Day 7: Pre-Dawn Via Dolorosa, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Garden Tomb, Garden of Gethsemane, Holocaust Museum

Continuing my journey with Ecclesia Houston and Pastor Chris Seay via the always-innovative tour company Breaking Bread Journeys, day 7 of our itinerary was perhaps the most profound. There are many inspiring moments along the way but there’s something about waking up before dawn and taking a vow of silence only to hear the scriptures related to the path that Jesus took to his crucifixion at each of the 14 stations. We departed from our hotel at 5am to take the walk to Herod’s Gate and then made the descent to Station One of the Via Dolorosa, or “The Way of Sorrows.”

There in the predawn deep blue glow of a sleepy Jerusalem sky, we listened with broken hearts as Pastor Chris read us the scriptures that chronicled or prophesied of Jesus’s walk to his death. It struck me that many of the stations depict those who loved him reaching out to help him, to do something for their beloved teacher and friend. They did not understand anything he had said about his coming resurrection, so to them, this was just the most awful, dark, miserable thing they could imagine happening. Here was the man who had healed, preached forgiveness of sin, fed the poor, taught a Gospel of a higher love, yet here he was the scorn of man, bruised, beaten, flogged nearly to death, then sentenced to carry his own tool of execution while wearing a crown of thorns.

I cannot imagine anything more profoundly distressing, depressing, confusing, or anguishing than these scenes laid before the very eyes of those who had followed him and loved him. In that dark hour, before the sun had risen, I and members of our group were gripped by the reality of those accounts as we trod over stones sometimes dated to the first century. There were few dry eyes as we meditated on those seemingly slow-motion brutal moments of the Via Crucis, or the Way of the Cross.

At the same time, as Pastor Chris read these scriptures, it became apparent that another emotion felt in those steps is a realization of the profound love that God has for us, that while we were yet imperfect people lost in our own ways, Christ died for us because he loved us. I’m no theologian, but I do know a few things about the Bible from my time of studying it personally. I believe that when Jesus was buried in his tomb (Station XIV of the Cross) he descended into hell (“Hades”) and conquered death so that we might have the resurrection into eternal life at our bodily death. “Following his death for sin, Jesus journeys to Hades, to the City of Death, and rips its gates off the hinges.” —Joe Rigney

After this intense experience, we visited a much brighter place called the Garden Tomb, a location just to the north of the Damascus Gate believed to contain the empty tomb of Jesus, a site many historians believe to be the place of Jesus’ resurrection. The overseers of the location have done an amazing job of keeping the gardens bright and colorful, as a representation of the glory of Christ’s resurrection, symbols of rebirth blossoming all around us. We took communion in that holy space and we all felt a very present touch of the Holy Spirit, a touch of the very palpable hope of the resurrection in that supremely serene garden.

Later in Day 7, we made our way to the Garden of Gethsemane, another important scene in the story of Jesus’ path to his crucifixion. It is very revealing to me that Jesus prayed in the garden the night before his crucifixion, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” This reveals his humanity, that he knew the fight for the salvation of the world was before him, and in that humanness, perhaps he did not feel he could bear it, and thus he prayed for God to take it. Yet in his humility and submission to God the Father, he relents, “yet not my will, but yours be done.”

The olive trees we saw there were at least descendants of the trees that would have arched their embracing arms in sadness over Jesus on his last night before his death (some say they are saplings of those trees that provided rebirth for the trees to carry on, as is the manner of olive trees to regenerate in their same location for thousands of years– either way, a beautiful symbol there, too). So many touch-points for us to feel, see, and experience these places where he walked, where he prayed, and where he loved us with an ultimate love unfathomable among mankind.

As if we had not felt enough for the day, the tour ended at the Holocaust Musem, “Yad Vashem.” There we experienced yet another kind of darkness, one of history’s deepest wounds, the Jewish Holocaust. There are no words to appropriately express the horrors of the Nazi’s deliberate cruelty, a merciless and systematic murder of millions of innocents, in the most unthinkable ways possible. In this contrast to the beauty of God’s love as demonstrated on the Via Dolorosa, we remembered the total depravity of mankind, that we could fall to such a grave brokenness, to an antithesis of love, and the ambivalence of so many who turned their hearts and eyes away from the reality of what was happening all around them in those days. Yet even in those horrible chapters of history, the museum beautifully and thoughtfully documented “The Righteous Among the Nations” — accounts of those who stood up to the ultimate brutality and evil, to rescue and hide Jews who would have otherwise perished.

