At the beginning of March I joined a group of Christian journalists from all over Canada for a tour of the Holy Land. The Israel portion of the trip was sponsored by the Israel Ministry of Tourism. Unfortunately, I was not able to include writing on all the places I visited. The sites listed below are highlights and ones I felt readers of Converge would most enjoy hearing about. The views and opinions expressed in this article are my own.
Journey to the Holyland: The Interrogation
When I told an uncle I would be flying into Tel Aviv on El Al, the national airline of Israel, he told me: “Be prepared for a heavy interrogation.” I’m a little worried about how intimidating the questioning will be, but I put on a brave face. When I step up to the interviewer, I’m surprised by his friendliness. I hand over my passport and he proceeds to flip through it.
I’m nervous; the Turkish visa stands out, bright and colourful among my black and blue stamps. I hope my visit to a predominantly Muslim country isn’t going to bar me from the Holy Land.
“Why were you in Turkey?”
“Who did you go with?”
“How do you know the friend that you were traveling with?”
“Why were you in Austria the week before?”
“What cities in Turkey did you visit?”
He also asks some other questions, nothing too personal, but still pretty probing. In the end I’m glad for it. Knowing they screen everyone who gets on the plane gives me peace of mind. Especially since we’re flying into a country that is home to so much conflict.
The flight is long and rather uneventful. I try to sleep for most of it, but when I wake up and look at my clock, I realize we still have a few hours to go. I weave in and out of wakefulness as I spend the rest of the flight watching Silver Linings Playbook, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and parts of Hitchcock.
Landing is always a relief. I notice a Hasidic woman adjusting her wig and a young Jewish boy is straightening his crisp black coat. We shuffle out of the plane and into the airport, happy to be on the ground.
Then we meet Herzl, our tour guide, and Ismail, our bus driver. Once our luggage is loaded, we drive out of Tel Aviv.
On the bus, Herzl tells us a little about himself, about how he was born and raised in Israel and grew up in a Jewish home, how he discovered Jesus Christ and then converted to Christianity. As we make our way to our hotel in Caesarea, we drive by what Herzl describes as the Israeli equivalent of Silicon Valley. “They invented the flash drive here,” he proudly says. He also tells us of several startups that originated here and were sold for millions of dollars to American companies. On the road I see young business professionals in suits and sunglasses on their way to work. Tel Aviv feels like a bustling metropolitan city. Everything is new here. Herzl tells us to look to the left and we’ll see the most popular birds in all of Israel. I look and see construction cranes. The bus erupts with laughter.
Caesarea used to be a thriving trading city. Now it’s a mere tourist attraction, although there are some really great little restaurants that prepare delicious Israeli cuisine. It was ruled by King Herod in the 1st century.
Herzl guides us down to a Roman-style amphitheatre, where we stand in the middle and gaze up. A group of African tourists are also there, and break into song. The acoustics are amazing, their voices perfectly harmonized. I’m enjoying the experience of standing in an ancient theatre during a live performance when a tour guide yells, “Be quiet!” He’s trying to explain something to his group. They stop singing, and now all I hear is the wind and the faint sound of waves crashing up on the shore.
Basilica of the Annunciation
The Basilica of the Annunciation is the supposed location of where the Angel came to Mary, telling her she would be the mother of Jesus. If there’s one thing I come to understand about the land of Israel, it’s that none of the landmarks on the Gospel trail are really confirmed. Still, that doesn’t stop you from getting a feel for what it may have been like during Biblical times. The walls inside feature depictions of the Madonna and Child from different countries around the world. I see pieces from France, Spain, and Mexico. The one made in Japan stands out to me as both Mary and Jesus are portrayed as Japanese. I finally see the one from Canada, but am somewhat disappointed; it looks just like a clay rectangle with a bit of texture. Perhaps I’m not looking hard enough.
Mount of Beatitudes
Everything is green. Having arrived at the beginning of March, the land is full of shrubbery, tall grass, and wildflowers. Flora thrives in this region. We stop on the Mount of Beatitudes and the view is stunning. The little mount, which is more like a big hill, overlooks the Sea of Galilee. I imagine during Jesus’ time, the sea would have been filled with fisherman and boats. This is where He fed the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish. This is where He preached His sermon on the mount.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
— Matthew 5:3-10
I try to reflect on His words as we stand there. They’re still so powerful, centuries after being spoken.
