The final visit

The final day of the pilgrimage dawned. We had to be up and off early because there was still one place to visit. If you have been following this blog you may remember that we were unable to visit Sepphoris as had been planned the other day. When we had arrived there there was no electricity, there had been a local power failure. So, with a sense of deja vu we retraced our steps, this time with all our luggage with us.

I’d never been to this ancient site before, but I had heard a lot about it. It was a significant Greco-Roman city which, following the Jewish Revolt became an important place for the continuation of Judaism. It was here that the Talmud was formalised as a text rather than being an oral tradition.

Walking the ancient streets of Sepphoris

But there are also associations with Jesus. Tradition has it that the parents of Mary, Anna and Joachim lived here. Even more importantly, given that the city was a major building site when Jesus was growing up, and given that it is only 4 miles outside Nazareth where he was living with his family who were in the building industry, there is every likelihood that Jospeh and Jesus worked here.

It is amazing to think about this as you walk around. He would have known these streets, he would have become familiar with this melting pot of cultures. There are Roman bath houses, grand villas with amazing mosaic floors, a huge meeting hall and a beautiful synagogue. Yet even the synagogue has the most elaborate mosaic floor with depictions of people as well as animals and plants. In the middle of the floor are the twelve signs of the zodiac and at the centre of that a depiction of the Sun God, Helios! That work dates from after the time of Jesus but there must have been something of this openness and diversity in the air.

Helios at the centre of the zodiac in the synogogue

There is a great amphitheatre. Was it here that Jesus learnt about the word and concept of ‘hypocrite’? He used the term often enough when he was challenging those in authority. Was it here that the small-town boy learnt about the big world beyond? It is great to speculate in this place.

One of the wonders of the archaeological remains is the image of the ‘Mona Lisa of Galilee’ as people call her. Her face is in the beautiful mosaic floor of a domestic dwelling. It is hard to believe that the delicacy of the images is achieved by the technique of mosaic! And the sophistication! The ‘carpet’ is designed with blank spaces on three sides for the sofas – there are even marks to indicate where the furniture should be placed. This is more Beverley Hills than ancient Israel.

The ‘Mona Lisa of Galilee’

In the synogogue we read from St Matthew’s Gospel.

Jesus came to his home town and began to teach the people in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?’ (Matthew 13.54-56)

They knew he he was, they knew he was in the building trade. So where did he get all of this wisdom? Well, perhaps some of it was from Sepphoris.

It was a good place to end this pilgrimage. We have seen so much and so much that was new and fresh to us. It has given me a great deal to think about. So perhaps, after a day or two, there will be one more blog!

Lord, teach us to view our life as a pilgrim journey. Bless us as we continue to travel. Amen.

Via Maris

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.’
(Matthew 4.12-16)

The Road by the Sea, the Way of the Sea, Via Maris, has been the focus of our final full day of our pilgrimage in the Holy Land. This is the heart of the mission and ministry of Jesus in the years before he sets his face towards Jerusalem. If you have been following our journey you will know that we have been visiting places less often visited by pilgrims. Today has been a great example of that and we have really benefited from doing this. All of us have had new experiences that will live with us for a long time.

For the last few years pilgrims leaving Tiberias and driving north alongside the lake will have seen a huge archaeological site and then building site at ancient Magdala. This is where we began our day. Those developing the site discovered, as they dug, the remains of a synagogue from the time of Jesus. They have also discovered a complex of homes and places where fish was smoked and prepared for sale. This is all now there for people to see. But at the heart of what has been built is a wonderful church called ‘Duc in Altum’ which means ‘put out into the deep’, the instruction given by Jesus to his new disciples.

We celebrated the Eucharist in the Encounter Chapel

As you enter the church the narthex is supported by eight pillars, seven of which are inscribed with the names of women who followed Jesus, women like Susana and Joanna, Mary and Martha, Salome. The space is called the ‘Women’s Atrium’ and it is wonderful. The eighth pillar is for you, if you are a woman and a disciple, it is described as the pillar ‘for women of all time who followed and supported Jesus’. It is an inspired idea, putting women at the front and heart of what this church stands for. We celebrated the Eucharist in the crypt, in the ‘Encounter Chapel’. It is another wonderful space and it is great that the church has been built in a way that accommodates worship by pilgrims other than from the Roman Catholic Church.

