Sunday, September 28, 2008

Some rocks make people do strange things...


When does one rock hold more significance than other rock?

Is it age? Lots of rocks are old - even the ones out there on the sidewalk.

Is it location? I've picked up rocks from dozens of places now - from the chalky yellow rocks in the Valley of the Kings to the dark red volcanic rocks of the Golan Heights - nobody pitched a fit because I took a rock from a "special place".

Did something special happen to the rock? I'm always skeptical about the people that claim "this was a piece of wood from a door Jesus walked through" type of things.

What about size? Does a big rock hold more specialness than a small rock? I know know, the aborigines in Australia tend to like Uluru quite a bit.

Well, we stood underneath a palm tree in the dim light of the plaza inside the Western Wall compound on the night of the Sabbath. We had been wading through thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews performing their prayers and singing and dancing.

Someone asked Avner as we stood there, "What do you think of the Western Wall?" A simple, straightforward question.

He stood for a few seconds and shrugged...


Early the next morning after we had been at the Western Wall, we made a beeline for the Mount of Olives. It was a walk straight through from here to the other side of the Old City of Jerusalem.

This is a famous Rock.

From these locations, you begin to get a perspective of what it was like before any sort of transportation was available - walking everywhere. The Mount of Olives is only a short walk from the Old City.

Many tourists come here to get an overview of the city and then they leave.

We walked down the hill toward this side of the Kidron Valley. It is a bit of a strange sight, I have to admit. The first photo is the "traditional" photo we see of Jerusalem.

Its not every day you see the "rest" of the photo...

...literally tens of thousands of above-ground graves with their feet facing the temple mount where the Dome of the Rock sits now. These graves cover the hillside selling for immense amounts of money.

Positioned in just such a way that when the Jewish messiah comes and "the dead shall rise" they will sit up and be facing the temple mount. So... all they have to do is walk to the temple mount - that's where they say the gathering place will be.

Countless people have come to Jerusalem over the ages to live out the end of their lives here in hopes to be buried here... so they can be the first at the temple mount.

No, really...

So, we walked down the hill a little ways to the first stop of the day.

Dominus Flavit, a recently built church, commemorates the "tears of the master" - the literal translation. Built near the traditional site of where Jesus wept for the city of Jerusalem, it is now a small, tear-shaped chapel on the side of the mountain.

The monks work hard on those flowers... don't pick the flowers.

A few of our group began taking photos of all the signs they saw like this. Usually they had to do with "no shirt, no shoes, no service" sort of rules, but some were quite humorous. There was one sign I saw somewhere warning drivers to not leave their car air conditioners on while visiting the site because their car may burst into flames.

Good thing to warn us about!

Pretty cool place, though. Great great view...

The chapel was only a few yards square.

And my artistic moment for the day...


Yep. Anyways...

The road was steep...

...very very steep.

And the tops of the walls are just a little creepy...

Yes, that is a concrete wall embedded with glass shards...

I wonder what the archaeologists in 2000 years will think about us after unearthing THAT wall!


After hearing the story about this "gate"...

...the Mercy Gate...

...the Golden Gate...

...the Beautiful Gate...

...some rocks make people do strange things.

But anyways...

If you're going to be in Jerusalem, the Church of All Nations is quite a thing to see.

It is directly beside the Garden of Gethsemane...

...traditional site, of course. In the 1st century, the garden probably covered half the hillside... but, oh well...

...and they'll even say this is the rock he sat on the night of his arrest:

It is the base of the altar of the Church of All Nations now.


From here, it is only a short walk to the city gates. This begins the walk that thousands and thousands flock to the Friday before Easter. The walk that Jesus took on the way to his crucifixion.

Through the streets by the location where he appeared before Pilate - there is a church built over the site now - none of the original "court room" remains.

From here, a sequence of numbers (and chapels) mark the road that he walked.

This is the Via Dolorosa...

...all eventually ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Now, when you see some of the images from this place, just keep in mind the 2nd of the Ten Commandments. Just in case you don't remember - Exodus 20.4-6:

"You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. And you shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments."

I say this in all seriousness... no joking... but...

In the first place, it just takes a lot of patience to get in.

Why? Because a few of us got pushed and shoved and pressed against the wall as we shuffled in through the crowd. This wasn't the first time this happened on the trip - nor was it the last.

All in an effort to get here:

...the "location" where the cross was mounted in the ground - traditionally, of course. The man has just come out of the niche where you kneel down and reach through a small hole to the rock... and the next woman in line was mighty eager to get in there behind him.

And I really wish I could have gotten more of the area in the 18mm frame... but I was pressed to the ropes at this point - any motion backward I'm afraid I would have had 100 people in the way.

This is in the Greek Orthodox section, by the way. I wish there was a way to convey to you the whole atmosphere. See the lanterns and candelabras and incense burners hanging from the ceiling? This is only a very small fraction. The amount of gold and silver and brass and bronze hanging from this ceiling... there is no way to capture it all in one shot - the 18mm definitely wouldn't suffice.

This church is split into seven different parts by seven different orthodox denominations who honestly cannot get along with each other. In fact, here's an example:

The front entrance of the Sepulcher church. See the ladder against the wall underneath the right window? It has been there almost 150 years now. Why? Because they forgot who the ladder belonged to and all of them laid claim. You'd think maybe they'd say, "Oh, its okay, you can have it." But then the other churches ask why they're not the one that should get it.

Yes, my friends. It is for real. 150 years. Look it up...

Moving on.

Next, we see the (traditional) site where Jesus was laid to be dressed for burial.

Oh, its the slab of rock on the right where 8 lanterns hang.

