31 March 2010

Holy Tuesday: Betphage and the Mount of Olives

30 March, 2010

We started the day with an early visit to the Latin (Roman Catholic) Church at Bethphage.  This church commemorates the events of Palm Sunday.  There was a lovely fresco in the apse of the church, which depicted Jesus as riding with only a few people watching him.  One figure in front of him is veiled, and we are intended to imagine ourselves as that figure, so that we can enter the event ourselves and be part of it in our imaginations.

Following our visit to the church, we were led in a reflection on the significance of Jesus' actions.  An insight that I hadn't really focused on before was that Jesus was making an intentional and prophetic contrast with the Governor Pilate's entry into Jerusalem, so that he could be present at the Passover celebrations to quell riots.  The this-worldly kingdom of power and status belonged to Pilate, but Jesus was presenting the reality that there was another kingdom not ruled by power, but by humility.  And the powers of the day could not bear to allow this kingdom to live on in Jesus, because it presented too great a threat to their control and their own established way of doing things.

After our visit to Bethphage we went straight on to the Eleona (Pater Noster) Church on the Mount of Olives.  This is the site from which Jesus is thought to have ascended, and it is also associated with the more apocalyptic message of Jesus.  In this church are over 60 versions of the Lord's Prayer, praying in many languages "your kingdom come".  The group stopped close to the Maori version of the prayer, so I asked one of them to take this photo of the two New Zealanders in the group.

When we prayed at the end of our time there for the coming of God's kingdom by using the English version of the Lord's prayer, the group kindly waited prayerfully as I said the Maori version as well.

There was a very ancient basilica on the site of this church, built by Constantine, and this site is traditionally identified as the site of Jesus' ascension.  So the connections with the life and ministry of Jesus are very strong here.

We then briefly visited the church built in the place where Jesus is remembered as having wept over Jerusalem - the Dominus Flevit ('the Lord wept') church.  The church is designed in the shape of a tear.  And on the altar there is a lovely depiction of Jesus as a hen gathering chicks (the people of Jerusalem) under his wings.

We went on to visit the Franciscan Basilica of All Nations, or Basilica of the Agony, built in the place where tradition remembered Jesus to have prayed at the time of his agony in the garden.  There is a big rock on which he cast himself to pray, built into the sanctuary of the church.

After quite a "churchy" time where we were part of a crowd, we were led to an area of Gethsemane that is still and peaceful, and where not many people come. 

It was great to be able to meditate for about 20 minutes in silence in the general area where Jesus himself often meditated and prayed.  A number of us felt that this was a special part of our morning.

In the afternoon we had some time off so I caught up with my blogging, and then we went to the St Antony Coptic Monastery for a Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Evening Prayer service.  The monastery is situated in old (walled) city of Jerusalem, very close to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Copts date their presence here back to 325AD.  While we didn't understand the service, some of us were told what Bible passages were being read, and we noticed how fervent many of those who attended were in their prayer.  It was a strange experience being both on the outside of the event and drawn by the prayer.  This was the first of the Orthodox liturgies we are to attend during this course.

It was great to walk through the old city, with its bazaars and narrow lanes, on the way there and back.  This part of the old city was clearly in the form of an Arab-style souq.

Monday of Holy Week

29 March, 2010

Last night the six students on my Holy Week and Easter course and some of the staff members met for dinner and an introductory session together, but today was the beginning of work for our course.  We began with a couple of lectures.  The first was on The Eastern Churches in Jerusalem, which was a very helpful outline of the 13 historic churches in Jerusalem, along with their points of difference.  The second lecture was an introduction to Orthodox Holy Week.

We left to have lunch at a French house called 'Maison d'Abraham" or in Arabic 'bait Abraham'.  This is an order of Roman Catholic sisters who welcome all those who are children of Abraham, and of course this includes the people of the three major religions in this land - Judaism, Islam and Christianity.  (I'm sure they wouldn't turn anyone else away either.  After lunch there, we went up to the roof for a dramatic outlook over the Kidron Valley to Jerusalem.  The topography of the Passion was the subject of a short talk, through which we got some idea of the places and routes of Holy Week and the Passion narrative.