Our Eucharist was in celebration of Mary Magdalene and we thought about the statue of Mary Magdalene in the Great Screen at Southwark Cathedral, the one person not looking at us but gazing at her Lord. We also remembered our ministry in the Crossbones Graveyard and all that that represents.

The remains of Magdala

It really is a wonderful place and soon the pilgrim house will be open, ready to receive guests.

From there we went to Capernaum but not the usual site. Instead we drove past the Franciscan sanctuary with it’s ‘lunar module’ church over St Peter’s House and went to the Greek Orthodox Church. This is the one with the pink domes that pilgrims see from the other site. It is beautiful and we were the only pilgrims there. As we passed the usual sites they were full of coaches, wonderful but not a peaceful experience. The frescos in the church we visited are stunning, depicting events from the gospels that happened in the area. Then we went down to the edge of the water and looked across the lake. The weather was perfect.

The beautiful Greek Orthodox Church of the Twelve Apostles

After that visit we boarded a boat and sailed to the kibbutz at En Gev. The water was like a millpond. The engines of the boat were turned off. We read and sang and then kept silence together. I have never experienced peace like it, deep peace.

After lunch we went to two sites that were new to me. The first was called Kursi and is the location of Gadara where Jesus cast the demons out of two people into a herd of swine. There is a great deal that remains of the Byzantine church that stood there, lovely mosaic floors, a baptistery, the apsidal east end and a stone half way up the hill behind that marks the place of the miracle.

The remains of the church at Gadara

Finally, we went to the archaeological site of Bethsaida. This was the home of Philip, Andrew and Peter; a quarter of the number of the apostles came from this one town. Now there are the remains of homes, the city walls and gates, the Main Street, all set on the top of a hill overlooking the sea. Like Magdala and Capernaum this was also a town on the Via Maris, one of the great trading routes at the time of Jesus. People of all kinds passed this way and it was from these people that Jesus called his disciples. Again, we were the only pilgrims visiting these remains.

The Main Street of Bethsaida

Finding a bit of peace on busy pilgrim routes is not easy but God has richly blessed us today, and blessed us in thinking about some of our sisters and brothers in the faith who have travelled this path before us – Mary, Philip, Andrew, Peter, the Centurion with the sick slave, the demoniacs, forever named after their mental disturbance, the citizens of these towns, whose names are not known to us and yet who were known to Jesus.

But in our final visit we remembered a painful truth.

Then Jesus began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on the day of judgement it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum,
will you be exalted to heaven?
No, you will be brought down to Hades.
For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgement it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.’
(Matthew 11.20-24)

These were cursed cities. Even though Jesus had lived with them, taught them, healed them, fed them, they rejected him. He shook the dust the towns off his feet and moved on. Ministry can be tough, it was for him, so why are we surprised when it can be hard going for us as walk this way with him?

Sheer beauty

Lord, we rejoice in the blessings of ministry and witness and we recognise the challenges. Keep us humble and realistic, facing both success and failure with equal grace. Amen.

The Church of Nutrition

Things don’t always work out as planned, in life, on pilgrimage. So, today was meant to begin with a visit to Sepphoris, four miles outside of Nazareth. It would begin a day when we would be able to think about the early years of Jesus, the hidden years as they are so often called. But the best laid plans …

When we got to this large archaeological site we were told there had been a power failure and we wouldn’t be able to see the principal sights. So we quickly rearranged things and decided to come back on Wednesday morning, on the way to the airport, and instead to visit Acre. We had planned to do this anyway on the way to Tel Aviv. So that is what we did.

We were able to pick up our plans, however, after lunch. We were going to visit three places and I will mention them in the reverse order of our visit but in the more logical order. We ended at Mary’s Well which is now in the Greek Orthodox parish church. The spring there was the main source of water for Nazareth and would certainly have been the well that Mary used and to which she would have taken Jesus. I wonder if he remembered this well as he stood with another woman at another well many years later. The Samaritan woman met Jesus at the well. The tradition is that Mary met the angel at the well, that this was where the annunciation began.

