Day 6 – Jerusalem’s Christian Sites
The night before I took a look at our list of places we were going to visit today, and my first thought was, “This will be a day about death.”
Entering through St. Stephen’s Gate (he was the first Christian martyr), following the Way of the Cross, the Garden Tomb, Calvary (where Jesus was crucified), and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (where Jesus was buried).
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Our day was about renewal. The hope that Christ’s resurrection brings to us is all about the renewal of life, spiritually and relationally. Not death.
We came in St. Stephen’s Gate, also known as the Lion Gate or the Sheep Gate. The church built almost immediately inside the gate “venerates” the place tradition says that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was born.
It was one of my favorite churches. High arches. All bedrock. Simple. And amazing acoustics. It’s called St. Anne’s Church, named for Mary’s mother, Anne.
Our first stop was just outside this church at the site of the Pool of Bethesda, and as Ariel was giving the history lesson, the echoing sound of voices singing lured me around the corner. I leaned against a building that was just across from the open door of the church, closed my eyes, and let myself be swept away by the sound, the words.
A holy moment.
After touring the church, we walked a bit further into the Muslim Quarter to the Antonia Fortress, which was a military barrack back in the day…like 19 BC. Herod the Great, “great” because of all his great building projects, like this one, the Temple Mount, the 2nd wall, and so many more.
This fortress is the first “station of the cross,” the place where Jesus was taken to trial to stand before Pilate.
Today the fortress is a convent that is built above the original remnants of the fortress. We were able to go below ground to see the parts and layers that were “Herodian” and see how other “civilizations” came along and built, literally, right on top of it.
Ariel explained that over the centuries soldiers of all kinds are trained for battle, then they WAIT for battle. The Roman soldiers in Jesus’ day were no different. They were highly trained, but with no war happening they had to be good at waiting.
Like us, Roman soldiers kept themselves entertained with games during those waiting times. “The Game of the Kings” was one such game. They carved their “game board” into the bedrock roads. Today we saw a couple.
It was an eerie feeling to realize we really were standing where those Roman soldiers who threw dice for Jesus’ clothes had stood, walked, waited…and taunted our Savior.
Afterwards, we walked through the Arab Market to hit a few of the other Stations of the Cross sites, hardly stopping because of the crowds in the market. It was the most fascinating atmosphere, that market. I just don’t know how well I can describe it. Very narrow alley-type streets packed with people from all over the world, so I heard languages all around me.
Lots of smells. Tons of colors. An overwhelming amount of products packed, no crammed, into every conceivable space…and some not so conceivable.
Oh, and then there are the shop keepers. Some followed us around trying to get us to buy something. One hilarious guy, Abraham, was selling recorders/flutes. He played the song Happy Birthday then told us it was his 46th birthday. We happily played along and wished him happy birthday. He was very good natured, and though he really wanted us to buy a flute, didn’t grimace when we said no, thank you.
Not all the salesmen were so kind. But none were mean or rude. Just less willing to let a possible sale get by.
If we hadn’t had Ariel leading the way, we’d have been LOST. Every narrow road had other narrow roads branching off of it. A labyrinth.
The next stop on our Way of the Cross, also known as the Via Dolorosa, was in the Christian Quarter. We had to get back on the bus to get there, getting dropped off at this funny little bus station just outside the Damascus Gate.
We wove around to a place called the Garden Tomb. It’s a relatively new site and one that’s a bit controversial. This site claims to have the tomb where Jesus had been buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s garden. But, of course, there’s already a church that has venerated the site of Christ’s Tomb, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Our sweet tour guide through the garden acknowledged the discrepancy and admitted that really no one ACTUALLY knows where Jesus was born. I loved the garden. It was a more peaceful, pastoral setting. I think my mind and body were ready for that.
It had beautiful gardens and a tomb that would be very much like the one Jesus was buried in, so I enjoyed getting a picture in my mind of what that would look like on the inside. But it looked nothing like I’d imagined on the outside.
Our guide had taken us to look at the possible site of Golgotha, also known as Gordon’s Calvary…the place where Jesus was crucified.
So. You won’t believe it, but “skull rock” (Golgotha means skull) was the rocky ridge at the entrance of THE BUS STATION. Strange. Odd. Out of place.
But in the 2000+ years since Jesus’ death, life has moved on. And somehow that piece of land was overlooked. So now pilgrims as us gaze upon it at a distance, trying to imagine it as Jesus saw it.
Is it really Golgotha? Can’t say for sure, but we could make out the 2 eyes and nose pretty clearly. The mouth would be under the street (of course).
It was hard to picture crosses for crucifixion among the honks and fumes. Not a very holy moment.
But when we had communion in that garden. That was holy.
Several couples in our group renewed their vows in that garden. That was holy too.
After lunch we made the journey, at last, through Jaffa Gate. We ASCENDED to the gate. So. Many. Steps.
We squeezed through more alleys and shops and people to suddenly find ourselves in the middle of an open area surrounded by walls and a HUGE church. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
I’d say the church, by far, had the most demonstrative Christians than any other place we’d visited. The Jews were demonstrative at the Wailing Wall. The Muslims on Temple Mount. But here, here we were with our fellow-believers.
And yet, it was so different. The first thing we saw after our eyes adjusted to the dimness of the great room were people on their hands and knees kissing a block of granite/marble.
Once Ariel was able to explain a few things, I began to understand a little more clearly. Tradition has it that the block of granite/marble was where Jesus’ body had been prepared for burial. It was a blessed, holy slab.
And Jesus’ believers wanted to touch it, pray over it, lay their belongings on it for blessing, kiss it.
It might have been foreign to me, but I understood why they were doing it. And it moved me.
Like the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, this church has MANY owners. Something like eight or nine denominations (as Catholic, Coptic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian) have rights and space in the church. So décor varied greatly from space to space.
We did go in this tomb as well. Oh-so different on the outside, but some similarities on the inside.
Everything was so ornate all around us that I had a hard time seeing the thing as a tomb, but one of our leaders was able to explain that the original church builders in the fourth century actually cut off the top of the hill to level it at the tomb and built the church around it.
I know it’s hard to picture. It’s hard to describe. But it’s there, and millions of believers visit it because it represents so much of our faith.
So don’t forget. Our faith is not about death. It’s about life. Jesus conquered death! And through Him we are made new. Re-newed. As our pastor said today, “His tomb becomes our womb for new life!”
I was so sad for the day to come to an end. I hated to leave this city I’ve fallen in love with, so I was thrilled when four of my friends wanted to stay longer.
Wanna know what we did?
We walked ON the wall of Jerusalem!
Yup. You heard me right. Near the Jaffa Gate, we went up a spiral staircase to the top of the wall and walked all the way around to the Zion Gate. We felt like we’d walked halfway around the walled city. In actuality, we didn’t even walk an eighth of it.
But that just didn’t matter. The views were breath-taking, and we had plenty of laugh-out-loud moments that we’ll take with us forever.
We ended where we began. At Temple Mount, at the Wailing Wall.
Tonight was the Jewish Sabbath, so we stuck out among all the formally dressed Jewish faithfuls, but we got to pray one last time at this overwhelmingly holy site. More than anything I felt thankful…on so many levels.
I’m thankful to get to share our experiences with you!
Tune in tomorrow. We journey to the lowest place on earth – the Dead Sea.