Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus!

Trip Start Jul 06, 2010
Trip End Jul 24, 2010

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Taxi Traveler Axiom #1: Do your best to determine what the taxi driver charges for the proposed trip BEFORE getting into the taxi.

Though this rule didn't make the original Decalogue given Moses by God on Mt. Sinai, it carries a similar cause and effect result when broken, which I rediscovered as we set out to plan our first Jerusalem walk today.

Our quest this morning was to trace the triumphant Palm Sunday – week before the crucifixion – route of Jesus from Bethany, where he had raised his friend Lazarus from the dead, via the Mount of Olives, and into Jerusalem. We knew Bethany is in Zone A of the West Bank, creating potential access issues. But since a couple of reliable sources had told us that it was permitted and safe to go there, we asked the hotel to call us a taxi, and Nikola mysteriously appeared almost immediately.

"Bethany? No problem!" And we were off with our new Israeli Arab friend, Nikola, chattering a mile a minute. Soon we were out on the freeway headed east towards Jericho and Nikola explained that, due to the security wall between the West Bank and Israel, we had to drive a roundabout 15 kilometers to travel only 3 or 4 kilometers as the crow flies. He further informed us there is no break in the wall at Bethany – no access either on foot or car directly through the wall to Bethphage and the Mount of Olives.

This piece of intelligence scuttled the front end of our walk, and instead of a simple one-way taxi ride to Bethany, we were now dependent upon Nikola to drive us back into East Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives after we visited Bethany. At that point, I had the sick realization that Nikola was in the driver’s seat, both literally and figuratively. We hadn’t asked enough questions up front to evaluate the reasonableness of the fare. He wasn’t using a meter (an obvious tipoff), and that, along with the surprisingly high fares that now rolled off his tongue, and his general demeanor, made me suspicious. My suspicions were confirmed when, on the return trip, he suddenly became a model of traffic safety to justify his inflated fare, slowing to 80 kilometers an hour while the traffic flow zipped past us.

Nonetheless, feeling the fool, I paid him at the Mount of Olives, got his company name and car registration number to turn in to authorities (turns out he triple charged us!), and began a memorable day of connecting sites related to the days leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

From the Mount of Olives, we visited a plethora of sites on the west flank of the Mount of Olives and inside the walls of Old Jerusalem, a full set of 16th century walls built in the Ottoman period under Turkish Sultan Suleiman, the Magnificent.

The Holy Land, usually considered to encompass modern day Israel, Jordan, and the Sinai Peninsula, is littered with sites of significance tied to Biblical stories and their often larger-than-life personalities. Most of us from countries in the West grew up directly or indirectly influenced by these Bible stories and names interwoven into our shared Judeo-Christian culture.

Even our language is laced with idioms birthed in our common awareness of the Bible. For example Jesus’ most influential teaching, the Sermon on the Mount, produced a slew of sayings now embedded in everyday speech, often without awareness of their source. “Turning the other cheek”, “going the extra mile”, “salt of the earth”, “ask and you shall receive”, and other lesser known phrases come from these teachings recorded the Gospels of the New Testament. In addition, many North Americans will quickly recognize many names on a map of modern day Israel that have not changed since the Biblical era.

Many of the faithful have yielded to the understandable human desire to apply Bible stories, events, and personalities at a next level, attempting to link their faith to a specific physical spot that can be experienced with the senses. This drive to connect to a place, to deepen faith by finding and venerating a specific piece of the planet where supernatural Biblical events occurred has produced some perplexing results.

During the Roman era, directly after the time of Christ, Christians endured waves of persecution and reduced rights and privileges. It was not until Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion in the 4th century that followers of Christ were able to freely visit the Holy Land and openly seek and mark the Biblical sites of interest or veneration.

Due in part to this 300-year gap between access to the Holy Land and the latest events recorded in the Bible, and in part to growing sectarianism among the faithful during intervening centuries, places connected with the Bible define a confusing and often contradictory checkerboard.

On the Mount of Olives, Muslims, who recognize much of the Old Testament as holy scripture and venerate Jesus as a prophet, control a mosque marking the spot of his ascension; there’s even a footprint in stone said to be Jesus’ last. Nearby, Carmelite nuns operate a beautiful church dedicated to the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer, even though Jesus almost certainly taught this simple means of communicating with God up in Galilee.

