When I saw that our programme offered the opportunity to get up early to go the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on a Sunday morning, I thought it looked too good to miss. It’s not exactly an opportunity which appears regularly in my life. When I discovered this meant leaving the hotel at 0515, I was less keen. But…..
…I made it, thanks mainly to the encouragement of my wonderful room-mate. Today I was going to earn my breakfast. The church has various services of the three Christian Denominations running at the same time, and the Byzantine Orthodox did the best chanting, holding their own until the Roman Catholics got support from an amazing sounding LOUD organ. Others had described it as competition, but actually I can imagine worship in heaven being a bit similar but perhaps with more harmony. To be part of Mass was very special indeed, and I loved going afterwards to hear Morning Prayer (actually one of the Daily Offices, but I’m not sure which because it was in Latin) whilst sitting in front of the Reserved Sacrament, with a wonderful set of sculpted Stations of the Cross on the Wall. The early start didn’t matter.
I was very surprised by how few people were around, but I remembered that OWG reckoned there were fewer than 1000 Christians in Jerusalem. It is easy to forget how precarious the hold of the church is in the Middle East, and easy to forget how much prayer support Christians need when they leave in places where faith is hard.
Our reward was a beautiful sky over the Damascus Gate as we gently made our way to breakfast.
Next stop was to get cases on to the coach and get ourselves to church.
This is the Anglican Cathedral of St George, where we had a Common Worship Holy Communion in English and Arabic. I loved the mixture of language, but was a little too peopled out to join the Liturgy of Coffee afterwards.
We settled down for the journey out of Jerusalem. I found the city a difficult place to be, partly perhaps because I didn’t feel 100%, but also because it is so busy and enclosed. I’m a rural kind of woman and I need some open spaces now and again. The gardens we visited helped, but it in’s like the countryside. However, we were about to get wide open spaces with a vengeance.
Imagine trying to scrape a living off that land. Water at a premium, travel tricky because of borders, and a desert.
We stopped briefly to look across the desert. It was silent, and even after some winter rain, it was mostly dry. I loved it. I loved the look, the peace, the smell, the grittiness…possibly a reaction to the crowded streets and places of Jerusalem. You can see the bottom of a Vally in the photo – where the greenery grows from collected water, either on the surface or underground. I’d never seen an oasis before.
Jericho was pretty dry, but a few plants had managed to establish themselves and put down deep roots. There were banana plantations on the edge of the city – irrigated, with stubby plants – presumably to make it easier to pick bananas!
One plant doing well is the sycamore tree. It isn’t the one that Zacchaeus the Tax Collector climbed in order to see Jesus over the heads of the crowds, but it did look very climbable. However temptation was resisted.
I was really looking forward to seeing the Jordan River and the Baptismal Site. I’ve told the story of John baptising Jesus at so many baptisms, and seeing the desert made me think about John’s life all over again. No wonder people contrasted his disciples with Jesus’ followers. wandering in the desert would be a very tough way to live.
The Jordan River is rather narrow – the Avon at Stratford is far wider. It’s also the border between Palestine and Jordan. It feels considerably less fraught than other borders in the region, but it’s still advisable not to swim across.
I enjoyed renewing my baptismal vows, although I opted to avoid full immersion….
We got back on the coach (“Ready? Let’s go!), and drove through the parched countryside to the border with Israel. I was shocked to see how the countryside turned greener almost immediately, so I asked OWG whether it was because Israelis could afford to irrigate the land. The reply stayed with me. “The Bible speaks of a land of milk and honey. Milk at that time came from sheep and goats, which lived in the desert. Honey came from the bees living on the plants on the fertile plain. The two belong together. But the border split them, so Israel has the plain, and Palestine has the desert”.
My further reading so far says that early Zionist settlers at the beginning of the twentieth century were much more interested in fertile land that in Biblical sites, which suggests that OWG was correct.
It was a very long day, and we were glad to arrive safely at a beautiful hotel in Tiberius.