The group then took a much needed time of reflection and prayer on the bus to help us process all that we had taken in on this inexpressible day. Then Christina Samara and Lisa Moed of Breaking Bread Journeys met us at a farewell lunch and presented all of the group with a small but beautiful gift of cookbooks containing their favorite holy land recipes. We were all so grateful for them and our faithful tour guide, Bassam.

We concluded our last night with a special Shabbat dinner hosted at a local Jewish home by the group called Shabbat of a Lifetime. Photos are not allowed so you will have to imagine the scenes of an authentic Jewish Shabbat (Sabbath) meal.

If you’ve read this far, thank you for following along. I hope these blog posts have been inspiring as a visual expression of what we felt this week. God bless you.

Day 6: Church of Saint Anne, Pools of Bethesda, Chefs for Peace, Tunnel Tour, Razzouk Tattoos

Continuing the Ecclesia Houston tour with Breaking Bread Journeys… after a morning of free time recovering from our epic road trip the day before, we started the day with a visit to the beautiful Church of St. Anne, built between 1131 and 1138 on top of the site believed to be the childhood home and perhaps the birthplace of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The church possesses mesmerizing acoustics, and this makes the church a pilgrimage site for soloists and choirs, of which we got to hear a few from around the world singing praises in various languages. We contributed our own song as well!

Our tour guide Bassam shared some very interesting facts about the unique nature of the church:

Unlike most other Crusader churches, St. Anne’s was not destroyed after Saladin’s 1187 conquest of Jerusalem (Saladin led the Muslim military campaign against the Crusader states). In 1192 Saladin converted the building into a madrasa (Islamic educational institution), known as al-Madrasa as-Salahiyya (of Saladin), as is still written in the Arabic inscription above the entrance to the church.

During the renewed Muslim rule of Palestine, Christian pilgrims were only permitted inside the grotto after paying a fee. Eventually, the madrasa was abandoned and the former church building fell into disrepair. In 1856, in gratitude for French support during the Crimean War, the Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid I presented it to Napoleon III. It was subsequently restored, but the majority of what remains today is original. Currently St. Anne’s belongs to the French government (thus the French flag that flies atop the church) and is administered by the Missionaries of Africa, commonly called “The White Fathers”, for the color of their robes.

The church is located right beside the archaeological excavation of the Pools of Bethesda and its collonades mentioned in the 5th Chapter of John’s Gospel. Pastor Chris Seay read to us this Gospel account of the crippled man who had been waiting 38 years to be healed in the pool which was known at the time to have healing powers (“a heavenly messenger would come to stir the water in the pool. Whoever reached the water first and got in after it was agitated would be healed of his or her disease”).

And I thought about how this crippled man had kept his faith all those years, believing that he could be healed if only he could get in the pool at the right time. And the passage indicates that Jesus knew of this man’s longsuffering spirit in waiting for so many years. I think perhaps that’s why he chose to heal him, to underscore how great this humble man’s faith was. Look at the results of his faith: a visit from the son of God himself, and he was instantly healed. May we all have even half the faith and patience of this man.

A definite highlight of our week was meeting up with Chefs for Peace, a non-profit, non-political organization founded in Jerusalem in 2001 by a group of Jewish, Christian and Muslim chefs committed to exploring cultural identity, diversity, and peaceful coexistence through food. Chefs for Peace realizes food— its preparation, sharing, and enjoyment— is a powerful means of creating a bond with others and revealing that which is valued by all faiths: food, family, and friends.

We met the chefs at the Damascus Gate on Thursday along with the founder of Chefs for Peace, the Armenian, Jerusalem-born chef Kevork Alemian. They then took us on a tour of the old city to buy the ingredients we would be using to prepare our dinner!