In the upper left of the picture, in the corner where the two walls meet you can see a white expanse leading up to the wall.  This expanse is the stairs of the Temple that Herod built, which was the one known to Jesus.  The valley below the walls is the Kidron Valley.

Following this visit we set off for Bethany.  Although it is only 2 miles or so from Jerusalem, it takes 30 minutes in the bus to get there, because of the huge dividing wall built to separate Palestinian areas from Jewish ones.
We visited two churches, a Latin (Roman Catholic) one on the site where Mary, Martha and Lazarus' house once stood, and another (Greek Orthodox) one on the site where Martha and Mary went out to meet Jesus. 
The Latin church had been built quite recently by a famous Italian architect named Barluzzi.  It had a lovely atmosphere and was surprisingly light.

We had a Eucharist in a little 11th century chapel on the church grounds:

The Greek Orthodox church was dark and impressive on the inside.  On the outside it looked fairly normal.

We even visited 'Lazarus' tomb', as Lazarus Saturday (the day before Palm Sunday) is part of the Orthodox preparation for and observance of Holy Week.  It was actually pretty clearly that the tomb we visited was from a later period than Jesus. 

We are not being encouraged to believe that everything is original and authentic, but rather to connect with the faith of Christians down through the years who have visited the holy sites especially in Holy Week and Easter to find a way of identifying with Jesus, his passion and his resurrection.

Across the River Jordan and Palm Sunday Procession

28 March

I set out early in the morning to get the bus to take me to the checkpoint at the River Jordan.  I had been told by the Lonely Planet Guide for Israel that with a valid single entry visa for Jordan in my passport I could leave Jordan via the King Hussein Bridge, and enter the West Bank/Israel and return without needing another visa.  This sounded odd to everyone including me, so when I got to the border I tried to check it out and asked the passport control person about it.  "You are welcome!" he said, which was friendly, but not exactly an answer to my question.  So I went through the passport control and across a very militarised border into Israel without an exit stamp in my passport.  Time will tell whether they let me back in again!

At the Israeli passport area things went relatively smoothly.  It was helpful to have all my itinerary and St George's College papers at the ready, because when I was asked why I had come to Israel I could produce some evidence.  When the passport official asked me whether I would be visiting the West Bank, I could say that I was going on pilgrimage, and it was possible that I would be visiting some West Bank areas, but only for the purpose of pilgrimage.  So to my relief, I was let in without even having to open my bags (although they had been thoroughly scanned along the way).

Outside the border post I got on a minibus for Jerusalem and was surprised to note that everyone in it was speaking Arabic, not Hebrew.  Someone later explained that this border crossing was used particularly by Palestinians.  The taxi bus took us up out of the Jordan Valley, and with great excitement I got my first glimpse of Jerusalem, the Holy City.  The bus took us into East Jerusalem (the Palestinian quarter) and when it stopped I asked the driver where I could get a taxi for Salah ad-Din Street (where St George's College is).  He said that I didn't need to get a taxi, because it was the next street on my left.  So I trundled my luggage up the street, asking for directions and before long was at the College.

I was met by a friendly New Zealand woman, Lois Symes, who is a Priest, and is currently working as the Chaplain at St George's.  She said she was sure that she had met me, and she finally worked out that she preached at a service I presided at when I was Archdeacon of Whanganui.  Amazing! 

Lois said that there was going to be a procession in Jerusalem that afternoon, and that I was welcome to come on it with her and with others from the College.  So I did.  What I didn't know is that this procession is an important part of the Holy Week events in the city.  It used to start at  Bethany and follow Jesus' route through to Jerusalem, but now that the Government has built a wall between the West Bank towns and other areas, the procession starts at Bethphage, on the Jerusalem side of the wall.

