Holy Land April 2008

Thirty pilgrims arrived at Heathrow Airport at 2pm for a 5 o’clock flight that arrived at Amman at 12.15am.  The coach was waiting for us but whether it was sleepy or unemployed I dont know.  the journey to the sisters outside Amman should have been less than an hour but the stuttering coach could barely make it up the hill and half way down the motorway the driver turned round into a garage and had it replaced with another coach.  the sisters in true Arab style, stayed up for us and gave us a great welcome.  We got to bed at 3am – not the best start to a pilgrimage.  Worse was to follow!

Tuesday 15th

We had a late start with Morning Prayer at 9.15.  After an Arab breakfast of egg and yoghurt with zeta herbs the bus arrived to take us to the Baptism site on the west bank of the Jordan and we renewed our Baptism Promises on the side of the muddy trickle that was all that was left of the River after much of the water had been taken higher up the river for irrigation.  It was an eerry prospect making promises in the heat under an awning with an armed guard, but the spiritual significance didn’t go unnoticed.  the site was very overgrown and crying out for development.  The only religious sign so far was a recently built Orthodox Church, but the Priest was to shy to come and talk or sing to us.  However we did hear that the site was ripe for development and in the near future another six Christian Churches were to be built to accommodate the influx of pilgrims expected.  We did see the ruins of a very ancient Church before the river had moved together with the footings of a little chapel called the Chapel of the Garments where Jesus laid aside his garments before John Baptised him in the River Jordan.  the site had more authenticity about it that the tourist attraction just south of the Sea of Galilee.
We went on from the Jordan up to Mount Nebo from which Moses looked across the Jordan to Jericho and the Promised land.  Tradition says that Moses was buried somewhere on the mountain but his grave has never been discovered.  The Franciscans have down a lot of excavating on top of the mountain and discovered a number of Byzantine Churches with plenty of excellent mosaics.  Unfortunately, restoration work in progress prevented us for seeing much of them.  We had to be satisfied with photos and printed copies further down the mountain.  However the heat was too much for the coach, and it had to be replaced again – three coaches in twelve hours.  It too suffered from the after effect of the Jumbo earthquake in 747 which had done so much damage in the locality.  the Guide tried his best to keep us amused with Pamphilia jokes about the lion and the brainless gazelle.  We eventually got back to the Rosary Sisters for a votive Mass to the Holy Spirit to get us back on an even keel.

Wednesday 16th

We spent the day visiting schools in Jordan and were surprised by the lack of facilities in the schools and the low wages of Jordanians in general.  the school I visited was a Kindergarten school in Salt.  there were fifty children in the School but only five little girls because many families saw the need for education but could only afford to educate the boys, the girls had to stay at home and pick up what they could from home.  there were little or no educational visual aids in the class rooms and the teaching was very basic.

Thursday 17th

We set out for the Allenby Bridge and entry into Palestine but had to wait over two hours at the Customs Post being processed by Israeli Customs before entry.  Apparently my artificial hips were considered to be a secret weapon and had to be investigated!  then we drove to Bethlehem through another check-point in the Wall to the Rosary Sisters.  We were their first guests since last November, when we stayed with them. A former Novitiate with its own Church – very comfortable and spacious.

Friday 18th

We set out early for the Basilica of the Nativity.  Through the “eye of a needle” gateway, so constructed to stop the rich and powerful riding into Church on their camels.  Rami our guide explained the early history of the Basilica, how it had been fought over throughout many centuries and how the different Christian denominations had the safeguard their rights and privileges against one another.  We went down to the crypt to venerate the spot of our Saviour’s bith marked out by the fourteen point star.  We then went into the Catholic Church of St Catherine and down to the cave cell of St Jerome for Mass and heard about the years he spent in semi darkness translating the Vulgate version of the Bible from Greek into Latin.  He was looked after by a devoted St Paula and her daughter – one of the first Priest’s Housekeeper.  When we came back into the main Basilica with its perpetual Christmas decorations, there was a memorial service fgoing on for a Greek Orthodox family.  We stopped to see how different Greek Liturgy was to Latin.
We visited Bethlehem University to see how Christian and Muslim student get along studying together for their degrees and were pleasantly surprised at the attitudes and harmony clearly felt by all students and staff.  It was plain to see that the pursuit of education was more important than political gain.  the problem was, what are we educating them for when so many emigrate once they have their degrees?  Having had a delightful taste of the education in the Catering Department – the students entertained us to lunch, we went to have a look around the campus of the university and were shocked to see how the Settlements had virtually surrounded the University encroaching on Palestinian ground. In the afternoon we retreated to the Shepherds Fields to recover our eqamninity and sang a carol in the Bellusci chapel under the stars.  “While shepherds watched their flocks by night….”

