dome over the place where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac.
The Eastern Gate, also known as the Golden Gate, has been sealed since the 16th century. As this gate was closest to the temple, Jewish belief was that the Messiah would arrive through this gate. Sultan Suleiman feared losing his power if the Messiah were to arrive during his reign, so he ordered the gates sealed, as they have remained ever since. The gates are now in the Muslim quarter of the city, and a Muslim graveyard now rests in front.
Dominus Flevit (Latin for ‘the Lord wept’) is a church shaped like a teardrop, honouring the place where Jesus wept for Jerusalem.
Below it is the remains of an ossuary, where bones of the dead were stored. Empty vials were found near some bodies and tests revealed those vials to have contained tears. A custom of the day was for a woman to collect her tears as she awaits her one true love; once found she presents the vial to her intended, an intimate offering years in the making. Mary Magdalene washed the feet of the Jesus with her tears – it is understood now that it was her vial of tears, all that she had to give, and her most precious possession, used to wash dirt from a man's feet. It was an act of love that moved Jesus, and moves milliions to this day.
Pater Noster Church (Our Father in Latin) has tile inscriptions of the prayer in more than a hundred languages embedded in walls of the church and courtyard. The Our Father is not only a prayer: it is a gateway to many other prayers, beliefs, and deeper understanding to the faith. This prayer is so rich in layers of information and meaning, we were told it is possible to earn a doctorate degree studying only the Our Father.
The Room of the Last Supper was built by Crusaders in the 12th century, over the spot where Jesus shared a meal with his disciples before his arrest. Years later it was converted to a mosque.
It is again a Christian building, and contains a gift from Pope John Paul II: a bronze olive tree, with three branches representing the Holy Trinity, and both a grapevine and wheat chaff growing on it representing the body and blood of Christ given to the world.
Dormition Abbey is a Benedictine Monastery on the site of what the Orthodox tradition believes is the place where Mary died. The bell tower is thought to be a tribute to Kaiser Wilhelm, complete with his helmet and moustache.
Our final stop of the day was St. Peter’s Church in Gallicantu. The church is built upon the ruins of the house of Caiaphus, the head priest of Jerusalem. Jesus was brought here after his arrest and spent his last night on Earth being tortured by Roman soldiers while Peter denied he knew Christ, three times. The rooster is seen atop the church and heard at random across the grounds, crowing from a farm in the neighboring Armenian Quarter of the city. The church bell rings on the hour, three times.
Descending under the church we see remnants of the stables, with notches in the stone pillars at a height to tie horses and donkeys. Two notches are higher up and horizontal. Those were for tying human hands, suspending a body for torture. Animals were used to pull a body’s arms and legs each in a different direction to stretch joints out of their sockets. If you’ve ever popped a shoulder or knee out of its socket you have an idea of a fraction of the pain this torture would cause, except to say a man even of Jesus’ strength would scream in agony as his flesh tore under the stress. Peter, being held upstairs, would hear this. His own torture would be to go against the man he believed in and loved as a brother, to spare himself from the same cruel fate.
And there was more. For the night Jesus would have his hands bound and be suspended from the dungeon ceiling just high enough to almost, but not quite, touch the floor. Relief was that close but never available. He worked miracles throughout the land but not this night, not for himself. He would hang there, all night, while soldiers on guard stood on the ledge and pitched rocks at him through the window.
Above, in the modern church, is the remnants of the well through which Jesus would have been lowered to hang in the dungeon.
On the side of the well is a poster with the bound Jesus, his hands forming a heart. In all of his agony, he was still determined to love the world that had turned him in and turned away.
The Passion is read every Easter season. Good Friday was seen as the pinnacle of his suffering. Once we retraced the details of his last hours, it seems Good Friday was his relief. The Agony, beginning in the Garden was of the betrayal, torture and denial that came the night before.
The darker the sky, the brighter a star. Reliving and rethinking the torture of Jesus is uncomfortable, even paralyzing in its intensity and grief. But facing it, sitting with it, seeing the ropes and the rooms, brings a deeper darkness from which a clearer understanding emerges of the magnitude of Jesus’ sacrifice.