After shopping for some fresh Tahini in the Muslim Quarter along with a demonstration of how it is made, the chefs took us for lunch at a restaurant known for their falafel and hummus, Abu Shukri, which is located by Stations of the Cross 5. They explained to us the different styles of making hummus and how to eat the various appetizers served.

After a visit to the spice market, we then made our way to the hidden gem of Zalatimo’s Sweets. In a small room with just an oven, a refrigerator, and a few tables, Mr. Zalatimo and his relatives serve up the greatest pastry that the Old City has to offer, an Arab treat known as a mutabak (from the Arabic for “folded”). The flaky phyllo dough type creation is the only food served at Zalatimo’s, and ordering is simple: “with nuts” or “with cheese.” The shop also includes another treasure: one of the original entrances to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is now sealed off and no longer used.

Afterward, we visited a famous photography print shop, known as Elia’s Photo Service. The photo prints this Armenian family sell are part of a collection of about 3,000 photographs taken by their late grandfather Elia Kahvedjian, an orphaned refugee of the Armenian genocide and one of the greatest photographers in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 20th century. He and his family are featured in the National Geographic film “Jerusalem: Within These Walls” to represent the Armenian Quarter. The photos, which had been hidden away since 1947 by Elia as he thought they were of no value, were rediscovered by the family over 30 years ago and now serve to help researchers and aficionados of Jerusalem probe its past. For a fascinating article on the importance of the photographs, you can read here. Several of the group bought his book, Jerusalem Through My Father’s Eyes, which is a rare and beautiful collector’s item.

We stopped by Samara Tours, where co-owner of Breaking Bread Journeys works running her decades-old family tour business. As it was Valentine’s Day, Christina and her co-workers had an unexpected gift of roses for each member of the group!

After we literally ate our way through the Old City, the chefs invited us to learn how to cook with them at the Bulghourji Restaurant in the Armenian Quarter, and then we ate some more.

Next, after a walk through the Jewish Quarter and another visit to the Western Wall, our tour with Breaking Bread Journeys took us through the tunnels revealing archaeological finds deep underneath the Old City. The Tunnel Tour is in such high demand that you must book it two months in advance. We learned that much of the city was raised from a small valley centuries ago by arched supports, and it is under these arches that many of the tunnels were excavated. We saw the ancient gates to Solomon’s Temple and learned that one stone of the temple’s western retaining wall (which our group was able to see and touch) weighs an estimated 570 tons. To put this weight into context, the heaviest stone in the Great Pyramid of Giza, found in the “King’s” chamber, weighed 80 tons.

Last but not least, we ended the night with a visit to Palestinian Christian Wassim Razzouk’s tattoo studio. The Razzouk family has been in the tattoo business in the Old City for over 700 years. It has been a longstanding practice for Christian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem to get the Jerusalem Cross tattooed as a commemoration of their pilgrimage. Several of the members in our group did just that. To learn more about the fascinating history of the Razzouk family business, you can read an article here.

Day 5: Jordan River Baptisms, Jericho, Mt. of Temptation, Qumran Caves, Dead Sea, Jerusalem Old City

Day 5 of the Ecclesia Houston holy land tour with Breaking Bread Journeys started departing Tiberias at the Sea of Galilee shortly after sunrise as we made our way to the Jordan River, the river in which Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. Many pilgrims among our group commemorated their baptisms in the Jordan.

I will say that this day of the itinerary is usually the most intense, as we cover so much ground in one day. It’s like packing three days into one. By the time we reached Jerusalem, many of the group remarked something to the effect of, “Wait, we were just at the Jordan baptismal site this morning?”

As you will see in the photos that follow, after our visit to the Jordan River, we made our way to a vista point allowing us a look at the Mount of Temptation where many from the group were able to experience a camel ride. It was a very fun break along the way.