Need to see it closer?

The woman on the upper right side has a bag of goodies - including her son's baby socks and other such things - to bring here to be blessed and sanctified by the stone where Jesus was laid after being taken from the cross. The two women on the left were kissing it - see the blur on the closer woman as she is crossing herself.


Well... its not quite over yet...

The last station is the burial site.

The church inside the other church controlled by two separate orthodox denominations:

Yes, this is for real... I wish I could stitch together an entire panorama of this area. This church was built over the site of the tomb - very little of the tomb still remains because of it - but people will wait half of a day to get in through the line to see it and light candles.

Needless to say, I left this place mighty confused. One of my friends made the comment, "I wonder what Jesus would think if he came here and saw this."

"I imagine he'd be pretty ticked off," replied another.

My only thought was, "I think he'd get trampled."

Maybe I've become too "educated" about things like this, but in such a place made holy by 7 different churches (wait, isn't that an ironic statement, too - "different churches") where there were people selling bundles of candles to be lit and people bringing items from home to be offered...

...two thoughts came through my head:

Thought #1: Jesus turning over the tables of the money-changers in the temple.

Thought #2: Matthew 23.29, part of one of Jesus' sermons to the scribes and Pharisees who rule the Jewish community: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets, and adorn the tombs of the righteous." It is one of the "woes" he proclaims just a few chapters before his death.

...oh, and one more thought...

Thought #3: Remember back a few months ago when I journeyed through Egypt? Remember the massive temples to their gods? Well, believe it or not, the Church of the Sepulcher is built very similarly to one of these major temples like Edfu or Kom Umbo or Luxor or Karnak... there is a large monumental gateway followed by a large room where the commoners were allowed to be and to worship. Past that was a number of inner chambers finally ending with a in inner sanctuary inside a sanctuary.

It was the grandest spectacle I've ever seen - bar none.

One of my friends commented, "It is difficult to see any semblance of Christianity in a place drowning in the idolatry of tourism."

Any of you that see the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as a genuine place for people to have spiritual experiences, I hope I have not offended you. But I found the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to be a gross misrepresentation of everything Christianity stands for.

Anyways... enough of that...

This was the "traditional" last supper room.

I had other expectations after seeing daVinci's Last Supper in Milan, Italy, last month. It was kind of cool to see, but it is one of half a dozen places that different churches say was the location of Jesus' last supper with his disciples.

Underneath this building was a tomb attributed to King David. It is now an active synagogue.

The black shroud covers the massive stone sarcophagus.

So, we left here and headed out of town... the top of a nearby mountain...

...with a cool little sculpture...

...overlooking Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem and the burial site of King Herod.

And Ashley wanted to touch a sheep on the hills around Bethlehem...

...the sheep would have no part in that.

And there seem to be random little children running all over Israel.

And back to the Jerusalem Tower Hotel for the night...

But its not over yet!

Jewish Purim was in full swing by now. If you don't know what Purim is... um... think Mardis Gras. There you go.

It was just so much fun!

There's this group of ultra-Orthodox Jews that get out there every day and set up a little band and sing and dance and wave flags - they pull in any bystanders and just draw you in.

They sing about love and enjoying life and having fun. What a way to do it!

Their thought is that God is most glorified when you are having fun while doing it. Remember this in a few minutes... I'm coming back to this.

There were people literally EVERYWHERE. There were very few places where you didn't have to wade through people.

And digicams aplenty...

And random little dancing mime people...

And people looking confused and not really knowing what to make of the situation...

And, I'm not sure what's going on here...

I'd hate to make assumptions...

But, it was a lot of fun walking around with the Sigma 30/1.4 in the dark streets like this.

Meeting interesting people...

And see interesting people...

All from the 30mm...

Just people out enjoying life... Marshall.

Just like the Jewish men in the streets celebrating life, we too celebrate life. We enjoy good conversation of close friends...

...and just be silly.


Returning to the previous night when we were in the dim light near the Western Wall, Avner had been asked, "So what do you think of all this?"

He paused a moment and shrugged. Then answered...

"It is rocks."

But his words were more profound than many realized.

All of the things you see here - the people weeping openly at the Western Wall... or the people bringing gifts to the rock where Jesus' body was laid... or the rock on top of the temple mount where Jews and Christians believe Adam was created, Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac, and the Muslims believe Mohammad ascended into heaven on his magical horse... people have been dying for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years for this place.

Maybe it all is open to interpretation, and who am I to say which is the "right way", but it just makes more sense that God would want his chosen people - whomever they may be - to be able to live with his religion instead of dying with it.

It just makes more sense to enjoy life no matter what comes your way... like the Jewish band getting people to dance in the street... and be able to look in the face of bad stuff and just be okay with it.

If you need to make some sort of pilgrimage to the Sepulcher Church and place candles in a church to feel closer to God... by all means go do it. If you need to make the journey to the Western Wall to feel more completed and a "better person" because of it... definitely somehow find yourself there.

But, Avner said something else profound a little later that night. I wish I had written it down. So, I'm going to paraphrase and put it into my own words:

This is an age of the best way to worship God that history has ever seen. A religious man can go into his room in private or with just a few friends and have the same - or even more meaningful - experience that any of the religions of the past. No longer do you have to go present a sacrifice to a far away temple at certain times of the year... some would even go as far as to say you don't really even have to have a building to meet!

But God is God and he's nearby no matter where you are. I think this is the true spirit of the Bible. I think this is the true spirit of God.

So this is Jerusalem, my friends. It is a profound place. Its a place of quiet and a place of spectacle.

I hope this finds you all well,
~Noah D.

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