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 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 2: Jacob’s Well, Nablus Old City, Samaritan Village

Continuing on Day 2 of Ecclesia Houston‘s Holy Land pilgrimage with Breaking Bread Journeys, we started our tour by making our way from Netanya to Nablus in the West Bank of the Palestinian Territories. Our first stop was to the Greek Orthodox Church that sits atop the two-millennia-old Jacob’s Well. Next, we made our way into Nablus city to visit an olive oil soap factory that’s been making hand-cut soap for 180 years. It has made Nablus famous throughout the middle east for its soap. We then toured more of the old city, visiting several street food vendors and a candy factory. Next, we arrived at an event prepared by Slow Food Nablus, the culinary school for The House of Dignity which is an empowerment and education program for Palestinian women. The women of this community are incredibly joyful and were so happy to serve us. Our meal was an unbelievable feast we will not soon forget. Next up, we visited a Samaritan museum on Mt. Gerizim and enjoyed a scenic overlook with stunning views of Nablus below. This Samaritan Priest explained to us much about the Samaritan faith and its ancient history in the region. Such an amazing day. I am always touched by how welcoming the people of Nablus are. There’s a certain sense of tranquility over the city.

Day 5, Part 3: Mount of Temptation, Qumran Caves, Dead Sea, Jerusalem, Church of the Holy Sepulchre

This is my 8th holy land tour group to shoot for, and our itinerary generally follows a similar path. I will say that this day of the itinerary is usually the most intense, as we cover so much ground in one day. As a result, it’s the day that provides the most photo opportunities. It’s like packing three days into one (thus 3 posts to cover this one day). Probably the hardest part of publishing this blog is narrowing down the photo choices! From this day alone I’m publishing over 200 photos.

My devotional thought for Day 5 focused on the transitory nature of time and life. By the time we reached Jerusalem, many of us remarked something to the effect of, “Wait, we were just on the Sea of Galilee this morning?” 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, chapter 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 had its share of heartbreaking moments and plenty of loss, 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.

To start out this post, we take a trip up to the of the Monastery on the Mount of Temptation for incredible views of the areas around Jericho. After being baptized by John the Baptist, Jesus fasted for forty days and nights in the Judaean Desert, through which we journeyed today. The Gospels tell us that during this time, Satan appeared to Jesus and tried to tempt him. It is thought that he endured these temptations at this location.

From there we made our way to the Qumran Caves, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by a shepherd boy in 1947. We learned that The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in eleven caves along the northwest shore of the Dead Sea between the years 1947 and 1956. The area is 13 miles east of Jerusalem and is 1300 feet below sea level. They have been called the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times. There are now identified among the scrolls, 19 copies of the Book of Isaiah, 25 copies of Deuteronomy and 30 copies of the Psalms. The Isaiah Scroll, found relatively intact, is 1000 years older than any previously known copy of Isaiah. In fact, the scrolls are the oldest group of Old Testament manuscripts ever found.

We then headed to the Dead Sea where members of our group were able to experience the extremely buoyant properties of the highly salinated water. We learned from our tour guide Bassam that most seawater contains 5-7% salt, but that the Dead Sea contains approximately 27-33% salt.

We then journeyed west through the mountains that divide the dessert from the coastal plain and reached Jerusalem in just 30 minutes. Pastor Chris guided the group into the holy city through the Damascus Gate. We arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre just in time to see the famous event many come to watch each evening: the locking of the church doors. The key is held by a Muslim family in a symbolic gesture of interfaith cooperation. There’s an interesting article about the key you can read here.