Sea of Galilee
I feel completely at peace floating on what the local sailors call a “Jesus boat.” The Sea of Galilee is calm and the sun shines bright down on us. The wind blows strong today as we sail out. It’s an amazing feeling to be out on water. As the boat bobs up and down, I’m lulled into a bit of a trance. The sea itself is actually more of a lake, and it’s much smaller than what I imaged it to be. Maybe it’s because the sea has shrunk over time. Israel is not a land known for heavy rain.
“Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ None of the disciples dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord.” — John 21:10-12
Capernaum means “place of comfort.” It is beautifully preserved and well maintained. This was a city Jesus spent time in, ministering and teaching. It’s a small, modest town, close to the shore. There are ruins of what appears to be housing for people who once lived in the area. There’s also a temple several centuries old that is built on top of the old temple, where Jesus preached when he lived here.
We stop by Peter’s mother-in-law’s residence, and Herzl starts to tell a story we all know. It’s the one where Jesus tells Simon Peter to cast his nets, and when Simon Peter does, he pulls it out, and counts 153 fish. Herzl says Jesus would have walked down to the shore from this very village. The significance of the number 153, he explains, is that numbers translate into letters in the Hebrew alphabet. “153 is ‘ani elohim’ in Hebrew which means ‘I am God,’” says Herzl.
The Jordan River is where Jesus was baptized.
The water is quite shallow and rather muddy looking. Bob and Pam from our tour group have decided to get baptized here, and the rest of us gather around in support. A pastor from what seems like a Scandinavian or Eastern European country performs the baptism. He, together with a man that was baptized only minutes prior, submerges them one-by-one. They’re both standing again, hair soaking wet but with smiles plastered from ear to ear. I also notice tears from Pam’s eyes. Bob reaches around to give her a hug. We finish with the Doxology. The whole thing lasts about five minutes.
The Dead Sea
When I was in the fifth grade and had to choose a country to do a project on, I chose Israel. It was the land that had birthed Christianity, and thus was close to my 10-year-old heart. Upon researching the country, I found out that within Israel’s borders was the lowest point on earth — the Dead Sea. And in the Dead Sea, you could float sitting up. I knew I had to visit this strange place in my lifetime.
I back slowly into the water and gently sit down, tilting my head back slightly so my spine makes a gradual incline up to the surface. The buoyancy combined with the high salt content of the water keeps me afloat. There’s no other word to describe it other than magical. I feel absolutely weightless and relaxed until I roll over onto my stomach and get a mouthful of water. The Dead Sea water tastes foul. Not just a horribly salty foul, but horribly salty mixed with a disgusting stale flavour. Still it’s an experience like no other. I look around at the others in my group and everyone looks as blissful as kids in a ball pit.
Bethlehem is in Palestinian territory. We have to pass through a checkpoint on the edge of Jerusalem before we can enter. Luckily, and maybe thanks to Ismail, our Arab bus driver, we’re waved on through.
Our Palestinian tour guide Husam leads us around. He tells us he and his family are Coptic Christians from Egypt. “In Arabic, Bethlehem is translated to ‘House of Meat.’ In Hebrew, it is translated to ‘House of Bread,’” he says. Interesting, seeing as Jesus is described as “the bread of life,” and the bread that we take at communion represents His flesh.
There’s a wall that surrounds the territory: it’s there to keep Israelis out, or to keep Palestinians in, depending which side you favour. There’s graffiti art on the Palestinian side of the wall. I see an image of a smiling woman wearing a keffiyeh while she holds what looks like an RPD. I also see a couple of Banksy-style pieces, along with some Arabic graffiti.
Church of the nativity
We visit the place where they think Jesus was born. They’ve built the Church of the Nativity on top of the site. We line up for about a half-hour before we enter the grotto of the nativity. While we’re in line, we get a glimpse of a 14-point silver star, surrounded by silver lamps. A group of Catholics are ahead of us. They get down on all fours, and bow their heads into the fireplace-shaped alcove, whispering indecipherable prayers in a language I can’t make out. They’re crying, and it’s obvious they’re moved by this experience. I hear a church staff member shouting at them to hurry up. “Touch the star and go, we got a long line!” he shouts.
Learning about Palestine
Reverend Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran minister in Bethlehem, greets our group and leads us into a room with a screen projector and some chairs. He asks us to take a seat. Immediately he begins with a presentation that highlights the significant loss of land of Palestine to Israel. He half jokingly tells us that “Jesus was a Palestinian,” because He was born in Bethlehem. He also says “98 per cent of the Christians in the Holy Land (that is in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank) are Palestinian Christians.” It seems like he’s trying to win us over. Mitri talks about a one-state solution as the only real solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
At lunch I try to press Reverend Mitri on what he means by a one-state solution. “It’s like Canada, you have one state … and citizens living in one country with similar rights and responsibilities.” I ask him what this state would be called. He laughs nervously. “Maybe something different,” he says.