The meeting at the well

The well is not mentioned in the canonical gospels but in the apocryphal gospel of James.

Mary took the pitcher, and went out to fill it with water. And, behold, a voice saying: Hail, you who has received grace; the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women! And she looked round, on the right hand and on the left, to see where this voice came. And she went away, trembling, to her house, and put down the pitcher.

The angel pursues her to the house. God will not let us go as Francis Thompson reminds us in his poem ‘The Hound of Heaven’.

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from Him.

That house is in the lower part of the Basilica of the Annunciation. Pilgrims can see part of the house, the stairs, the stones but it is all overwhelmed by the church that surrounds and enshrines it.

The House of the Annunciation

So we began our three visits where it all ended. Beneath the convent of the Sisters of Nazareth is a wealth of archeology. The Byzantines and the Crusaders both built churches on this site because this was revered by the local people as the house of the Holy Family and the tomb of the Just One, Joseph. We were led below ground level, to the level of the House of the Annunciation in the basilica across the road. There we stood inside this house looking through a door into the street beyond. We looked into a tomb carved in the rock and entered from the courtyard outside the house. We had stepped back into the 1st century AD. The basilica would be crowded with pilgrims, here we were on our own in this most holy place.

Our guide, Angela, told us that the church built on this site was called the Church of Nutrition, for this was the House of Nutrition, where Jesus was fed, where he was loved, where he was taught, where he laughed and played. This was the door through which he stepped out into the world he came to save. This was the home in which he grew for those hidden years. This was the place from which he left with Joseph perhaps to work on the building site in Sepphoris.

The door of the Holy House – the street is beyond it.

And from the House of Nutrition he would become the bread that would feed us, the wine that would quench our thirst.

We all found this place enormously powerful and deeply moving. We read this passage.

Jesus went down with his parents and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour. (Luke 2.51-52)

It was the house of his obedience to the will of his father. R S Thomas’ poem ‘The Coming’ ends with these powerful words.

The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.

God came to this house and walked through that door and entered our world, the house and the womb of Mary, the house and the door by which we stood.

Lord Jesus, abide with us always. Amen.

O magnum mysterium

Yesterday’s visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was, well let’s say, challenging. One of the good things is that there are thousands of pilgrims in the Holy Land. What is not so good is when they all seem to be in the same place at the same time! So, as I said yesterday, we looked around the church and decided that, those who wanted to, would return early on Sunday morning to miss the crowds.

We left the hotel at 5.45am. Dawn was just breaking. We walked through the deserted souk, only a few people around. The place still smelt of that wonderful mixture of spices, just lingering in the air. We walked with a purpose and many commented that it had the feeling of the Dawn Vigil on Easter Day. There was real anticipation among the pilgrims. We arrived in the courtyard of the church just before six and agreed to meet again at seven. So we had an hour to simply wander around and share in what was going on. That is what we did.

The main thing one has to understand is that this is a shared church. There are shared churches in many of our dioceses at home. St Paul’s Thamesmead, in the Diocese of Southwark, is shared between the Church of England and the Roman Catholics. Other places are shared with the Methodists or URC. I don’t know, but I imagine that this can present its challenges as well as opportunities and blessings. Well, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is more complicated than this. The main denominations sharing the church are the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic, and to a lesser degree the Coptic Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox churches.

Armenian worship underway

What we experienced, as did the many hundreds of pilgrims we found in the church who had had the same good idea as us, was that worship was going on throughout the church by these communities. In every corner there was a service underway. The Roman Catholics were saying Mass at the Edicule, (from the Latin aedicule, or “little house”) which houses the sepulchre itself. The Armenians were in full swing in their chapel at a lower level. The Copts were worshipping at the far end of the Edicule. The Greeks were ready to take over when the Franciscans had cleared away. The organ was playing for the catholics, the Copts were chanting at the top of their voices, the Armenian young men of the choir were singing beautifully, two deacons with thuribles decorated with bells moved among them. ‘O magnum mysterium’ ‘O great mystery’, that is the worship of the church.

