Day 6: Pre-Dawn Via Dolorosa, Garden Tomb, Mt. of Olives, Garden of Gethsemane, Yad Vashem, Farewell Lunch

Continuing my journey with Ecclesia Houston and Pastor Chris Seay via the always-innovative tour company Breaking Bread Journeys, day 6 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 short 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 blue glow of a sleepy Jerusalem sky, we listened with broken hearts as 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. We were moved to tears 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 years 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 6, we made our way to the Mount of Olives (the location of Jesus’ ascension into heaven 40 days after his resurrection) and then walked down to the Garden of Gethsemane, another important scene in the story of Jesus’ path to his death. 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, we ended our tour 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.

We then took a much needed time of reflection and prayer on the bus as Pastor Chris led us in a liturgy 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 certificates of our pilgrimage. We were all so grateful for them and our faithful tour guide, Bassam.

If you’ve read this far, thank you for following along. I hope these images might be inspiring as a visual expression of what I felt this day. God bless you.

Day 5: Church of Saint Anne, Old City Food Tour, Eucalyptus Restaurant, Razzouk Tattoos

Day 5 with Ecclesia Houston on our Breaking Bread Journeys tour of the Holy Land was a deep dive into Old City Jerusalem. We began with a walk to the Lion’s Gate (called the “Sheep’s Gate” in John’s Gospel) which put us near the start of the Via Dolorosa. Located there is 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 songs as well!

The church is located right beside the archaeological excavation of the Pool 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”). Chris mentioned how we have trouble waiting 38 days, much less 38 years.

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.

After our visit to St. Anne’s, the Pool of Bethesda, and the beautiful gardens therein, we ventured out for a food and market tour of the old city within the walls. Our first stop brought us to Abu Shukri, a cafe famous for its hummus and falafel, located beside Stations of the Cross V on the Via Dolorosa. We then made our way up 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 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 Sepulchre, which is now sealed off and no longer used. We wandered a bit more through the Christian Quarter and wound up in the spice market where our group ordered many famous spices to take home.

We then visited a famous photography print shop, known as Elia’s Photo Service. The pictures this Armenian family sell are part of a collection of about 3,000 photographs taken by their late father Elia Kahvedjian, a refugee of the Armenian genocide and one of the greatest photographers in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 20th century. The pictures, which had been hidden away since 1947, were rediscovered by the family just 30 years ago and serve to help researchers and aficionados of Jerusalem probe its past. For a fascinating article on the importance of the photographs, you can read this article. Several of us bought his book, Jerusalem Through My Father’s Eyes, which is a rare and beautiful collector’s item of which I myself am a proud owner!

We then had some free time to wander the city and I found some more scenes to document in the old city. After our free time, we made our way to Chef Moshe Basson’s “The Eucalyptus” restaurant just outside the old city near the Jaffa Gate. Basson is famous worldwide for his revival of the biblical menu. He shared with us several stories of herbs and spices used in biblical times, as he passed these herbs around for us to smell. We then enjoyed an unforgettable meal at his beautiful restaurant.

Last but not least, we ended the night with a visit from Palestinian Christian Wassim Razzouk, whose 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 4, Part 3: Jerusalem Old City Entry, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Western Wall

After a long day of travel from the Galilee region down to Jericho and the Dead Sea, we finally made our way to Jerusalem in time for a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, dinner at Jacob’s Pizza, and then finally, a visit to pray at the Western Wall, a site sacred to both Jews and Christians. The Western Wall is the largest remaining section of the retaining wall of the Second Temple. Thousands of people come to pray here, leaving prayer notes in the wall. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre contains the traditional sites believed to be where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected, therefore the name of the church is sometimes referred to as The Church of the Resurrection. Whether it be the actual historic site or simply the location tradition selected, it is a beautiful space full of reverence and deeply inspiring art.