The rooster crows from his yard in the Armenian Quarter. No one denies the presence and knowledge of Jesus this time.
Day 9 - September 10
Prayer for our Diocese today:
It was an early morning visit to the Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem where Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth.
Mary lived here for three months, to help and learn from her older cousin about bearing and caring for a baby.
We welcomed our new tour guide Abraham, a Palestinian Christian living in Bethlehem. He explained Mary, like us, would have travelled to see Elizabeth here, away from the centre of town, because Elizabeth and her family would have been tending crops there. It may also have been to keep the older Elizabeth away from the town gossips as her pregnancy proceeded.
We celebrated Mass in an outdoor garden chapel.
The walk down the hill gave a view of the village, so green, and Jerusalem, amber on the hill.
In the heart of the village is the birthplace of John the Baptist.
The drive to and from Ein Karem offered views of trees we have not seen since leaving Canada. Many of the trees are not indigenous, and were planted by the British during the time Israel was a protected state, from 1917-1947. Trees were planted to reforest lands harvested by other countries for lumber. Israel to this day does not have a lumber industry, and the trees stand unharvested. Non-native trees offered the British a view like home but also cause problems. The pines as a defense turn the soil acidic, so no other plants can grow nearby. They also become very very dry in the arid climate, and each year cause forest fires from the slightest spark.
The road to Emmaus ended with the clang of a gate slamming shut and an irate friar stomping away. The sign did say Closed from 11 am – 2:30 pm. We arrived at 11, believing it closed at 11:30. Our tour guide, then our bus driver, tried to convince the Franciscan brother to let us in, but rules are rules. We moved on. When God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.
Yad Vashem. The Holocaust Museum. We were warned it may be disturbing. The most difficult part was having to absorb it all in an hour when it could easily take days. There were also no cameras permitted inside, so there are no photos to share, only snapshots in words:
- Anti-Semitic propaganda, depicting Jewish people as long-nosed serpents strangling the golden eagle of Germany.
- A child’s board game from the 1930s called Out with the Jews. The object of the game is to collect all six Jewish shopkeepers and send them back to Palestine
- Calipers used to measure head circumferences and nose dimensions to determine race
- A video in which a woman describing finding bodies in the street during the Ghetto lockdowns in Poland that trapped thousands of people without food or clean water. There were no rags to cover the bodies as was the custom, so newspapers were placed, with rocks on the top to keep the papers from blowing away
- A chess set made out of paper by a prisoner in a concentration camp
- Faces of Jewish refugee children peering through the porthole of the St. Louis as it sailed to Cuba but was then denied entry to that country as well as Canada and the United States.
- The twisted blackened chassis of a large truck, upon which bodies were piled at the camp and set fire
- The open grave, for the thousands of those who never had a proper burial
Seeing the Holocaust Museum the day after standing in the dungeon of the House of Caiaphus immersed us in two of the darkest times of human history. Encountering these horrors so closely brings insight; from insight comes a deeper understanding:
Pope Francis in his visit to Yad Vashem in 2014 offered this beautiful address:
The Israeli Museum offered a breathtaking model of the city in Biblical times. This outdoor model has been used as a set for several movies, as well as a teaching tool about where Jesus would have travelled, and what of that original city still exists today.
The Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept, is a bunker designed to withstand a nuclear attack. On display inside, in a special climate-controlled capsule, is a segment of the scroll retelling the story of Noah. No cameras were allowed in here, either.
Our day ended at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, more commonly known as the Wailing Wall. The temple built by King Herod in 20 BC was destroyed by the Romans in 70 BC; this wall remained standing and has since become the most religious site in the world for Jewish faith. Entry is through Dung Gate, so named because of its historical use by the non-Jewish rulers of the city as the garbage outlet.
A modern checkpoint akin to airport security gets you into the square – bags are x-rayed as their owners walk through a metal detector. Across the square is the modern brick Israeli police building. The wall itself has a brown metal fence running perpendicular at the centre (with a line of umbrellas to offer shade to those sitting in prayer.) Men go to the left side to pray, women to the right.