Crowds around the Edicule

I found a quiet place in which to sit and listen and smell and feel the worship going on all around me. Alongside the main sanctuary on the opposite side to Calvary a new chapel has been opened. There was no sign to say who’s place it was or what it was for but it is newly completed, part of the restoration work that has been going on. I sat there and soaked it all up.

A very peaceful spot

Words of T S Eliot from ‘Choruses from The Rock’ came to my mind.

We thank Thee for the lights that we have kindled,
The light of altar and of sanctuary;
Small lights of those who meditate at midnight
And lights directed through the coloured panes of windows
And light reflected from the polished stone,
The gilded carven wood, the coloured fresco.
Our gaze is submarine, our eyes look upward
And see the light that fractures through unquiet water.
We see the light but see not whence it comes.
O Light Invisible, we glorify Thee!

We met up and walked back, saying our experiences. Then we joined the bilingual Eucharist at St George’s Anglican Cathedral – Arabic and English. It was a cacophony of sound. This was the magnum mysterium of the church, the people of God, the body of Christ, at worship, living out our vocation as St John describes.

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’
And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, singing,
‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honour
and power and might
be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’
(Revelation 7.9-12)

It was beautiful and a blessing.

Ready to leave Jerusalem behind

We have now moved on to Tiberias but with worship ringing in our ears.

God of mystery, wonder and majesty, may I be caught up in your heaven on earth as I share in praise and worship. Amen.

On the way of the cross

There are some ‘must do’s’ in Jerusalem, and one of them for me is to walk the Way of the Cross, the Via Dolorosa. That was what was on the programme for today.

We began by walking around the walls to St Stephen’s Gate and remembering his martyrdom there. The reading we had was from Luke 14.27 ‘Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’ It was powerful remembering what Christian discipleship can mean, then and now, before we arrived at the First Station after we had visited the beautiful Crusader church of St Anne.

The entrance to the Crusader Church of St Anne

The Via Dolorosa was not too busy. We managed to arrive at each of the stations without crowds being there and went into the chapels where there is a chapel. One exciting development, however, since I was there last year is the expansion of the church at the Seventh Station.

Those who have been to this chapel might remember you entered and went into a small church to the right of the door. This has now been extended further to the right. Pilgrims go up a couple of steps into this new space where there are exposed remains of the city wall from the time of Jesus. It is now much easier to understand that this was the edge of the city and that after this station everything else that we remember happened outside the walls.

One lovely bonus was that a Romanian couple joined us. They were on their own and were unsure of where to go and what to do. So Alexandru and his girlfriend became part of our group for the morning and shared with us in carrying the cross. It was a real blessing to us.

Arriving in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is always a shock. We had done the final stations on the roof where it was quite peaceful. We emerged into the courtyard and the church which was anything but. So, after a walk around, we left. We will return early on Sunday morning for something that we hope will be a little bit calmer.

After a lovely and welcome coffee we then went to the Alexander Nevsky Convent which is at the east end of the Holy Sepulchre. Pilgrims can see there remains of the gate and the Eye of the Needle (I still managed to squeeze through it) as well as the reconstructed steps that would have led up into Constantine’s basilica, the Anastasis.

There is always a sister praying before this cross at Alexander Nevsky

The afternoon began with a visit to the courtyard of the Armenian Cathedral of St James – one day I will actually get into it! Then we got onto the coach and headed out to west Jerusalem and the Valley of the Cross. This is where is set the Monastery of the Cross. This eleventh century fortress like monastic complex, now a Greek Orthodox monastery, is on the site, some say, of Adam’s grave. But principally this is the place where tradition says the tree grew from which the cross was made.

A beautiful cross at the Monastery of the Cross

The story that surrounds it is a complex one, certainly not to be found in scripture, but as I said, the wood had to come from somewhere so it may have come from here as much as from anywhere else. We venerated the spot where the tree grew and read some passages from ‘The Dream of the Rood’.

“It happened long ago—I remember it still—
I was hewn down at the holt’s end
stirred from my stock. Strong foes seized me there,
worked in me an awful spectacle, ordered me to heave up their criminals.
Those warriors bore me on their shoulders
until they set me down upon a mountain.
Enemies enough fastened me there.
I saw then the Lord of Mankind
hasten with much courage, willing to mount up upon me.”