Day 3: Sea of Galilee, Magdala, Rosh Pina, Mt. of Beatitudes

I’m here documenting for a group of Christians on pilgrimage to the holy land from Ecclesia Houston with Breaking Bread Journeys. I hope you’re enjoying my photo-journal of our experiences. After our breakfast at the Ma’agan Hotel with the breathtaking view of the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee, we embarked upon a boating excursion where our guide David showed us how fishing nets would have been cast in the time of Jesus. Pastor Chris Seay shared with us from the account of Matthew’s Gospel describing Jesus walking on the water and Peter’s struggle with his faith to follow Jesus onto the water.

We then headed to an archaeological site called Magdala, the site of at least two places in ancient Israel mentioned in the Jewish Talmud and possibly a location mentioned in the Christian New Testament. They have discovered an ancient Jewish Synagogue which would have been active during Jesus’ time. Pastor Chris told us it is almost 100% certain that Jesus would have visited this Synagogue. A church is also located at the site with a beautiful view of the lake and very impressive and inspiring murals and artwork throughout. The discovery at Magdala is said to be on par with the Dead Sea Scrolls in historical importance.

I don’t know what it is but this was the maybe the most touching day of all my times here. Sometimes it takes it awhile to really sink in. God speaks to me through art. There was something about the mosaic of Jesus calling the disciples to drop their nets that really hit home for me (you will see the photo below in a group of four gorgeous mosaics found in the Catholic Church at Magdala). Pastor Chris had mentioned during our prayer time in the basement of the church that Jesus calls the disciples to follow him, to drop their nets, tells them he will make them fishers of people; to pursue people and shine his love and light to “catch” them for God and bring them into his ways of radical love. And then I walk upstairs and I go into the chapel where this mosaic is. What I’m receiving in these days is that the incarnation of Jesus is the highest form of love that God could express to us, and oh how he loves us! And here we are where it all happened.

After a much-needed afternoon break at our beautiful hotel property, we enjoyed an extravagant meal at a local French Restaurant, the Auberge Shulamit, in the town of Rosh Pina on the northern side of the Sea of Galilee. The owner personally introduced us to the menu and helped serve with a very friendly staff. After dinner, we gathered on the rooftop terrace to watch the sunset over Mt. Hermon.

After dinner Pastor Chris led the group in an after-hours visit to the Mount of Beatitudes where he read us the entire Sermon on the Mount at the location it is traditionally believed to have been preached by Jesus. The night sky was very clear and full of stars. It was an unforgettable evening standing there listening to our pastor read what is regarded as the most famous sermon of all time, near what would have been the spot that Jesus shared it almost 2000 years ago. I’ll share some of the beginning verses of this beautiful and timeless message here:

Blessed are the spiritually poor—the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Blessed are those who mourn—they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek and gentle—they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness—they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful—they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are those who are pure in heart—they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers—they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness—the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

This last shot is a 125-second exposure over the Sea of Galilee … while Chris read the Sermon on the Mount, our planet and all the stars our Creator set into motion at the beginning of time continued their journey exactly on the path he set them on. He is in control and he has us heading right where he wants us.

Day 2: Nazareth, Mary’s Well, Mt. Precipice, Tulip Winery

Today we made our way to Nazareth, the childhood home of Jesus. We enjoyed one of my favorite churches in the world, the Church of Mary’s Well. It is believed that 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. So it is probable that Mary drew water from this well for the holy family. The murals and iconography in the church are beautifully done and very inspiring.

We then took a short hike to Mt. Precipice for some beautiful panoramic views. It is believed by many to be the site of the Rejection of Jesus described in Luke 4:29-30 – 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. The beautiful views provided for some great shots of the group.

After that, we were ready for lunch and a wine tasting at Tulip Winery (יקב טוליפ). I love the cause behind Tulip, which employs 35 special needs adults who live in the village where the winery is located, a former kibbutz. The village’s name means “Village of Hope.”

There they say “Labels are for wine bottles, not for people.” They were founded with a purpose of 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 500,000 bottles of wine annually and have won various awards locally and internationally. I have really grown to love this place.

Lastly, we arrived at our hotel on the south shore of the Sea of Galilee just in time for a breathtaking sunset.