Our tour guide Bassam pointed out that according to Luke’s Gospel 19:1-10, Jesus came through Jericho and met Zacchaeus the tax collector who had climbed a Sycamore tree to get a better look at Jesus. In Jericho today, there is a large, old sycamore tree that stands at a major intersection in town. Bassam pointed it out to us and told us that local tradition claims it as Zaccheus’ tree. Although the tree is quite huge, it’s probably not the original tree. If nothing else, it gives visitors a concrete idea of what the scene might have looked like on that day when Jesus passed through the town.

Some very interesting facts about Jericho. Jericho is the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world. It sits at the edge of the Dead Sea valley, 846 feet below sea-level, which also makes it the lowest inhabited city on earth. It is, literally, an oasis in the desert — a large spring there has fed that part of the valley for thousands of years, and is the only way people have survived there.

We then made our way up to the Mount of Temptation and the Monastery of the Temptation, a Greek Orthodox monastery. The earliest monastery located on the site was constructed by the Byzantines in the 6th century above the cave traditionally said to be that where Jesus spent forty days and forty nights fasting and meditating during the temptation of Satan. The monastery receives its name from the mountain which the early Christians referred to as the “Mount of the Temptation.” The Mount of Temptation was identified by Augusta Helena of Constantinople as one of the “holy sites” in her pilgrimage in 326 AD.

When the Crusaders conquered the area in 1099, they built two churches on the site: one in a cave halfway up the cliff and a second on the summit. They referred to the site as “Mons Quarantana” (from Quaranta meaning forty in Italian, the number of days in the Gospel account of Jesus’s fast). Thus the Arabic name of the mountain is Mount Qarantal.

Later in the post, you will see that our journey took us to the archaeological site of the Qumran Caves where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls discoveries were made by a shepherd boy, then to the Dead Sea where the group took a float in the extremely bouyant waters, and ultimately on up into the holy city of Jerusalem where we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter, and the Western Wall in the Jewish Quarter. More on these Jerusalem sites in the posts to follow! Quite a day!

Some personal thoughts inspired by this journey:

I have often reflected on the power of a photograph to freeze time and capture a fleeting moment, and for this single moment, at least a thousand words could be written to describe what was felt and experienced within that frame. Then you stop to think of all the countless trillions of images like this which are accessible to God at any given time, and that he knows each one, feels each one, and has books written in his heart for each of us, lovingly journaling all that we have seen, felt, celebrated, and suffered. God sees all and knows all. Just a few pages ago, Jesus was being baptized by John, and in just a few page-turns in our story, we will be in the glory of heaven with God. “You see, the short-lived pains of this life are creating for us an eternal glory that does not compare to anything we know here. So we do not set our sights on the things we can see with our eyes. All of that is fleeting; it will eventually fade away. Instead, we focus on the things we cannot see, which live on and on.” (Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, 4:17-18).

As it is recorded in John’s gospel, Jesus assures us, “My Father’s home is designed to accommodate all of you. If there were not room for everyone, I would have told you that. I am going to make arrangements for your arrival. I will be there to greet you personally and welcome you home, where we will be together. You know where I am going and how to get there.” (John 14:2-4). This idea of pilgrimage extends not only to a visit of the holy land but of our entire lives. We are on a journey, and God, in his ultimate love for us, has shown us the way to live it and promises that he prepares a final home for us at the end of this long journey. What is beautiful is that, while the journey is often full of sorrows and intensity, he has given us fellow sojourners to share the burdens along the way. We have experienced that on this journey here in the holy land. Just a few days ago we were a group of strangers. Now, already, especially after a day like today, we are already starting to feel like family. We have access to so much in the Body of Christ if we only choose to open our arms and receive the love and life-giving support that is available. While my life has seen its share of hard times, I am grateful for all the ways I have found strength through God’s promises and all of my brothers and sisters whom God has gathered around me on this pilgrimage; both this week and in the grander pilgrimage of life.