This Anglo-Saxon poem gives voice to the tree and in this sacred place we listened to that voice. The cross had brought us across the city, challenged us along the way but we ended where we began, by saying together

We adore you O Christ and we bless you because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.

PS We have had a couple of group photos taken. Here is one en route to the Monastery of St George yesterday.

O happy band of pilgrims

Willkommen! And bienvenue! Welcome!

Willkommen! And bienvenue! Welcome!
Fremder, étranger, stranger

So begins one of the great songs in the show ‘Cabaret’. It’s lovely when we receive it, a welcome, wholeheartedly. It’s one of the things that we try to get right at Southwark Cathedral, because you have one chance to get the welcome right. Well, we experienced different kinds of welcome today.

The programme was designed to be a day in the Jericho area. As I have explained already, the programme for this pilgrimage has been designed to give us more time to spend in places and do the things that we cannot normally do in a tightly packed pilgrimage schedule. So this day was to begin in a very challenging and special way.

We always visit Wadi Qelt which is on the Jerusalem to Jericho road in the heart of the beautiful Judean wilderness. It is one of the great experiences to get out of the coach, negotiate the Bedouin traders and climb the hill to the viewpoint. There you see beneath you, clinging to the side of the steep and deep wadi, St George’s Monastery. It’s a Greek Orthodox monastery that is set in a little oasis supplied by a few springs that emerge from the rock. We always look at the place, on this occasion we were going to walk down to visit it.

The view from the steep path

We left Jerusalem early so that the full heat of the day would not hit us. We got out of the coach armed with hats, sticks, water, all the paraphernalia for a long hard walk. I have to say it was worth every moment. The views were amazing and as we approached the monastery it became more and more beautiful.

There were more people walking down than I had imagined there would be, people of all shapes and ages and sizes, negotiating the steep path. We congregated outside the monastery entrance. A group came out. The group in front of us went in. We got to the gate. ‘You can’t come in’ was the greeting we received from the monk on gate duty. ‘Too many people. Festival day. Wait hour and a half’ he said in broken English. We explained we couldn’t wait. We asked just to see in the courtyard, that was all. We didn’t need to go to the church, we said. ‘No’ was the answer and from his superior on the walk-talkie we got the same answer. The door closed. Our guide, Sam, looked crestfallen.

So we began to make our way back. And we sang.

He who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster,
Let him in constancy follow the Master.
There’s no discouragement shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.

Never have the words of that hymn seemed quite so appropriate! Most people walked, I and some others took one of the donkey ‘taxis’ run by some young Bedouin men. We all got back up. Sam had talked to his donkey man. ‘They do that every day’, he was told ‘if you are not Greek or Romanian. They always say full or a service, wait. They know you won’t wait.’ I don’t know whether or not that is true. But nevertheless we were glad we made the journey and we sang the whole of Bunyan’s hymn in the coach.

So we headed for Jericho and went to another monastery, not on the itinerary. It was dedicated to St Gerasimus, another Greek Orthodox place. And there was a real warm welcome awaiting us. Gerasimus was a hermit who, in a kind of St Francis way, was great with animals. He’d taken a thorn out of the foot of a lion and it became his companion all the time. The monastery is beautiful and well worth visiting. (In the picture that greets you of the saint and his lion, the lion unfortunately looks very much like the one in the Wizard of Oz – the icons inside were better!)

The saint removes the thorn and makes a friend for life

Later after going to Hisham’s Palace and renewing our Baptismal Promises at Elisha’s Spring we paid a visit to a new monastic house in Jericho. It is of the Romanian Orthodox tradition and we were keen to see it after our pilgrimage around Romania last year. The gate was locked! Oh dear! Sam rang the bell. A nun appeared. She was all smiles and welcomed us in. A monk appeared, Fr Abraham. He could not have been nicer and stayed with us for the whole of our visit.