We were supposed to bring some item to wave in celebration, and here is Lois carrying her palm flower.  I carried a small olive twig.

The procession went up the Mount of Olives from Bethphage

and then down the other side of the Mount of Olives towards Gethsemane

then over the Kidron Valley to the city.  Finally the procession went through St Stephen's gate to St Anne's Church inside the walls of the city.

As you can see, there were thousands of people - one newspaper report I read said that there were 20,000 people - in the procession.  Many of them were Palestinian Christians.  And because the Eastern and Western Easter dates coincide this year, there would have been Orthodox as well as Catholics and Protestants in the procession. It was an amazing experience to join the crowd for this event, going up to the Holy City on Palm Sunday in remembrance of Jesus's entry into Jerusalem.

Amman and Madaba

27 March, 2010

This morning I went to visit the citadel in Amman, which had been known in Old Testament times as Rabboth-Ammon, in Roman times as Philadephia, and in later times as Amman.  It was a large and impressive site, with the remains of a very big Temple of Hercules there, built on an earlier temple site. 

There were also lots of remains from the Islamic Ummayad era.  From the citadel I could look down on the city, and the big theatre that had been built during the Roman period.

In the museum on the citadel there were some amazing things to see.  I saw a piece of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and one of the oldest sculptures of a human form (or forms) ever discovered (from Ain Ghazal in Jordan, and dated to 6,500-8,000BC).

I did think that this sculpture had more than a passing resemblance to ET.  Perhaps that's where Stephen Spielberg got his original idea from?

After leaving the citadel I headed off for the city of Madaba (about an hour from Amman), which has a large Christian population and is famous for its mosaics from the 6th and 7th century.

The first mosaic I saw was in St George's Greek Orthodox Church.  It is famous because it is the earliest map of the Holy Land.  At the top right you can see in darker type the Greek letters IOYDA, which in English are Iouda meaning Judea, and if you look carefully you can see the Jordan River running through the middle of the map (flows from the right, which is north, towards the Dead Sea in the south).

I visited the archaeological museum on my way through the town and saw this mosaic from Herod Antipas's mountain palace Machaerus (now known as Mukawwir) in Jordan, where John the Baptist was beheaded.  The mosaic is dated from the first century AD.

After looking around Madaba for a while and getting myself a little lost in the back streets, I came to my final stop - the Apostles' Church.  This Church was really only a roof over the original mosaics from the 6th and 7th centuries.  There is a mosaics school in Madaba and the mosaics in this church are in the process of being restored by students of the school.  The mosaics were amazing - and the caretaker at the site cleaned the dust off a few of the pictures for me and told me that I could walk on the mosaic and take close up photos - so here are a few.

It struck me that the spirit of the mosaics in this church is one of great delight in creation and creativity.  None of the mosaics I have depicted is on a specifically religious theme, but they all celebrate the Creator.  I had definitely found the best at the end of my visit to Madaba, and I was grateful for the fact that I had got here despite a few wrong turnings.

I took the bus back to Amman, to go to the Anglican Church there for the Palm Sunday eve service that evening.  The Church of the Redeemer had been beautifully decorated by the Arabic-speaking congregation. 

For some reason - perhaps the familiarity of the liturgy, or perhaps because of connections with my time as a Chaplain in the Middle East, or perhaps because of some beautiful violin-playing - I found the service very moving.  I wept as we sang the hymn that begins with the words "How deep the Father's love for us, how vast beyond all measure, that he who gave his only Son should make a wretch his treasure...."  Of all the myriad themes of God's blessings to humanity in creating our world and offering us life and new life in Christ, I find the love of God not just for me, but for all of us, the greatest wonder and source of praise.

30 March 2010

Mt Nebo and the Baptism Site

26 March, 2010

Today was quite cold, with rain in the air.  Rick and Anne kindly offered to take me on an outing to a couple of places that would be fairly hard to get to by public transport - Mt Nebo, where Moses looked out over the promised land, and the baptism site at 'Bethany beyond the Jordan' where John baptised Jesus.