Those in prayer stand facing the wall, hands and foreheads pressed to the ancient stones. Crevices are crammed with envelopes and folded pieces of paper bearing prayer intentions in a range of languages.
On the way out, we see where Jesus banished the moneymakers from the temple. We also envision him teaching in the temple as a young teen when his frantic parents finally found him. Entering the city, he was a boy and would have been with his mother and the other women and children. After celebrating his bar mitzvah, he would have been a man and would have left with the other men. However, no parents are perfect, and Joseph may have assumed Jesus was still with his mother while Mary assumed he was exercising his right to travel with the men. Only when the two parents finally met up did they realize Jesus was gone. Ask any parent: those things happen in the course of family life. And in the end, all turns out as it is meant to be.
Day 10 - September 11
Prayer for our Diocese today:
Jerusalem retains its warmth in the dark, mellow as the blackened sky on the verge of dawn. It is 5:30 am and uneven stones are only felt and not seen at this hour. Steps are carefully but without slowness or complaint. In the past 10 days as we have crossed sea, desert, and teeming city streets in the Holy Land, the walk this morning is why we are here. The next hour will be an easy walk for our bodies in the cool and quiet streets., and the most challenging for our spirits.
Via Dolorosa – Way of Suffering – follows the path of Jesus as he carried the cross through the streets of Jerusalem to be crucified on Golgotha. We as pilgrims know the Way of the Cross from Scripture and the 14 icons on the walls of our churches. Today, transposing ancient history to modern landmarks, we begin at Lion’s Gate and will wind about a kilometre through the Old City to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built atop the sites of crucifixion, burial and resurrection.
We begin early to beat the crowds, for in a few hours, the places we will traverse in silence will be packed with vendors selling their wares, shoppers and tourists, and pilgrims, waves of those like ourselves called to this holiest of places to mourn the death of Jesus, rejoice at his Resurrection, ponder his sacrifice and learn how best to honour him in our hearts and in our world.
Already in the dark the occasional car inches by … muted cries of ‘car coming!’ pause our prayer as we dash to the sides, the car mirrors barely clearing bodies pushed for dear life against the damp unyielding walls.
The stones are soaked underfoot, ironic this morning when the feet of Jesus would have been hot and covered in dust. Hoses lying to the side and piles of garbage atop the drains witness the washing these streets get before the bazaar opens. Feral cats look up from their finds in the gutter and ignore the passing group. Ladies in veils push through us as we tread slowly upwards toward the next station, and the next. Breathing becomes laboured, sweat soaks through shirts, prayer becomes halting but never ceasing.
We emerge from the tiny darkened streets into a space open to air and full daylight.
The Stone of Unction, where the body of Jesus was prepared for burial, retains and shares a sweet balmy scent.
We inch upstairs over timeworn stones to Golgotha and the Chapel of Calvary.
The place of crucifixion is here.
We descend from the chapel to be seated in front of the Holy Sepulchre.
We celebrated Mass here. … at least, we think we did. The Mass was edited for time, much was sung in Latin and large sections were overpowered by the incredibly vocal Greek Orthodox Mass being celebrated in their chapel nearby.
Amid the chaos, there remained the beauty of sharing Eucharist in our hearts, among friends and fellow Christians, in the most holy place on Earth.
As soon as Mass ended we were herded behind metal gates to be first in line for when the tomb opened. The Sepulchre contains two chambers: the outer chamber, where the rock would have been, and the inner chamber, containing the stone upon which Christ’s body was laid for burial. There are no photographs permitted in the inner chamber. Both chambers are tiny and require stooping to inch in and out, four people at a time.
Lit only by a candle’s glow, there is but a moment to spend and a lifetime to absorb in a single touch of hand to rock that feels silken and warm, unlike the cool marble or the gritty sandstone found outside. Standing in line like livestock, having passed through a city in which only two citizens in 100 are Christian, there is time and space for the doubting questions that Christians are often asked or ask ourselves – is Jesus really the Son of God, is there a God, who are we meant to be and where do we fit in God’s plan… passing through the tiny doorway, palm to stone, all questions are stripped away. A man was killed. A man was killed horribly. That man chose to be killed horribly because he felt it was the best thing for all of the world. That man lives on. In this moment, there is simply peace in knowing a great gift was given to humanity, to each one of us. How we choose to honour, celebrate and share this gift can be defined and discerned and discussed for every other moment left on Earth.