With Fr Abraham

The church is twenty years old. There are ten in the community there, serving Romanian pilgrims. The frescos inside the church are stunning, the work of Romanian artists and so familiar to those of us who went on that pilgrimage. One was particularly intriguing. It was of the story of the Good Samaritan, which, of course, took place on the Jerusalem-Jericho road that we had travelled to get there. But in this fresco the Good Samaritan was Jesus himself. He was shown washing the wounds, bearing the injured man to the innkeeper whilst the priest and Levite looks on. I’d never seen anything like this. Jesus, identified completely with the outsider.

The Good Samaritan is Jesus!

Fr Abraham prayed for us and blessed us before saying farewell. It was as though God was teaching us something about generous welcome and in that final fresco about how far God, in Jesus, will go for the stranger.

Willkommen! And bienvenue! Welcome!
Fremder, étranger, stranger

God of welcome, may we have your open arms whoever is at our door. Amen.

The City of David

Every day on pilgrimage is different. This day started very early – but then, we did have a lot to do.

We began by leaving the hotel and driving over the Mount of Olives and to the little village of Bethphage. This is the place that the gospels tell us that Jesus mounted the donkey for his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday. We said Morning Prayer in the little chapel and visited a ‘rolling stone’ tomb in the hills behind the church. Then back on the coach to the panoramic view point on the Mount of Olives where we saw Jerusalem spread out before us in all its glory.

That amazing view!

This is a pilgrimage for returning pilgrims but there is no way you can miss out this view. It is thrilling and it must have been for Jesus and his friends as they reached the summit of the hill and began their descent. For them the view would be dominated not by the golden Dome of the Rock but by the Temple. It would have been an amazing sight.

Then, for us, back on the coach and to the City of David. Most groups don’t have time to visit this archaeological site. But that was why we were not doing some of the things we would normally do, such as following the path down from the summit to the Garden of Gethsemene. Instead, we saw the Canaanite structure that became David’s capital, or the centre of his power at least. The remains are impressive and so is Hezekiah’s Tunnel that we then walked through.

There is a choice – the wet tunnel through which the waters of the Gihon Spring still rush, or the dry tunnel alongside it. We saw the water and opted for the dry walk! That emerges, like the water, at the Pool of Siloam. There we read from John 5, the account of the healing of the man born blind, who was sent by Jesus, as the water was sent, to the pool called ‘sent’.

Then back on the coach and through huge numbers of Bar mitzvah parties into the Ophel and the great stone staircase that Jesus and his disciples would have climbed as they made their way with the other pilgrims into the Temple.

Then we walked through the Old City to the Austrian Hospice for lunch. That is a great place, the coffee is good and the view from the roof utterly compelling.

Rooftops in the Old City

Then it was back walking up into the Jewish Quarter and to the rebuilt Synogogue at its heart where we saw men studying the scriptures, talking it through, engrossed by their faith. From there to the Burnt House, the remains of the home of a priestly family which was destroyed in the conflagration that followed the Jewish Revolt and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in AD 70.

Honouring the Righteous Gentile

Finally, we walked through the Jewish Quarter and out to the Christian Cemetary where we paid a visit to the grave of Oskar Schindler, the ‘Righteous Gentile’ who saved so many from the Holocaust. There we read this passage from Pastor Martin Niemoller.

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

It was powerful after such a day and some of us wept. This is a complex place, with a complex story to tell. It takes a great deal of thinking, and praying about.

God of peace, teach us to build and not destroy, to love and not to hate, to heal and not to hurt. Amen.

Hospitality

Hebron is an amazing city. It is the city of Abraham, the Patriarch of Patriarchs, the unifying figure for Jews and Christians and Muslims. It should be a city of unity, of shalom, peace, salaam. But as we know all too well it is anything but that. You only have to spend a day there – which we have done today – to feel the underlying and at times more than obvious tension with which people live alongside each other. Jewish settlements not only exist on the edges of the city but groups of determined settlers have made their home right in the centre of the old city and their presence has had a devastating effect upon the Muslim population who live there.

In addition, there are no Christians living there – well, that is not quite true. There is a Russian Monastery of the Holy Trinity located alongside the Oak of Mamre and the religious who are there – we met one nun – are the only Christians around. There is no one to join them in worship.