We stopped for lunch on the western slope of Mt Nebo.

Just behind Rick and Anne and family, in the background, you can see some of Jordan's rugged terrain.  The view towards the summit of Mt Nebo from this spot is shown below.

The guardians of this site were the Franciscan order, who have the role of looking after many of the sacred sites in the Holy Land, apparently as a result of St Francis' own visit to that area.  I had this picture taken especially for Jean Malcolm.  Above Mt Nebo Siyagha, the sign says, "Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land".

It was from Mt Nebo that Moses looked over to the Holy Land (Deuteronomy 32:49-52).  He would have seen a sight pretty much like this.

While Moses could see the promised land, he died before he could enter it, and is buried in the valley close to the mountain (Deuteronomy 34:1-8).  His gravesite is not known.

From Mt Nebo we quickly descended over 1,000 metres to the Dead Sea, where a discovery in the 1990s has led to a fairly definite identification of the specific site where John the Baptist was baptising "at Bethany beyond the Jordan" (John 1:28).  This is where he would have baptised Jesus, and where Jesus had the experience of the Holy Spirit descending upon him like a dove and a voice from heaven saying, "This is my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased" (Mark 1:11).  This appears to have been a pivotal event in his own life and ministry, and as a result this must be one of the most significant historical sites for the Christian faith.  For more information see: http://www.baptismsite.com/ .

It was raining by the time we arrived at the entrance to the site, so I left my togs in the car!  In any case, our visit had to be in a group and guided, as the Jordan River is the border to the occupied territories/state of Israel and is under tight security.  An unexpected fact about the baptism site is that it is no longer exactly at the River Jordan.  It is understood that the River flowed through the site at an earlier time, but has now changed its path.  The site is not even filled with water sometimes, although the recent rains in Jordan had resulted in a large baptismal pool.

(The pillars are left from an early church, further remains of which are under the wooden roof structure that you can see at the top of the picture.)

We were hurried along by a very uninterested guide, but the connection with such a significant event in the life of Jesus at this very spot had a major impact on me.

On the way back to Amman we went up from the Jordan Valley, where we had been below sea level.  We passed this sign that says it all:

28 March 2010

Jerash - ancient Gerasa

25 March, 2010

With Rick and Anne's help, I planned my itinerary for the next few days.  The first place I decided to head for was Jerash (ancient Gerasa), 45 minutes drive north of Amman.  A guide book that I borrowed from them said, "Jerash, formerly known as Gerasa, is indisputably the most complete and best preserved Graeco-Roman city in the Middle East and is noted in the Bible as the “region of the Gerasenes” (Mark 5:1; Luke 8:26)…. The colonnaded streets, plazas, temples, paved pathways, theatres and fifteen Byzantine churches make Jerash the second most important historical destination for tourists [in Jordan] after Petra."  The ruins were amazing!

The top photo is of the restored hippodrome, viewed from the south, and that tiny person in front of Hadrian's Arch - built to mark the visit of the Emperor Hadrian to Jerash in the second century AD - is me!

As we walked into the ancient town from the south we passed the sacred precinct of the Temple of Zeus.  In an arched room there was a great display of artefacts from the Temple site.  The Temple had been built on the site of an earlier Greek temple of the second century BC.  They had unearthed one of the stones from this earlier temple, still with the original painted colours on it 2100 years later.  (Ray, can Resene provide paint that good?)  It was beautiful.

There were many impressive things to see at Jerash, and among those the southern theatre in the city, built in Roman times, stood out.  It was beautiful, and is still used during the Jerash festival in July. 

I liked the fact that the front row seats were numbered (still) with the original Greek lettering.  I can imagine the usher asking (in Greek or Latin of course), "Was your seat zeta, eta or theta, madam?'