There is a sense of closure as we leave for Jaffa Gate and a late breakfast at the hotel. Time spent this morning on Via Dolorosa and in the church was four hours. Time spent absorbing all we witnessed: immeasurable.
Day 11 - September 12
Prayer for our Diocese today:
We prepared today for leaving the land that in 12 short days has become both strange and familiar. Thoughts were of packing, traffic to the airport, receipts for customs declaration, and where to fit those last few souvenirs into the suitcase. Also weighing heavier were thoughts of home. The homes and communities of some of our pilgrims have been without power since Dorian roared across the province nearly a week before. Transition is always challenging, but for those facing a cleanup or uncertainty at home, the jolt from pilgrimage back to everyday life is particularly sharp.
Among the packing and driving and search for passports was opportunity for reflection, and for tidying up not only our suitcases but our itinerary as well.
Wednesday, Day 11, offered a morning of unmatched sorrow and joy, with the Via Dolorosa at sunrise and morning Mass at the Tomb of the Holy Sepulchre. The afternoon offered more historical context and a new modern view of our past week as pilgrims.
The Pool of Bethesda, seen here as an archeological find, inspired an imaginative view of the time when water flowed here and Jesus performed the healing miracle described in the Gospel of John.
The Church of St Anne, on the site of the home of Mary’s parents, Anne and Joachim, inspired a joyful singing of Immaculate Mary with its superb acoustics.
A visit to the Latin Patriarchate inspired a new perspective of pilgrimage as not just a journey benefiting the pilgrim, but of great benefit to the Holy Land as well. Money and awareness generated by pilgrimage tours inspires much-needed donations and support for Christians who now live as a tiny minority – 2% of the population of Israel is Christian - among the holiest sites in the world. During the visit, Bishop Dunn and Pilgrims met Wednesday with the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem. Bishop H.E. Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo, Vicar of Jerusalem, presented pilgrims with Pilgrim Certificates from the Israel Ministry of Tourism and expressed gratitude for the travel of pilgrims to the Holy Land. Bishop Dunn received a shell pin with the Jerusalem Cross, a symbol of pilgrims.
On Thursday morning, on our way to the airport, we made one last stop. This time, the Road to Emmaus was open.
Mass was celebrated in the Church of the Resurrection in St. Mary of the Resurrection Abbey. The abbey is built over a natural spring and the site of Emmaus. The village in which the abbey is located is now known as Abu Ghosh.
Had the abbey been open when we tried to visit a few days ago (or had the friar not slammed the gate on us), we would not have ended our time in Israel with this beautiful Mass, including a heartfelt homily from Fr Michel on God's love. The Lord truly does not close a door without opening another.
Following an 11 and a half hour flight from Tel Aviv to Toronto, the bittersweet goodbyes began. In Toronto we bid farewell to our pilgrims from the Diocese of London, Ontario, including our tour leaders George and Mary Catherine. A Nova Scotia pilgrim headed off to the west to continue her journey with a family visit. The rest of us crammed onto a night flight to Halifax and fanned out from there. More stories will come as the jet lag fades and memories soften to reflection of the intense 12 days spent in desert and sea, Israel and Palestine, birth and death, emptiness and resurrection.
It has been a tremendous honour and spiritual journey to be part of this pilgrimage, and to share it with all of you. Thank you to Bishop Brian Dunn for his vision in organizing this pilgrimage for the 175th Anniversary of our diocese and for his presence, wisdom and guidance throughout our pilgrimage. Thank you all for your prayers and prayer intentions, for following our journey at home and sharing our posts.
Please keep in touch! It seems we have not left the Holy Land, but created a new place within ourselves we can visit anytime. Sharing will keep the journey alive.
Jennifer Hatt, Communications Officer