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.

Ecclesia with Breaking Bread Journeys: Via Dolorosa, Garden Tomb, Garden of Gethsemane, Holocaust Museum, Ein-Kerem, Razzouk Tattoos

On our final day of the tour, we started our morning early with a predawn visit to the old city to walk the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa. Pastor Chris Seay and Pastor Greg Holder led us through the scriptures that match the traditional Stations of the Cross, on “The Way of Sorrows” which ended at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. In Jerusalem, the Via Dolorosa is traditionally believed to be the actual path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion, and the stations there, the actual places the events occurred.


Next on our schedule was a tour of the Garden Tomb, a rock-cut tomb in Jerusalem which was unearthed in 1867 and has subsequently been considered by many Christians to be the more historically accurate site of the burial and resurrection of Jesus. The site has some of the most beautiful gardens in Jerusalem, in my opinion. That’s why you’ll see me sharing several photos highlighting the garden in addition to the empty tomb itself. Pastor Chris led us in a very contemplative communion at the completion of the tour.


After the tour of the Garden Tomb we took the bus up to a scenic overlook of the old city from the vantage point of the Mount of Olives. From there we made it to the base of the mount for a visit to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed with his disciples the night before his crucifixion. The olive trees in this garden are well over 2,000 years old.


Next we arrived at the Holocaust History Museum which is always a profoundly moving experience, acknowledging one of history’s deepest wounds.


Next we took a break in Ein-Kerem, “Jerusalem’s Ancient Village” … I managed to get a few context shots of the neighborhood where we had lunch.


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 read more about the fascinating history of the Razzouk family business, you can read an article here.


Ecclesia with Breaking Bread Journeys: Jerusalem, Holocaust Museum, Gush Etzion Winery, Garden Tomb

Wow what a week! We wrapped up our last day with another full itinerary that took us through a wide range of emotions.

We started with a morning visit to St. Anne’s Church and the ruins of the Pools of Bethesda, entering into the Old City through the Lion’s Gate…


The gardens at St. Anne’s Church were quite spectacular…


Our group sang to enjoy the famous acoustics of the church, which many choirs make pilgrimage to from all over the world just to perform there.


The sun rising over the top of the church produced a lens flare the likes of which I’ve never quite seen before…


We then walked over to the Garden of Gethsemane and The Church of All Nations. Along the way we met this kind man…


Entering in to the garden where Jesus prayed the night before his crucifixion…


The garden is home to olive trees believed to be 2,000 years old…


Pastor Chris shared with us from Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 26 which is the account of Jesus’ time in the garden where we stood…


Inside the neighboring Church of All Nations, which contains beautiful depictions of Jesus praying in the garden…


Next we visited the Holocaust Museum… my second visit, a very sobering reminder of one of history’s deepest wounds…


After that we definitely needed something lighter to lift our hearts… So we visited Gush Etzion Winery just south of Jerusalem, and were treated to an enlightening tour of the winery, wine tastings and a very delicious meal…


Pastor Chris was invited to sign a cork and drop it into their collection. Here he is with the founder and owner of the winery…


As if that were not a full enough day, we then made our way to the Garden Tomb, which has the most archaeological and historical evidence for being the actual place of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection…


The society that preserves the site does a wonderful job of maintaining a serene space with beautiful gardens…


The tomb…


We were honored to meet a Muslim man who was visiting the tomb because he said that his faith honors Jesus as a prophet and he wants to know more about him…


After that we attended a traditional Shabbat meal in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. We ate on a rooftop overlooking the Old City and Mount of Olives. Our hosts were most gracious and welcoming. We were not allowed to take photos but the images will be forever etched in my mind as one of the most breathtaking experiences of my lifetime.

Some of our group left very early the next morning, but these were the last of the group I said goodbye to, along with our amazing tour guide Shafik and bus driver Mahmoud…


And that was the end of the tour of a lifetime… Hope you enjoyed following along! Next up… Nepal and India.