One bizarre thing that happened at the theatre was that a lone piper and then two others, one a drummer, came out to play - not quite what I expected in Jordan.  The purpose was to earn some money from the tourists, but it was very much appreciated by the locals who were there as well.  There were a number of renditions of 'Scotland the Brave', one of 'Amazing Grace', and to finish, they played 'Yankee Doodle'!  You had to be there!

After visiting the theatre I made my way down to the hippodrome again to see the very touristy Roman Army and Chariot Experience.  This was a display of some Roman army manoeuvres, a show to indicate what gladiatorial games would have been like, and a chariot race.  The chariot racing was certainly most impressive and in ancient times was apparently incredibly popular.  In a town of 30,000 people they built a hippodrome that could seat 15,000 people.  It's like half the greater Wellington population going to a test match or a Phoenix game!  We'd have to build a very much bigger stadium.

Just as I took my first photo there, the battery sign on my camera came up, and I couldn't take many more photos.  Although that was a disappointment, it was a good lesson to learn early on in my trip.  Charge your battery!  (And get another one as a spare.)  So I will not comment further on the Temple of Artemis, the churches next to it, the northern theatre, and the northern tetrapylon - all of which were beautiful.

I made my way to the bus station - asking for directions in my halting Arabic and enjoying being able to speak to others.  I loved the adventure I was having, and when I got home I could hardly stop talking about the trip to Jerash and all the beautiful things there.  I was quite tired that evening, but we had an enjoyable dinner with Abraham and Dorothy, work colleagues of Rick and Anne, and with their son, Franklin.

Back in the Middle East

24 March, 2010

As I prepared for my sabbatical, I had been looking forward to going back to the Middle East, after more than 10 years away.  But what with the busy-ness of getting away, it was only as I watched the TV screen at my seat and saw the graphic of the plane approaching Dubai, that the reality of what I was doing began to hit me.  When I got off the plane and went into the airport at Dubai, I felt really excited.  I loved being back in the press of people of many cultures.  And it was great to be back where Arabic was spoken, too.

I waited a few hours for my plane and then flew on to Jordan, where I was met by my host, Rick Weymouth.  Although it was 31 hours since I had started my travel, I decided to try to stay up and adjust my body clock by going to sleep that night.  Like Rome, Amman was originally built on 7 hills - although it is now more like 17 hills!  Amman has the biggest refugee population of any city in the world.  The first two waves of refugees were Palestinians, but now there are another 250,000 Iraqi refugees living in Amman - out of a total population of around 2 million. 

Rick took me up to the roof of his house to see some of the sights.  In the middle of this picture you can see an old mosque on a hill.  The hill is the citadel of Amman, which was called Rabboth Ammon in Old Testament times (the Ammonites lived here), then Philadephia in Graeco-Roman times.  The mosque is from the time of Ummayad rule in the 8th century.

On the other side of the house was a girls' high school.  What a contrast with the beautiful Chilton Saint James School facilities!

I went with Rick to his work place and then on to pick his children Stephen (left) and Matthew up from their school.  Again, there was not much sign of grass.

We went home and greeted Anne, Rick's wife.  Then pretty soon after dinner I went for a good long sleep, thinking contentedly that after half a year of planning I had arrived.


23 March 2010

Virtually Ready

It is the night before going....  And in this virtual world I am virtually ready.  Virtuously ready would be a fine thing, but for now virtually ready will have to do.

I was out buying some items for my trip today, and then tonight Helen helped me to pack and remember various things that would be helpful on the journey.  My bag is relatively light...at this stage.  Thanks to Sue and Roy Cox for lending me some excellent travel bags.

14 March 2010

Hard at work

Well, Sr Therese was...

Trying to technologise!

Hi everyone

This is my first post, as I sit next to Sr Therese, who is helping me get up to speed with the blogging technology.  Those who know about it say it's easy, but those who don't know about it have a learning curve.  Fortunately I have 9 days to get up to speed before I take off for Jordan....