My own feelings around Ash Wednesday have evolved over time. The Rev. Bruce Epperly once wrote that the very brevity of life invites us to “seize the day” on Ash Wednesday and give thanks and praise for the wonder of life in all its facets. We are all mortal and, I suppose, one could say that we have been dying since the day we were born, but if we are dying, we are also living. As Epperly says, we are part of God’s grand and holy adventure in our living and our dying.
We are dust and to dust we will return, but God can do a lot with dust. The dirt beneath our feet is a place of life where seeds sleep until called forth by the season and the sun. Ashes made from the last year’s Palm Sunday palm fronds are a recycling of the Resurrection narrative. Place them on your head or simply take a small packet (or do both!) and remember that they are the symbol of birth and re-birth. Within our mortality are the seeds of Resurrection, and Ash Wednesday reminds of that.
And one more thing about that “dust” from which our bodies are made – it is the stuff of creation itself. The elements that make up our human form are the same that shine down from the night sky. We are literally star dust and that is another good thing to remember when the ashes are placed on our foreheads.
As Carrie and I get ready to leave on our Holy Land adventure to Israel and Jordan. I wanted to share with you some of what we look forward to in the next ten days to two weeks. We are going with 30 other folks, clergy and lay, through a trip sponsored by the Maine Conference of the UCC. Our trip is booked through the Society for Biblical Studies and it promises to be more than sightseeing. We will be guided by a member of the SBS who will take us to all those places we have heard described in the scriptures and in books about the region – Nazareth, Galilee, the River Jordan, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Masada, the Dead Sea, Capernaum, Qumran and Petra. In addition, we will visit places that we often hear about in the news – a kibbutz, a Jewish settlement and a Palistinian refugee camp, and at each location we will have the opportunity to engage with one of the residents. I am sure it will be eye opening as well as challenging to some of our pre-conceived notions.
It seems a long time ago when I sent in my deposit and made my plans, but now departure is imminent and the energy is building. This Sunday afternoon, we will leave for Logan Airport where we will be departing, on the evening of Nov. 2nd. We arrive at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv in the late afternoon of Nov. 3rd, and from there will will travel to Galilee to begin our tour. Even typing this is exciting and I appreciate your giving me the opportunity to take this amazing journey. It is my hope that I will be able to post to our church website to give you updates and reflections along the way. Some of this will depend on technology and internet connections, and we will find the means to alert you when a post arrives.
We ask for you prayers and blessings.
Posted November 5, 2014
Morning in Nazareth.
Below, to the right, is the view from the balcony of St. Margaret’s Hostel where we are staying. In the middle distance is the Church of the Annunciation, built on the site believed to be the home of Mary where she received the message from the angel Gabriel that she would bear the Son of God. Just in front of it is the minaret of the local mosque. At certain times of the day, the bells of the monastery ring and the call to prayer by the Muzzien blend, reflecting the blending of the population in this part of the city – Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, Christian and Jew.
From there we went to a Kibbutz where our guide was Lydia, pictured below. An emigre from Wales in 1968, she is a self described Jewish, Zionist, peace activist, secularist who has embraced the communal life. As a Jew, though secular, she longs for a safe homeland for her people; as a peace activist she is aware of the injustice endured by the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Though she often wonders if her efforts will ever make a difference, she continues to embrace the tension her deeply held beliefs cause.
I will post pictures from Megiddo and Caeserea tomorrow as they become available. The internet is sketchy here, but the trip is astounding and I will have more to share in the coming days.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Posted November 6, 2014
The picture to the left is the figure from the Children’s Holocaust Memorial at the Kibbutz we visited. It is a moving and somber tribute set among a lovely garden.
Today we began with the archeological dig at Sepphoris or Zippori as it is known in Israel. The site sits on top of a hill surrounded by fertile valleys and hills in the distance. It is a short drive from Nazareth which can be seen across the valley from Zippori, perched up on the hillside to the west of the site. Zippori was made the capital of Galilee by the Romans who conquered it, though artifacts reveal a settlement in 2nd Century BCE. It is a stunning representation of the influences of Jewish, Roman, Byzantium cultures as well as early Christianity, the Crusaders, and later Muslim culture. It contains beautiful mosaics, including one referred to as the Mona Lisa of the Middle East.
