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 8: Pre-dawn Via Dolorosa, Garden Tomb, Holocaust Museum, Farewell Lunch

Our final day of Ecclesia Houston’s tour with Breaking Bread Journeys started before dawn at 5am. We made our way into the old city via the Damascus Gate to find nearly empty streets surrounding the Via Dolorosa. Only one or two eager shopkeepers were out opening their shops. As we journeyed through “The Way of Sorrows”, Pastor Chris led us in a solemn progression through what 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.

At each Station of the Cross, Pastor Chris read us the corresponding scripture describing what happened at that station. As we had taken a sort of “vow” of silence while we followed the path, the words of Scripture rang a bit louder in void of any other voices at the early hour. We ended at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher a little after sunrise.

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.

Next we arrived at the The World Holocaust Remembrance Center (Yad Vashem). It was my sixth visit and I still have not been able to fully process the deeply horrific and saddening events of the Jewish Holocaust as represented in this unfathomable museum. It is always a profoundly disturbing experience as we acknowledge one of history’s deepest wounds.

Overall this day of the tour is quite a heavy one spiritually and emotionally. I will close my last blog post of this tour with an equally simple summary of what I’m feeling. This scripture sums up the day quite well. We are besieged with many sorrows in the reality of our fallen world on this side of eternity (Via Dolorosa, Yad Vashem), but we have a hope in the resurrection (Garden Tomb, Spring, flowers that blossom from apparently dead seeds).

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
Mourning no more, crying no more, pain no more,
For the first things have gone away.
Revelation 21:4

To beautifully celebrate the official closing of our journey, Christina Samara, one of the founders of Breaking Bread Journeys, shared her farewell with us at lunch in East Jerusalem. We are grateful for the vision of this bold and wonderful tour company.

Not documented: Friday night we enjoyed the experience of a Shabbat dinner ceremony in a local Jewish home (thanks to a group called “Shabbat of a Lifetime”). We learned so much from our gracious hosts. They patiently answered our endless questions about their faith and traditions. Needless to say, the food they generously served us was out-of-this-world delicious.

And thus the bookends of our tour were incredibly fitting: Day 1 of our official itinerary we were served a beautiful and sumptuous meal prepared by Palestinian Muslims in Nablus, and for our final meal together, we were served an elaborate and festive meal by traditional Israeli Jews. It underscored how much we leave the holy land realizing there’s much more that we don’t understand about the deep tensions of this land than we thought we did when we arrived. We depart with a renewed burden to pray for all of God’s people who reside here; the vast majority of whom long for peace.

Day 7: Chefs for Peace Jerusalem Old City Food Tour, Cooking Classes; Holy Sepulchre, Tunnel Tour

A definite highlight of the Ecclesia Houston tour with Breaking Bread Journeys was meeting up with Chefs for Peace today. They’re 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 three faiths: food, family, and friends.

After a morning of free time recovering from our epic road trip the day before, 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 some of the ingredients they would be using to prepare our lunch!

But first we 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 over 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.

After shopping for some fresh Tahini in the Muslim Quarter along with a demonstration of how it is made, the chefs took us for a 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 Sepulchre, which is now sealed off and no longer used.

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. I then led some of the members of the group on a photo tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as we had some free time before our next stop on the tour.

Next, after a walk through the Jewish Quarter, 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 weighs an estimated 570 tons.

My devotional focus for Day 6 brought me to themes surrounding celebration, contemplation, and light. Our day started with the surreal juxtaposition of enjoying food along the route of Jesus’ path to the Cross known as the Via Dolorosa. It’s not an easy theme to consider, but in the Christian faith, Jesus’ execution is ultimately the celebration of his resurrection and victory over sin and death. So it is appropriate that, while we also consider his suffering and the penalty he paid on our behalf, we should find also a path of celebration and feasting along the same route. However, I appreciated the way that God led us to the Holy Sepulchre after this celebration where it is hard not to enter in a contemplative spirit.

As you will see in the images further down in the set, there is very inspiring art leading us to a contemplation of the sorrows that Jesus, his family, friends, and disciples endured on the path to the Cross and in his death. However, one of the things I love most about this church is how many beautiful lamps, candles, and lanterns you will find throughout the labyrinthine hallways, chapels, and crypts of the centuries-old structure. These lamps stand as a symbolic testament that, while there is a certain sorrow in considering Christ’s suffering he endured on our behalf, there is the beautiful light of resurrection coming, a light of rebirth and hope offered by God to all who will receive it. John recorded in his Gospel account that Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

Day 6: Jordan River, Mount of Temptation, Qumran Caves, Dead Sea, Jerusalem

Day 6 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 along the Jordan River to the site thought to be very close to the Baptismal Site of Jesus Christ. Many pilgrims among our group commemorated their baptisms in the Jordan, and two of those traveling in our group were baptized for the first time. I have many more baptism photos but for the purpose of the blog, I have just chosen a few representative shots. It’s so hard not to publish them all! But if I did, it would be overwhelming for the casual visitor I think!

This is my 6th 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. Probably the hardest part of publishing this blog is narrowing down the photo choices! From this day alone I have over 200 “keeper” shots!

My devotional thought for Day 6 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 at the Jordan baptismal site 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 43 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 open our arms and receive the love and life-giving support that is available. While my life has been full of my 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.

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. This group is very fun-loving and spontaneous!

Later in the post, you will see that our journey took us to the archaeological site of the Qumran Caves, the Dead Sea, and ultimately on up into the holy city of Jerusalem!

From a vista in Jericho, we could see a view of the Mount of Temptation. 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. Unfortunately we did not have time to take the cable cars up to the Monastery located on the cliffsides of the mountain.

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.

Pastor Chris then took us to his favorite dinner spot, Jacob’s Pizza…

Just around the corner from Jacob’s Pizza in the Christian Quarter near Jaff Gate is Razzouk Tattoos, a family tattoo business that has been marking pilgrims with special Christan crosses and symbols for over 700 years in the old city. We got to meet Wassim Razzouk and hear a little about his story.

We then walked over to the Jewish Quarter, where Pastor Chris introduced the group to the Western Wall where we prayed and experienced Judaism’s most holy site.

Holy Land Day 6: Pre-Dawn Via Dolorosa, Garden Tomb, Farewell

Our final day of the tour started before dawn at 5am. We made our way into the old city via Herod’s Gate to find nearly empty streets surrounding the Via Dolorosa. As we journeyed through “The Way of Sorrows,” Pastor Chris led us in a solemn progression through what 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. At each Station of the Cross, Pastor Chris read us the corresponding scripture describing what happened at that station. We ended at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher a little after sunrise.

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.

Next we arrived at the Holocaust History Museum which is always a profoundly moving experience, acknowledging one of history’s deepest wounds. Photographs are not allowed inside the museum so I have simply added a few of the outside architecture to remember our visit by.

Lastly, Christina and Elisa, founders of Breaking Bread Journeys, shared their farewell with us at lunch in East Jerusalem. We are grateful for their vision.

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