Yet this is the city of hospitality.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs

We began our day driving away from Bethlehem and into Hebron. It is obvious that you are in disputed territory. We went through a number of checkpoints before the coach drew up in a parking lot in front of the huge Tomb of Patriarchs and Matriarchs which dominates the old city. The building is both a mosque and a synagogue, a building divided in itself, so symbolic of what is going on outside its walls.

We visited the mosque first and then the Synogogue and saw the tombs of Abraham and Sarah, Issac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah. These are actually cenotaphs because the actual tombs were deep beneath our feet in the cave that Abraham had purchased.

Jacob charged his sons saying to them, ‘I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my ancestors—in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, in the cave in the field at Machpelah, near Mamre, in the land of Canaan, in the field that Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite as a burial site. There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried; there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried; and there I buried Leah— the field and the cave that is in it were purchased from the Hittites.’ When Jacob ended his charge to his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed, breathed his last, and was gathered to his people. (Genesis 49.29-33)

It was amazing to stand on this spot to be surrounded by the giants of the faith. In the Synogogue there is the tomb of Joseph, empty because his body was moved to Shechem. But his original burial was in this cave alongside his father.

One of the tombs

In between visiting the Tomb and the Monastery we met Layla. She is part of the Women of Hebron Cooperative. She met us on the street outside the Tomb, the street now closed to Muslims, a bit of a ghost town now, a shadow of what it must have once been, and she told us about the aftermath of the massacre in the mosque where we had just been. This happened in 1994. 29 people were shot dead, 125 were wounded while they were at prayer. Their attacker was a right wing fundamentalist Jew, a settler. The long term effect was the division of the tomb to create two spaces for worship and the partial closure of the old city. Layla walked us through the souk. The streets are covered with netting so that local people cannot be stoned whilst going about their business.

We visited the shop of the Cooperative and then Layla took us to her home and gave us lunch. It was a delicious meal in this Muslim home. We were made so comfortable and nothing was too much trouble.

Layla and one of the walls that has been set up

As we later stood by what remains of the oak where three visitors sat down and Abraham and Sarah fed them, we thought about hospitality. Rublev’s icon of this scene must now be the most famous icon in the world. Why? Perhaps because it speaks of hospitality. What is more human and uniting than sharing a meal? Yet this is what God does as well. The Monastery is dedicated to the Holy Trinity and that is what the passage in Genesis 18.1-15 speaks so powerfully of to Christians.

The God we find under the oak is the God of hospitality. In the icon the angels do not surround the table. The fourth side is open to you, open to us, to be partners in the divine hospitality. The perichoresis of God, that divine dance in which the persons of the Trinity are continuously engaged and interwoven, is the relationship that we seek to become part of, drawn into the heart of the dance, drawn into the heart of the meal.

There was true hospitality in Hebron and we found it in Layla. May the miracle under the tree became a miracle for the people of that beleaguered yet strangely hospitable city.

God of hospitality, as you draw us into the mystery of your love, draw us also into the mystery of your peace. Amen.

The image of God

One of the intentions of this pilgrimage was to take those who had been on pilgrimage to the Holy Land already to some of the places that they might not have had the chance to see. There is so much to do when you are on pilgrimage that there is the real danger that you hurry from place to place. Today has been more spacious.

Just up the street from where we are staying is the Milk Grotto. Most pilgrims don’t me it up this street at all. It begins at Manger Square and leads up the right hand side of the Church of the Holy Nativity complex. The hill is crowned with the little church which is the Milk Grotto. It gets its name from the tradition that some drops of milk from Mary’s breast fell on the rock here and turned it milky white. The Holy Family were staying here, either as the place in which they lodged when the Magi arrived, or the place in which they rested on their flight to Egypt (it depends on who you listen to to be honest).

Whatever the tradition, it is a beautiful and peaceful place under the care of a community of sisters whose vocation is prayer. In a modern chapel behind the rock church is a Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in which a sister is praying before the sacrament exposed in a huge monstrance. One of the sisters is always there, day in, day out. It is beautiful to see. But so are the images here of Jesus as a baby, feeding from his mother, the one who would feed us with living bread, being fed, helpless and hungry, God in dependency.