After a day in Bethlehem, we meet a smiling Ismail and head back into Jerusalem.
A twisted sense of humour
I’m standing with my group outside the old city walls. Suddenly, a child appears alone, temporarily separated from his parents. “Ehhm, this boy belongs to whom?” Herzl immediately asks.
With a smile and a wink, he tells us if no one claims the boy, he might blow up. As in the little boy might have a bomb strapped to him. Only in Israel can you joke around about child suicide bombers. But this is the attitude that the Israelis have to adopt; they have to maintain a sense of humour about their current situation, because to do otherwise would be to live in a very fearful and paralyzing reality.
Garden of Gethsemane
Herzl picks a black olive from a tree just before we get to the garden, and tells us that this is how an olive should look when it’s fully ripe. “Garden of Gethsemane is translated to ‘Garden of the Olive Press’ in Hebrew,” he says. I try in vain to link the significance of these two ideas. He then pulls out a napkin, places the olive inside, and presses with his thumb and index finger. When he opens the napkin, it’s stained blood red.
The garden itself is small and full of old hardy olive trees. It is fenced in and a church is built adjacent to it. Being in the garden brings John 18 to life for me. Not because the garden looked like the one I had imagined (because it didn’t), but because I can’t help but reflect on the story I’ve read: I’m standing in the very place (or close to the very place) that is described.
Church of the holy sepulchre
This is the site where it is believed that Jesus was crucified. The church is constructed of old stone. Below the top right window of the building is a wooden ladder, also known as the “immovable ladder.” Apparently, it’s been there since the 18th century.
I could spend a day just wandering the inside of the building and looking at all the artwork. Unfortunately, we only have 15 minutes. Inside, incense fills the air and several people line up to light candles at the aedicula. Some men are dressed in friar robes with hoods covering their faces. Others are adorned in ornate Russian Orthodox vestments with tall rounded caps. Women with their heads covered in colourful silk scarves are crying as they light their candles. It’s beautiful, but I have a slight feeling of unrest: I was raised in a conservative Presbyterian church where all of this would have been considered a bit idolatrous. I try to reflect on what this location means (Jesus dying on the cross for me), but I’m distracted by the incense, ornate clothing, and fanciful hats.
Herzl tells us there was an incident near the Western Wall earlier in the day, which is why there is an increased police presence in the area. I also notice several Israeli soldiers in the area. The young men and women are no older than 19 or 20, dressed in olive green uniforms and black combat boots. Assault rifles are slinked across their backs. Back at home, if I saw a 19-year-old with an M16 hanging off his body, I would probably have moved in the other direction. But here, it’s almost reassuring to see such a heavy military presence. These soldiers don’t look intimidating at all; in fact, most will smile and pose for a picture if you point a camera towards them.
The wall is divided into two sections: one side for men, the other side for women. The men’s side is bigger and fenced in by wooden barriers. I walk over to the women’s side and shuffle by several wailing women scribbling prayers onto little scraps of paper and reading scripture silently from their Torahs. Finally I get close to the wall and touch it. I see folded up notes in different shades of beige and pastel crammed into the cracks. It might represent one of those “thin places” — where the boundary between heaven and earth is especially thin. Or at least it’s a place where you can feel some sort of spiritual presence. I start to get a bit emotional and say a prayer for Israel and its people. Then I slowly walk away. I notice the other women walk backwards, keeping their faces to the wall until they get about eight metres away.
Shabbat is about to start as we leave the wall, and everybody is rushing to get home in time for dinner. The old city has shut down. All the stores are closed, and those still left lingering in the streets are tourists.
“Israel is the only place in the world that people come to see what is not there.”
— Tour guide at the Garden Tomb
After a long week of touring, it feels right, almost necessary, to sit down for a quiet Shabbat dinner. Jerry, from the Israel Ministry of Tourism, reads some Hebrew scripture. It’s a beautiful language; everybody sits wide-eyed and reverent. Jerry proceeds to break pieces of bread for each of us at the table. He then pours us some grape juice. We partake in both as he says a prayer. I can’t help but draw the parallels between Judaism and Christianity. This feels a lot like communion — the only person missing is Jesus.