I wasn’t able to make it up to the Monastery, to the Qumran Caves, nor the Dead Sea on this visit, as I was in serious need of a break, but here are some of my favorite shots from my archives:

Day 4: Mensa Christi, Capernaum, Sea of Galilee, Magdala, Mt. of Beatitudes

I am happy to introduce one of our pastors, Wayne Brown, who is along with us on this pilgrimage. He will be guest blogging for me tonight in the written portion of the post, and I could not be more grateful for the break! Thank you Wayne! Here’s what Wayne recalls of our Day 4 experience…

Continuing Day 4 with Ecclesia Houston and Breaking Bread Journeys, today we visited Mensa Christi Church, Capernaum, spent some time on and around the Sea of Galilee, explored Magdala, and finished with a nighttime reading of the Sermon on the Mount while sitting on the Mount of the Beatitudes. Sound like a full day? There’s more going on than you think.

First, we set out on the bus for Capernaum. On the way, we stopped at the Mensa Christi Church (Table of Christ). There we made our way down to the shoreline, placed our feet in the ancient waters of the Sea of Galilee, and Pastor Chris Seay taught from John 21. This is where the disciples returned to fishing, something that they knew and found comforting in a time of confusion, frustration, and fear following the crucifixion of Jesus.

Jesus meets them on the shore, prepares a meal of fish and bread for them, and engages them in a way they never anticipated. Jesus meets Peter after his denial and arguably the greatest failure of his life. But instead of scolding Peter, he uses it as a time to reaffirm, encourage and commission him towards the greatest work of his life. Pastor Chris reminded us that our greatest failures always have the opportunity for the greatest redemption, and can serve to strengthen our faith, courage and resolve, making us better prepared for a more challenging calling that lies ahead or just around the corner.

Next, we made it to Capernaum, where we saw the remains of a 4th Century Jewish synagogue, as well as the town of Capernaum nearby. The church there is believed to be built over the house of Peter’s mother-in-law, where Jesus miraculously healed her. Seeing the town and the walls of the houses helped to provide perspective on just how small the houses were in Jesus’ day. On the way back to the Scot’s Hotel, we read some passages including where Jesus heals a man lowered through the roof on a mat in a house in Capernaum.

Next, we ventured on a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. The weather was perfect, and the water was as calm as glass. We listened to hymns and songs on the journey to the middle of the lake, and read the story where Jesus walks on the water to the disciples. Pastor Chris also reminded us of how Jesus invites us to face our fears, calling us all into greater faith. And in the moments where we become fearful again, he uses it as a moment to teach us and to help us grow. Some even swam briefly in these ancient waters, and we danced and sang songs of praise to God on the journey back to shore.

After a brief time to rest at the hotel, we made our way to Magdala to explore the remains of a 1st Century Synagogue discovered there in 2009. We had the opportunity to stand with our bare feet on these 1st-century stones, where Jesus himself walked. Pastor Chris reminded us of the woman who was healed by touching Jesus’ garment and invited us to pray for healing for ourselves and for a loved one with our feet touching the place where Jesus walked.

We were led on a tour of the site by an Irish Catholic Priest, Father Kelly, and his sister Celine. They were an absolute delight! They both shared so fluidly, passionately, and genuinely about their faith in Jesus and the stories and passages in the scripture that took place in this city. Magdala was the home of Mary Magdalene, from whom Jesus cast out 7 demons. It was a major fishing port at the time of Jesus. As Sister Celine told us, “The question is not ‘Did Jesus come here?’ The question is, ‘How many times did he come here?’”

We were reminded throughout the tour of the importance of the role of women in Jesus’ ministry. Sister Celine reminded us of how many barriers these women broke in order to be at the crucifixion as well as to be the first people to visit his grave. She reminded us, “Love is stronger than death. Love is stronger than fear, and that’s why these women were able to do what even the disciples did not.” At the end of our time in Magdala, we had the chance to write the name of significant women in our lives with our finger on one of the pillars in the church foyer and to say a prayer of thanksgiving for their role in our lives and in our faith.

Sharing 113 photos with you tonight! What an amazing day. First up is from the Mensa Christi Church and the shore of the Sea of Galilee nearby:

From the ruins of a 4th Century Synagogue in Capernaum:

A sculpture of “Homeless Jesus” inspired by the verse Luke 9:58, “Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.'”