More to come!
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Posted November 7, 2014
A great day at Zippori for Carrie Penrose (l) and Pastor Janet (r) …mosaics, ruins, and much climbing!
Below is the church that commemorates the miracle when Jesus turned water into wine. He did it at the request of his mother who told him that the wine had run out. Jesus resisted at first then asked 6 stone jars be filled with water. Also pictured, is an example of the stone jar that held the waters used by the Jewish people for the ritual of purification. In any painting of this miracle, the jars are always of pottery, but Jesus requested 6 of these stone jars to be filled to the brim then he changed the water into fine wine. You will notice in the third picture that the rim of the jar is beveled so that any water dripping from a dipper would not be lost. Water is precious in this area as it was in Jesus’ day and is part of the dispute among the different factions and countries in the region.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Posted November 8, 2014
We began the day on the softly blue waters of the Sea of Galilee under clear skies and a golden sun. We ended ten hours later in the subdued grays of Yad Vashom, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. We had traveled more than miles.
Our boat sailed from the ancient city of Tiberius, named for the Emperor who ruled rome when Jesus was born. Our time on the shores of Galilee took us to towns and regions familiar from Scripture, including Magdala, home of Mary Magdelene. At the end of our time there we began the long bus ride to Bethlehem, following the valley where the Jordan river flowed south toward the Dead Sea. Being so close to the river, we could see across to the hill country of Jordan with whom Israel had signed a peace treaty some years ago. Despite that diplomatic arrangement, the road was lined with a security fence, sensitive to the least disturbance, one that would bring soldiers quickly from their stations. Every hundred feet or so, one can see a yellow sign warning that the land beyond is mined. this barren, harsh land is a wilderness in more ways than one, and a reminder that this Holy Land is always on a high alert footing. It is a strange disconnect to be following the pathway of the Prince of Peace amidst mine fields with armed guards close at hand.
The Church of the Beatitudes where tradition says Jesus preached his famous Sermon on the Mount on the hillsides nearby.
On the Sea of Galilee, sailing from Tiberius and looking north toward Capernaum.
The Church of Peter’s Primacy commemorates the resurrection appearance of Jesus on the shores of Galilee. There Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him and Peter responded, “Yes Lord, you know I do.” Each time Jesus responded, “Feed my lambs.” In this manner, Peter was forgiven his three betrayals of Christ during the Passion. “Mensa Christi” means “table of Christ” and is the spot upon which Jesus served the grilled fish to his disciples on that morning.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Posted November 9, 2014
The Golan Heights
To the east looms the stark face of the Golan Heights, a strategic location once possessed by Syria, but taken by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War, and who maintains a heavy security presence on the top along the border. To the northwest sit the town of Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene, currently being excavated by archeologists. The port city of Capernaum, billed as the City of Jesus, is on the northern shore, the remains of its docks still visible. The old stones of the synagogue where Jesus is said to have preached can be seen in a pit in the corner of the ruins of still another synagogue built on top of it. The ruins of what is believed to be Peter’s house where Jesus sought respite and healed Peter’s mother are visible beneath the edifice of an extremely modern Roman Catholic church. Present sits on the past, which sits on the past, which sits on a deeper past in ever descending layers of history. As I walked the streets among toppled columns and row upon row of carved cornices excavated along with the statues and pottery, it seemed as if the Holy Land was and is one enormous dig among ruins long buried.
Synagogue ruins at Capernaum.