Saturday 19th

We made an early start to get through the check points and onto the road to Jericho 347 metres below sea level.  The singing was low level but the Franciscan Garden out at the back was an oasis of green and bright colours.  the Fransican hospitality of dates and soft drinks prepared us for the Mount of Temptations and the searing heat, let alone the persistence of the souvenir sellers.  You have to admire their initiative, one even chased the coach up the mountain on his moped , in the hope that we might stop and buy something.  Lunch in the Inn of Temptation was a luscious self sevice, tempting you with all sorts of desert delicacies which did your waist band no good whatever.  In the afternoon we managed a visit to the home of Martha and Mary and the tomb of their brother Lazarus.

Sunday 20th

We were sent us on a long coach journey south to Bethseba to see the Hebrew Christian Priest from France. He was actually a Chaldean Christian who had worked for a number of years in Iran before having his visa cancelled and was now working among about a hundred hebrew converts and expatriates in a very Jewish city and keeping his head down.  He told us of a problem he had with Messianic Jews who mounted a leaflet campaign in the city and he got the hatemail.  His house church was called the witches house and he was called a wolf in the local paper.  It all worked out well in the end and he and his congregation were left in peace. Unfortunately due to a confusion over times, we did not meet any of the congregation.  Back in Bethlehem in the afternoon we went to see our friends, Issa and Aida from the local school and could understand how difficult it is when you mix politics and religion – besides being head teacher of the local Christian School Issa is also Deputy Mayor in the local Municipality – we were late back!

Monday 21st

We entered Jerusalem early and did an Orientation Course with Bernard in the old city starting with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  As it was the Jewish Feast of Passover, there was no transport allowed in Jerusalem so we had to walk everywhere, but it did mean that when we came to make the Stations of the Cross the Suuk – the street market,  was not so congested as we made our way up to Golgotha.  In the evening we had Mass in the Co Cathedral and our new pilgrims received their pilgrim shells from the Patriarch who had just flown in from Canada.  At the end of a very tiring day we went back to sleep in Bethlehem.

Tuesday 22nd

It was a very hectic day.  We were up before 6am and through the check-point in no time, ready to battle the crowds of pilgrims on top of the Mount of Olives.  Some good sights over Jerusalem with the Dome of the Rock dominating everything.  We had a beautiful Mass half way down at “Dominus Flevit” where Jesus wept over Jerusalem and then on down to the Garden of Olives, the Church of All Nations and the Garden of Gethsemene for a Meditation – all that before lunch at the Knights Palace.  If that wasn’t enough, in the afternoon we walked through the Armenian Quarter of the Old City to the Cenacle, with its lovely stained glass, and on to the Church of Peter in Gallicantu where Peter denied Christ.  Perhaps this is the only authentic part, with the steps up from the Kedron Valley where Jesus must surely have trod on his way to the House of Caiphas the High Priest.  We ended the hectic day with a visit to the Seminary for Vespers and Supper.  The students and Fr Rector were elated because they had just received their visas which enabled them to go home for Easter holdays for the first time in a year.

Wednesday 23rd

Feast of St George, we left behind the Battle of the Roses and spent the day travelling over the Allenby Bridge back to the Sisters at Amman and packing to come home the next day.

Holy Land 2009…

Next May, there will be an ecumenical parish pilgrimage to the Holy Land covering Galilee, Southern Palestine and Jerusalem. Further details to come.