The Grotto

From there we celebrated the Eucharist in one of the cave chapels at the Shepherd’s Fields. It is always a great place to have a service, whether that be at one of the outdoor altars or, as on this occasion, in one of the caves which were used by generations of shepherds to provide shelter for them and their flocks. We sang

While shepherds watch’d their flocks by night, All seated on the ground, The angel of the Lord came down, And glory shone around.

Guides always share something memorable and particular with you. Sam is our Guide on this pilgrimage and he said something there which has made me think. We all know that the shepherd’s were outsiders, smelly, living on the edge of communities. That fact is in many a Christmas sermon. But what I hadn’t quite understood is that in addition to this they were seen as unreliable to the extent that the Roman authorities would not accept the testimony of a shepherd. That little fact is so important in Lukes telling of the story. The gospel reading each Christmas ends like this

When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2.17-20)

They were testifying and against their better instincts people were accepting their testimony. It’s remarkable how God chooses to make the divine realty known in a little town, amongst the poorest people, relying on those whose testimony would be discounted. And God persists with this questionable behaviour when the witnesses to the resurrection are women!

In the place of unreliable testimony

After lunch we walked along Star Street, the route that those following the star are said to have followed, to the Bethlehem Icon Centre. We were made most welcome there by the small team looking after it. Their purpose is to see the traditions of icon writing maintained and so they educate children and adults in the art so that it is not lost as the number of Christians in the Holy Land diminishes.

Nicolai explains the icon to us

We saw work being undertaken and prayed in the lovely chapel on the street with it’s great icon telling the story of the nativity. From there we went to see the Church of the Holy Nativity itself. The restoration work is all but complete and pilgrims can now see newly exposed mosaics and the paintings and graffiti that are on the great pillars in the nave.

The beauty of the Church of the Holy Nativity revealed

So many images in one day, and all of them, in different ways pointing us to Jesus, child, shepherd, king, God, the bread of life before whom those sisters kneel. As we prayed at the icon centre we asked that we might bear a true image, an icon, in our own lives of this divine nature which we touch in this place.

Jesus, true likeness of the divine glory, may we bear your likeness and reflect your glory. Amen.

Arriving

As ever, it was dark when we finally arrived in Bethlehem and got into our hotel. It was an afternoon flight from Heathrow and so, what with the time difference and the length of the flight, and even though the processes at Ben Gurion Airpotrt were the most efficient I have known, it was late when we arrived.

We are staying in the Russian Pilgrim Hostel, which is at the far end of Milk Grotto Street, not far from the Church of the Holy Nativity and Manger Square. But we could see nothing of all of that, of course. But the views from our residence were amazing. Bethlehem is set in the midst of hills and beneath our hotel the land drops away. In one direction we can see the churches at the centre of the town, in the other direction the beginning of the Judean wilderness. It is wonderful to see.

‘How still we see thee lie’

What was even better was getting up and looking at that view again, this time bathed in sunshine. The bells of the churches are ringing as I write this blog, announcing a new day, and our first day on this pilgrimage.

A new day in Bethlehem

So, we begin where, for Christians, it all began, in the House of Bread, the place of the incarnation, where Word was made flesh. Today we will be in and around Bethlehem. The first place we will be going to is the Milk Grotto, next to the hotel. Then we go to the Shepherd’s Fields where we will celebrate the Eucharist. After lunch we will go to the Bethlehem Icon School and then end the day in the newly restored Church of the Holy Nativity. It promises to be wonderful.

As is the way, so often, Morning Prayer was ideal as this day begins. The New Testament reading was from the beginning of St Matthew’s Gospel and the verses that link us with the very place where we are staying. The passage we will be reading in the Milk Grotto reminds us of the flight of the Holy Family as refugees to Egypt.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’ (Matthew 2.13-15)

The churches of Bethlehem

We will pray for you, please pray for us as we also pray for those who still are forced to flee their homes to find safety elesewhere, that the Holy Family will stand with them in their plight.

Lord, you bless our arrivals, and bless our departures. Strengthen those who must leave their homes and seek a good arrival in a place of safety. Amen.