After much walking and stops at churches commemorating the Sermon on the Mount, the feeding of the 5,000 with loaves and fishes, and the resurrection appearance where Jesus forgave Peter’s denial of him during the Passion and then cooked a breakfast of broiled fish, we boarded our bus to head south out of Galilee, along the Jordan River Valley, through Samaria and into the Judean wilderness. Across the valley to the east, the hills of Jordan rose on the other side of the river, bare and bathed in a blurry mist tinged with the pink of a slowly sinking sun. As the bus barreled southward, and the river moved westward toward the highway, a security fence became visible alongside the road. Topped with barbed wire and hug with yellow signs every 50-100 feet warning of mines in the field beyond, the reality of Israel as a state caught up with security became clear in ways it had not before. Israel had signed a peace treaty with its former enemy, Jordan, but it appeared as if nothing about security would be left to chance, for as we traveled south we soon entered the northern board of what is known as the West Bank and our first check point manned by young soldiers carrying automatic weapons. contrary to what most of think, the West Bank captured from Jordan in that same Six Day War, is a sizable amount of territory along the west bank of the Jordan river from Nablus in the north to Hebron in the south. As we came near to Jericho, famous for those tumbling walls, we turned left and headed toward the Jordan River to a site recently opened by the government that allowed Christian pilgrims like us to wade into its cool, muddy waters.
Associate conference minister, Rev. Darren Morgan, preparing for a baptism.
The gospel accounts of Matthew, mark and Luke describe Jesus coming to these waters to be baptized by John the Baptizer who lived in this Judean wilderness and preached a message of warning and repentance. Jesus entered those waters and was baptized by John. As he rose up out of the waters, the heavens parted and a dove descended with the words, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” He was then driven by the Holy Spirit out into the wilderness where he stayed for 40 days. Looking at the landscape, he did not have far to go for along the river, the land is wild and forbidding, and there he endured temptations before beginning his ministry. today one of our party came to be baptized; others of us came to renew our baptismal vows. Like Jesus, we took, crossed a wilderness only ours was enclosed by barbed wire and salted with land minds. Gathered on the banks of a river turned brown with the silt washed in by recent rains, we entered the water and repeated our vows to resist evil and follow in our Savior’s ways.
Surrounded by a cloud of witnesses in a lovely church sanctuary, making those vows are part of a beloved rite and we do not give them much thought. We focus on the infant in their finery, smile indulgently as she cried when the cold water is applied. Here the cloud of witnesses included armed soldiers who watched above the shoreline, and the promise to resist evil and follow in the way of our Christ took on added meaning amidst the cold, hard signs of potential armed conflict.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Posted November 10, 2014
Within the Church of All Nations, also known as the Church of Christ’s Agony. It is part of the complex of Gethsemane. Tradition says this rock formation is where Jesus knelt and prayed before his arrest. Pilgrims kneel to touch and pray on this rock, located under the altar of the church. It is called the Church of all Nations because 12 nations, including the U.S., helped to build it.
The facade of the Church of Nations.
The Garden of Gethsemane. Some of the olive trees in the garden have been carbon dated to the time of Jesus.
(photo above) From the Mt. of Olives, looking across the Kidron Valley toward the Old City of Jerusalem.
The golden dome marks the Temple Mount, a site holy to Islam, built on the ruins of the second temple, destroyed by the Romans in 7BCE.
The Church of the Lord’s Sorrow, marks the spot where the gospel tells us Jesus wept over Jerusalem. The church and garden look across the Kidron Valley toward the city.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Posted November 11, 2014
During the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, many Palestinians fled their homes and were given refuge in temporary camps in Bethlehem (photo on right). Taking what they could, including the keys to their homes, they were given tents and told it would be a matter of a few weeks. These keys have been handed down through the generations to this day, symbolizing a promise unfulfilled. Since 2000, they live with the wall that makes it impossible for ordinary Palestinians to travel to Jerusalem, six miles away.
On Thursday as dusk approached, we entered Jerusalem for the first time and climbed one of the city’s many hills, Mt. Scopus, to Yad Vashom, the Holocaust Museum. The building is all angles and shadows, the light low except in the alcoves where the individual exhibits are set. Photographs, newspaper clippings, propaganda posters and explanatory tiles are black, white and shades of gray, the only colors being the yellow Star of David for Jews and the pink triangles for homosexuals. Barking dogs, train doors slamming and wheels riding over tracks, megaphoned voices, gunshots and anguished cries provide a soundscape to the grim images. Around the museum monitors display videos of Holocaust survivors recounting the horror and their individual stories of survival. The final exhibit brings one out upon a platform that sits under a cone reaching up to the ceiling, its surface covered with photographs of some of those murdered. On the walls outside the cone are rows and rows of what looks like binders, their spines bearing numbers, one for each victim. It is the intent of the museum to have something preserved for everyone lost.