Where exactly on the hillside of the Mount of Olives did Jesus pray his tortured request for release and submission in the Garden of Gethsemane just before the painful, humiliating fulfillment of his mission on earth? The beautiful Church of All Nations is flanked by a grove of ancient olives trees that certainly produces the aura of what we see in our mind’s eye when we read the account of Jesus and his sleepy disciples, and the fateful “kiss of death” (another idiom) given by the traitor, Judas. But who can know for sure?

The Greek Orthodox claim Mary, the mother of Jesus, is buried in a crypt across from the Church of All Nations. Catholics venerate a spot south of the walls on Mount Zion now marked by the impressive Dormition Abbey, and another in Ephesus, Turkey visited by many WAI travelers on our Turkey Adventure. The claims and counter claims go on and on.

Perhaps most disturbing is “The Status Quo”, an agreement between various Christian groups claiming jurisdiction over Christianity’s most revered site – the Church of the Holy Sepulcher – where Jesus was crucified and subsequently entombed, then resurrected. Six denominations claim a say in how the site is managed: Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Christians, and Egyptian Copts.

To address bickering between the groups, which has frequently become violent, Ottoman Muslims, who controlled Palestine at the time, arbitrated the initial agreement in 1757. It was reaffirmed in 1852, then codified by the British in 1922 when they controlled this part of the Middle East. The slightest breach of the agreement – placement of a chair, or the presence of priest from an opposing denomination at the wrong time or place, for example – can result in fistfights and injury. Since these Christians cannot find a way to trust one another, the agreement stipulates that a Muslim be custodian of the church’s key, a role that has been played by the same Muslim family for generations.

As a follower of Christ, the Status Quo is a sad embarrassment. To me it illustrates that though the places of the Holy Land are significant, maybe life-changing for some, they pale in comparison to the actual message of the Bible embodied in the life and teachings of Christ, and carried on by the apostles, the messengers.

So today as I walked among the sites of the Mount of Olives, as I passed through the Lion’s Gate into the Old City, as I walked the Via Dolorosa – the Way of the Cross, I consider the importance of place. I wrestled with the contradictions. I read the stories connected with each site, some originating from the Bible, some from legend that has since evolved. I peppered with questions my travel companion Terry, a pastor, student of Hebrew and Judaism, and veteran of 11 earlier Holy Land visits.

I wondered if the life of Christ, especially his last days, was possibly a parallel of what we see today in Jerusalem. Most of Jesus’ conflict was with the religious leaders – Jews consumed with the rituals of Jewish Law. The focus on form, the preoccupation with position and pride, locking in on the letter of the law over its spirit blinded the religious leaders. In every era, I thought, these distractions have fooled us, have hindered the necessary humbling of ourselves in recognition of our abiding need of God, our need for redemption.

Yet the distortion of the message by those opposing him did not derail Christ. Jesus still upheld Jewish Law and honored the Temple. He peeled away the false and centered on his calling and destiny. As we continued to walk in (or near) his footsteps, I felt the contradictions drain away, As we approached the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, I imagined what happened here, perhaps not exactly on this spot but certainly in close proximity. We stood at the place most scholars agree was Golgotha, where Jesus had been crucified. In the hum of pilgrim adulation all around me, I marveled at his submission! We kneeled at the nearby tomb that is likely the spot where he was laid by his friend Joseph of Arimathaea. Amid the trappings of veneration, I wondered at his love!

And I was touched by the place. I was in awe of what happened here. I cried.
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Andrea on

Beautifully written, Dan. While you are on the planning trip in Israel you might want to try looking up the wonderful guide I had on my Elderhostel trip a few years ago. His name is Amir Orly. At the time he worked with an educational travel group called Keshet Israel. We also had a wonderful guide (whose name I have forgotten) in Acre, who described himself as having "Christian parents, growing up in a Muslim neighborhood, with a Jewish attitude...but really I'm a Baha'i!"

Jane Rhoades on

Dan, I think you better write a book. Your writing is beyond beautiful. I feel like I walking with you. What a wonder! Jane

friesendm on

Thanks for the kind words Jane. Right now I have all I can do to get a blog posted every few days. Some day maybe. Thanks for reading!

friesendm on

Hi Andrea, I remember you telling me about him. I'll look into it. It can be hard to find guides who like to walk.

Hans M. Wilhelm on

Dan, this blog was exceptional! Very moving and great insights... You are adding a dimension to this "Walking Adventure" that will have a lasting impact on all. Thanks!

Tink on

I feel that I'm in Israel reading about all the places you have been. I'm looking forward to going with WAI in February to experience the amazing country of Israel and connecting with my Christian beliefs.

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