From our Sea of Galilee sailing experience:

On our way to Magdala we stopped for a group photo:

Magdala archaeological site, and the Duc in Altum Spiritual Center:

Jesus calls the disciples:

Jesus catches Peter after he falters on his attempted walk on water:

The fearful disciples on the Sea of Galilee:

Jesus casts out seven spirits from Mary Magdelene (Luke 8:2):

He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). -Mark 5:41

Pastor Chris led us to the shores of the Sea of Galilee at the base of the Mount of Beatitudes to read us the Sermon on the Mount under a moonlit sky:

Day 3, Part 1: Cana, Nazareth, Mary’s Well, Mt. Precipice

Continuing our tour with Ecclesia Houston led by Breaking Bread Journeys, I am dividing Day 3 into 2 parts as I ended up taking quite a few photos today.

We started our day in Cana, where, according to John’s Gospel 2:1-11, Jesus performed his first miracle by turning water into wine for a wedding celebration. The married couples of our group took the opportunity to renew their wedding vows in a very moving group ceremony led by Pastor Chris Seay in one of the gardens of the Franciscan Wedding Church at Cana. I find it beautiful that Jesus’ first miracle was at performed at the celebration of a marriage.

After Cana, we made our way to Nazareth, the childhood home of Jesus. We enjoyed one of my favorite churches in the world, the The Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation. I enjoy this church because of its simplicity contrasted with a subtle intricacy in the woodwork and muted tones of the murals and lamps. This humble church sits atop a natural spring which would have most likely been the spot from which the ancient community well of Nazareth was sourced.

The waters of the spring issue from a mountain known as Jabal as-Sikh and flow through an underground channel in the rock for 17 meters (56 ft) before emerging in the church. As recently as the 20th century, they continued on underground from there for another 130 meters to emerge in the public fountain known as Mary’s Well. It is probable that Mary drew water from this well for the holy family. The murals and iconography in the church are beautifully done, depicting various stories from the Bible along with icons of various Biblical figures.

We then took a short hike to Mt. Precipice for some beautiful panoramic views over the Jezreel Valley. It is believed by many to be the site of the Rejection of Jesus described in Luke 4:14-30. In this passage, Jesus proclaims himself as the one described in Isaiah, saying,

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The people of Nazareth, not accepting Jesus as Messiah tried to push him from the mountain, but “he passed through the midst of them and went away.” The mount is situated on the southern edge of the city and provides beautiful views of the valley below and Mt. Tabor (Mount of Transfiguration) seen as an isolated peak to the east.

Day 3, Part 2: Tulip Winery

Continuing our tour with Ecclesia Houston led by Breaking Bread Journeys, here’s part 2 of Day 3.

After our visit to Mt. Precipice, we were ready for a light lunch and a wine tasting at Tulip Winery (יקב טוליפ). I love the cause behind Tulip, which our lovely host Lital told us employs 40 special needs adults who live in the village where the winery is located, a former kibbutz. The village’s name, Kfar Tikva, means “Village of Hope.”

At Tulip, they say “Labels are for wine bottles, not for people.” They were founded with the purpose of making great wine while providing special needs adults with employment and the support of community on the former kibbutz where they’re located. Started as a tiny boutique winery in 2003, now they are shipping over 300,000 bottles of wine annually and have won various awards locally and internationally.

Founded by the Itzhaki family, they fulfilled their long-time dream of establishing a winery which combines the production of quality wine with social responsibility.

Their wonderful vision produced an exciting model of wine entrepreneurialism that employs members of Kfar Tikva and provides them with a business platform from which they can integrate into the labor market like any other person.

Tulip has become an industry leader and the largest boutique winery in Israel.

Our group presented two of the employees we have come to know well over our several visits, Nathan and Maria, with some special gifts. Nathan has a rare genetic disorder and is known to be the oldest person in the world with the condition. He was Tulip’s first paid employee. They attribute his remarkable health to the joy and fulfillment he gets from his job.

In turn, the owner of the winery, Roy Itzhaki, surprised Pastor Chris with a special magnum bottle of his favorite Tulip wine signed by several of the employees.

We ended the day with a stop for a photo as we arrived at the Sea of Galilee.