Waking in Bethlehem on Friday morning, we saw the wall for the first time and were struck by the sad irony of the barrier, the barbed wire, the armed guards and the segregation of the people of the west Bank given what we had experienced the night before at Yad Vashom.
Graffiti by Palestinian artists.
Guard tower on the wall.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Posted November 13, 2014
Today we stopped at the Jordanian town of Madaba, which is a combination of the Aramaic words for water, “ma” and fruit, “aba,” or so I understood our guide to say. Madaba is most famous for a mosaic found on the floor of the Church of St. George who, tradition claims, slew the dragon. The mosaic (pictured on the right) is a map that is less about geography and more about the presence of Christianity in the Middle East. Some of the map has been destroyed but as shown, it still illustrates 12 place names in what is now Israel and Jordan. North is pointing left on this rendering, with East at the top, South to the right and West pointing down. A partial photo from the church floor follows.
A portion of the mosaic as seen on the church floor.
Mural of St. George slaying the dragon.
The landscape photo below is looking west from the top of Mt. Nebo across the Jordan River Valley toward Israel. At the end of Exodus, God leads Moses up to the top of Mt. Nebo to show him the Promise Land. Moses would not enter that land, but died on Mt. Nebo and is reputedly buried there. There is a lovely legend tells how God came to take Moses but, because God loved him so much, he couldn’t do it, so God engaged in a long conversation with the prophet. At some point Moses, who was delighted with the conversation and tried to keep it going, got too tired and eventually fell asleep. Watching him sleep, God leaned over and kissed his cheek and thus took Moses from this life.
Below is what is called The Monk’s Tower. It sits out in in the desert with some ruins of a church around it. These were not that uncommon during the Byzantine period and can be found in other parts of the Byzantine Empire. They began as a form of protest because one could not speak out against the Empire while on its soil. Monks began to build such towers to live in, technically so were technically not on Byzantine soil and, therefore, could say what they wanted.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Posted November 14, 2014
The City of Petra
Over 2200 years ago, a tribe moved from the Northwest corner of Arabia down into the lands of Southern Jordan – the Naboteans. Where they came from is unclear, but some believe they are descended from Ishmael, the first born of Abraham by the slave woman Hagar. Ishmael’s eldest son was Nabaioth, pronounced Nabeet. Where they originated is under debate, but what is know is that they controlled the trade routes and were a wealthy and talented race. It was the Nabotean people who carved the great stone city of Petra into the the sandstone of a hidden valley in the mountains of South Jordan. The Naboteans had contact over the centuries with a number of different civilizations including the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans. They were great adapters and incorporated elements of all these cultures into theirs, and the influences can especially be seen in the carvings they made on their buildings. Most of the buildings were tombs – over 900 of them have been found – and many of them were for families. Below is the most famous of the buildings – the Treasury – though no treasure was ever found there. It may have been moved or piilaged at some point but the building itself, is a treasure. Built sometime in the 2nd-1st Century BCE, it displays influences of Egyptian and Greek lore, though the figures have been scraped out by the Iconoclasts that I mentioned in an earlier post. Look closely and you will see two sets of indentations running up the outer sides of either columns. These were hand holds for the artisans who went so far on ladders, then climbed the rest of the way using those.
Further back in the site, up an 800 step climb sits the remains of a Byzantine Monastery from the 4th Century CE. Pictures and words can only go so far, but I have included several here.
Below are a series of tombs known as the Royal Tombs (picture missing). If you look closely you will see that the tombs have two levels. The openings along the bottom are called tricliniums – rooms with three couches or reclining areas used for dining. The Naboteans believed in an afterlife, so when someone died, family and friends gathered in these rooms for a feast to celebrate the passage of their loved one to the next life.
Inside one of the tombs
Below is an example of the different layers of colorful rock that are all over the city. Erosion has left these open and the Bedouins often shelter their donkeys and horses in them. The animals are offered as transportation in and out of the site for foot sore tourists. Petra requires lots of walking and climbing. It is about a mile in from the entrance to the interior of the city.
Tomorrow we head down the Wadi Rum and al Aqaba on the tip of the Red Sea.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *