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Holy Land Pilgrimage – By the Numbers

NT Map

We are safely home now after an amazing trip.  Our flight from Tel Aviv was long and crowded.  The 787 must have blown a tire on take-off as we landed on a flat tire and they held us on the tarmac in Toronto for 2 hrs. while they changed it out.  So we were a total of 14.5 hrs in the plane coming home.  The other side of this is that is we were sitting with Bishop Lavoie the whole way so we got to know each other more.

By all accounts this was a trip of a life time, very different in tone and tenor from a pilgrimage we took to Poland a few years back.  Here there was much more laughter, light heartedness and joking.  Bishop Sylvain and Fr. Susai were constantly joking with us and each other.  Our daily Masses were chances to snap multiple pictures and for joyful singing led by Dan and Joanne.  Virtually everyone got to read or otherwise participate in the Eucharist celebrations.

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In front of the Tomb of Jesus, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

The highlight for Marie and I was receiving the Eucharist in the inner Tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  This was a once in lifetime experience and we felt so blessed and appreciative for this gift.  It was a timing thing and we happened to be invited into the inner tomb with Fr. Susai and Bishop Sylvain just as they started to distribute the Host.  (There is only room for about 4 people at a time in the inner tomb.)  Having a Mass there (in the outer tomb) at 5h30 was a real coup and Maria Drueco our tour organizer deserves much credit for this and her excellent overall organization and care of us: Marianatha Tours.

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Fr Susai and Bishop Sylvain in the Inner Tomb of Jesus

 

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We place our hands on the slab where they laid Jesus body

There was virtually no complaining about anything – perhaps a few raised eyebrows when certain things happened, but that was it.  Contrast this with the very vocal complaining one often hears on any major trip like this and the sense of entitlement some display if they have to line up, don’t like the food, etc..  The group bonded very well and we all helped each other whenever necessary.  Furthermore, we felt totally safe at all times and saw no security threats.  It’s fair to say that the Israelis have state of the art security systems in place and that one is likely as safe here as anywhere.

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After Renewal of Wedding Vows and Mass at Cana in Nazareth

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Several years of militia service is compulsory for young Israeli women like these

It was great that our friends from Arnprior, John and Christine came on this pilgrimage too.  Plus we made many new friends, some of them Oblate Associates like us.

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With Christine and John at the Wailing Wall

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At the Jaffa Street Market in Jerusalem with friends

Should every Christian feel they should make this pilgrimage once in their life?  No, it’s not necessary in our view.  One good reason is the profound lack of religious unity and homogeneity one experiences here.  When we were in Poland, 95% were Catholic and over 80% of these were actively practicing their faith.  We felt at home.  In the Holy Land, Christianity is a very small minority, so a Christian is surrounded here by much otherness.  While the sites are the most holy and meaningful in Christendom and everyone is nice, one cannot escape feeling a sense of sadness at the reality of the Holy Land today – walls up, restrictions on travel, security concerns, intolerance, land grabs, poverty, litter, identity politics, violence etc.  Nothing has changed since Jesus time except there is perhaps even more division now it seems.  So  we are left with an even greater appreciation of St Paul for bringing the message of Jesus to the world – to us!

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On the Sea of Galilee

Uplifting were the faces of thousands of other pilgrims like us eager to visit each sacred site and extend their faith in this dimension.  A pilgrimage to the Holy Land can indeed be transformative and for many including us, it is.  In the days to come we hope to unpack this a little more.

By the numbers:

  • 13 days, 2 countries, 28 pilgrims
  • average age say 68, 9 men, 19 women
  • 20,000 kms flown, 7 time zones
  • about 1000 km bussed
  • 6 hotels (2-5*, 2-4*, 2-3*), 12 buffet dinners, 1 served
  • food varied from excellent to run of the mill (lot’s of stews)
  • lots of sauces and spices, fruit sometimes hard to find, no coffee at dinner
  • prices generally expensive and appreciation to be shown by tipping
  • photos taken 610, 6  bottles of wine
  • 25 sites visited, likely same number of churches
  • rain 2 – 3 days, rest sunny, ave high temp 22
  • 12 Masses held in the most amazing places
  • Overall rating 8.5/10

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Thanks be to God for this safe holy trip and to you for travelling with us.  God bless.

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Holy Land – Day 13

Our hotel last night in Amman was the Harrar Palace. There is a security machine you must go thru on entry. The room was small but the bed was big.‎ Nothing worked too well – the safe, the shower – but we were comfortable sleeping nonetheless. In the morning, Marie’s shower is cold. Dave asks where is the swimming pool? Straight faced the desk attendant says it is closed. I ask him when will it open? “In the spring” he says!! (I had assumed they had an indoor pool…)

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (HKJ) gained it’s independence from British rule in 1946. Prince Abdullah became King Addulla and the country’s name changed from Trans-Jordan.‎ 4 million people live in “The white city” – all of the buildings are made of white stone. ‎The streets are lined with coniferous and palm trees and some cactus. It’s a big traffic crowded city. It’s another sunny day and we are headed north to Jarash‎, the ancient Greco/Roman city.

Hadrian built up this city in 135 CE. We walk down streets lined with columns and arches. We see the theatre, amazingly well maintained. The Temple of Artemis (Diana). Italians and French are working here to expose more of the ancient ruins. ‎Their are squill plants growing among the rocky fields. We finish our walking tour and Dave buys 2 keffi‎yeh, the distinctive Jordainian red checkered headress with black ring as gifts.

We head for the Israel border north crossing. We are nearsing the end of this pilgrimage. At the border, everything on the bus with us has to be scanned. Then a departure tax has to be paid HKJ and we go thru an iris scan and database check before our passports are stamped for departure. After we cross the Jordan River, we get off the bus again with all our baggage. Once again everything including us is scanned. They ask Dave if anyone in Jordan gave him something to deliver in Israel. Then passports are scanned again and we are issued a tourist visa card. ‎By the time we leave for Jericho with Sammy again, almost 2 hours have elapsed.

We spent our last night in a truly 5 star hotel after Mass at the local Catholic Church ministered by Franciscans. There are 324 Catholics here out of a population of 30,000. We are done, thanks be to God for this great pilgrimage trip.

See you at home soon.

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Holy Land – Day 12 Petra

Petra is an ancient city dating from the third century BC. After a short but restful night, we are anxious to see this World Heritage Site and one of the declared New Seven Wonders of the World. The Nabateans prospered in the trade of frankensense, myrhh and spices. This was their capital. They had advanced and ingenious water systems which enabled them to move around the dessert area and control access to water for caravans. They also extracted bitumen and salt from the Dead Sea and exported it to Egypt for mummification.

You have seen Petra in the Indiana Jones movies like the Last Crusade in 1989. We walk down a slowly descending gravel path. There are mountains in view. The way narrows and we enter a canyon. There are horse drawn buggies speeding by. Some people ride horses or donkies. The cobble stones give way to a smoother Roman like road. The steep rock walls becomes pink in colur. We snap pic after pic and suddenly there it – the Tomb of King Aretas IV. King Aretas is mentioned in 2 Cor‎ 11:13. He ruled a large empire between Egypt and Persia just skirting the east and southern end of the Dead sea.

They were annexed by the Roman Empire in 106 CE. In 324 they become part of the Byzantine Empire. In 363‎ a major earthquake crumbles some of their greatest buildings. Another earthquake in 551 knocks out their civilization for good.

We hear snipets of conversations. Ancient eartquakes opened up fissures here. Water gushed down over millions of years ago. It carved out the deep canyon more than 200 feet deep. We continue and climb many stairs to the Urn Tomb. We can see the top of the 8000 seat ampitheatre. We turn back.‎ We get back to the bus after a 3 hr hike.

Today, phosphate and potash are mined and exported. Jordan has great leadership I King Abdulla II tries to keep Jordan as neutral as possible. They set a very good example in this turbulent area – live and let live. It is a beautiful country – Yosef our guide was right. We have seen and learned a lot here.
‎We get to our hotel in Amman at 7:30. There is a large wedding party going on in the lobby. The contrast with Petra could not be greater.

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Holy Land – Day 11

We cross into Jordan for 3 days at the Allenby crossing, a short bridge over the Jordan River at the top of the Dead Sea. British General Allenby liberated the Holy Land from the Ottoman Turks in 1917.‎ Dave thinks of his Yemenese friend Nassr who teaches in Riyadh now. Our tour bus transfer is a bit delayed – this is the first hiccup on this pilgrimage.

We head for the ‎Jordanian hills. It is sunny, 23•C and very dry. We see some greener spaces but it’s a desert. Houses in communities are simple cinder block or concrete structures with flat roofs.. Our new guide is Joseph and he is very knowledgeable of scripture too. We climb and climb. Women are dressed in long black robes with a white head scarf. Men are dressed like us. We see 2 dromedaries (single hump camels).

We drive by Mt. Nebo, 1130m above the Dead Sea and reach Madaba: City of Mosaics. About 10% of Jordanians are Christian, but religion does not divide here – we are all Jordanians says Joseph. There are 9.5 million, 3 million of which are immigrants including 1.5 million Syrian refugees.

The St George Greek Orthodox Church is filled with beautiful mosaic images including the first geographic biblical map of the Middle East. We go to the Memorial Church of Moses on Mt Nebo. ‎It is filled with beautidully preserved floor mosaics. Outside, Joseph points out the Dead Sea, the Jordan and the Promised Land as we gaze east. It is hazy so we cannot see Jerusalem today. We stop for lunch at a handicraft centre. We see a demonstration of how mosaic artwork is made. Then it’s a 3 hr drive south to our hotel in Petra.

It soon gets dark, We are on a semi-divided highway and it is bumpy. There are speed bumps seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The speed limit is 60 km. From time to time there are pretty green, red and blue lights. There ‎are many crude oil tankers slowing things down further. It is authentic. There are further delays – bathroom breaks, ATM machine stops.

We finally arrive at our hotel at 8 PM. The Old Village Resort is beautiful. We have a delicious dinner of lamb, arab salads and fancy desserts. The journey continues tomorrow. Our prayers go out to you all.

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Holy Land – Day 10

As we pray at the 7th Station of the Cross, ‎we hear the call to worship from the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the 3rd most holiest Muslim mosque in the world. It is 4h30 in the morning and we are praying the Stations in the Old City. We are on our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was laid in the tomb. We sing Jesus Remember Me.

We enter the church and there is the 15th Station the Resurrection. We approach the tomb building inside with reverence. We go into it and there is a small second chamber where Jesus body was laid. Marie reads at Mass. Then I am invited in too and we receive the Eucharist inside the tomb chamber. It is an amazing moment and Fr Susai snaps pictures of us kissing the Jesus tomb.

We leave and hike up the stairs to Cavalry. This is the actual place where Jesus was nailed to the cross. We visit Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. He was Jesus benefactor who offered one of his family’s tombs for Jesus with Pontius Pilate’s permission. We kneel and touch the spot. Then we head out the Jaffa Gate and there is our bus. It’s now 7h10 – what a well organized outing.

After breakfast we head to the Bethesda pools, the place of healing. John 5. ‎Jesus heals the sick man on the Sabbath and then explains that he is equal to God the Father. He warns the healed man not to sin again as there will be judgement. Another pilgrim group from Brazil appears as we sit in front of the Basilica of St Anne – there have been many. We snap pictures of the original now dry baths and visit the Virgin Mary’s birthplace beneath the church.

Then on to the Wailing Wall via the Dung Gate. On Mondays and Thursdays (today) there are a lot of barmitzvahs and activity. The Jews come here to cry over the destruction of their two Temples (384 BC by Babylonians, 70 CE by Romans)‎. Muslims arrive in 638 CE and take over Jerusalem. As non-Muslims we can approach the wall and take photos but are not allowed up on the Temple Mount itself located above, where the Dome of the Rock shrine and Al-Aqsa Mosque are.

We descend inti the arcalogical park at the SW corner. We see huge blocks put in place by Herod the Great in 20 BC Also the Roman road with big stones throughn down during the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE!!!‎ We gaze at the teaching steps where Jesus taoght the Disciples. Then we hear the call to worship below the mosque along with the barmyzvah bands.. It is truly erie – this crossroads between 3 major religions!!!

‎We’ve had it. It’s noon and time to go back to our hotel to chill before checking out tomorrow for Jordan. Only 3 days left, you may be happy to know!

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Holy Land – Day 9

We are over halfway thru our pilgrimage‎. We are falling in love again with the Bible. Now that we have visited so many Holy places, we want to read about it again. Yesterday Bishop Sylvain pointed out an institute here where people come to study the Holy Lands and scripture for 6 weeks. Never say never. Everyone here is taking hundreds of pictures and videos. There are dozens of tour busses wherever we go. Thousands upon thousands are connecting with their faith here. The Faith is alive.

We go to Mt of Olives, the place of Ascension of Jesus to heaven. There is a small Byzantine era shrine marking the spot enclosing a Crusaders era shrine with some bedrock where Jesus stood. This is also the place of the‎ second coming. Mark 11: Queen Helena builds a church right next door. It is where Jesus taught the Disciples the Lord’s Prayer. There are inscriptions of the Lord’s Prayer in all the world’s languages. Fr Susal sings it in Tamil, his native language. Others of our group chant in Ojibway, Cree, Tagalog, French, Spanish. It sounds like speaking in tongues!

We descend and enter the Garden of Gethsemanie below the east wall of the Old City. We read the relevant passages and talk about Jesus sorrow here. He accepts God’s will to suffer and die. He will not resist his arrest. ‎But it will be his human body that is crucified, not his divinity as God. It is here that his humanity is suffering, not his divinity. Luke 22 tells the story. Accepting suffering is radical discipleship. It is the deepest love God reveals to us thru allowing his Son to die on the cross for us. We learn all this agin as we celebrate Mass in the Basilica of the Agony.

We ascend the east side of the Old City and stop at the house of Caiphas the Chief priest.‎ Jesus tells Caiphas you will see (me) the Son of Man coming (Dan 7:13). Caiphus is enraged at this prohphetic reference from Jesus and tears his priestly chord. We descend narrow stairs to the scourging beam and pillars where Jesus is tortured. We descend further to the prison below where Jesus was imprisoned awaiting crucifixion. Psalm 88 is read. It is here where we all experience a tearful moment.

After lunch we head back to the Mt of Olives for the panoramic view. Then we walk down the Palm Sunday route to the bottom of the valley. It is steep but worth it as the views are stunning. Eight of us are dropped off at the Lions Gate entry to the old city. We strole through the narrow streets lined with vendors down to the Wailing Wall.

This is the west wall of the Temple Mount and is the closest wall to where the Tabernacle was located when the Temple was here. It is crowded with devout Jews and tourists like us. Marie goes up to the women’s section of the wall and Dave the men’s. It is an incredible experience to see such expression of the Jewish faith with hundreds reading and bobbing their head forward and back. A man singing haleluah is escorted out. I am asked to hide my cross.

We head back to the hotel. There is a disturbance at a nearby tram station – women apparently are protesting mandatory military service but we are not sure. We call it a night.

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Holy Land – Day 8

We posted too early yesterday. Later, 8 of us took the tram to Jaffa Street market. It is a pedestrian area filled with clothing, wine stores, sweet shops and restaurants. At one point Dave unknowingly dropped ‎his cell phone and a young man ran up handing it to him. We found some food for dinner and took a group selfie (on the other camera). As you can see in the pic attached, the tram we took is very modern. It was a fun end to a long day.

In the morning, we celebrate Mass in the study room of St Jerome where he translated the Bible into Latin from Greek for the first time.‎ His tomb is here but his remains were moved to Rome. It is located beneath the Church of the Nativity, built by Queen Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, in 324 CE. Prior Hadrian built a Pagan Temple here in 125 CE to cover over the birthplace of Christ so we know this is truly the right location.

We descend stairs to the Grotto of the Nativity. Micah 5:2 predicts the Saviour will be born in Bethlehem. ‎We see the spot where Jesus was born (star in floor) and where he lay in the manger. The actual manger is now in Rome. Then to the Shepherd Fields Luke 2:8. Dave takes another selfie.

We head to Jericho, the oldest city in the world, 3000 to 4000 BC! Jesus came through here on his way from Galilee to Jerusalem. It’s in the Judean desert, the Florida of Israel. We gaze at the Mount of Temptation where Satan tried to tempt Jesus. We sample some delicious medjuul dates and buy some.

Then it is off to the Dead Sea for a “float”. It is 440m below sea level! It is‎ saturated with salt and there is elemental salt as you wade in that feels like rock. We get thru the muddy part and float out on our backs over a Sandy bottom. It is hot and sunny. Ahh, home at last.

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Holy Land – Day 7

We start with Mass in a Franciscan chapel built on the site of the Last Supper. Then Dormition Abbey where the Virgin Mary is said to have died – the eternal sleep and her Ascension. Hagia Sion remains of St Peter, built in the Byzantine period.‎ Jesus reappears to the Disciples here after his Resurrection and Mary is with them. Also Acts 15, the Apostles hold their first council appointing James, brother of Jesus as Bishop. This is the New Zion. End of the temple practice and start of the 2nd Covenant Church. We visit the Upper Room built by the Crusaders. It is retained by Israel since 1948. We are standing in this Holy Christian Place in awe!!!

Below we enter the Tomb of David according to Medieval tradition and see the Sephardic Synagogue of Mt. Zion established in 1948 during the War of Independence. There are extremist (orthodox) Jews living and praying here. ‎There is a large group of young Israeli militia. All is calm and respectful.

We drive to Samaria north of Jerusalem. We visit the Old Testament site of Shilo (pronounced Sheelo), the first capital of the 12 tribes of Israel. We are in Ephram. A battle occurred here between the Israelites and Cananites. The Ark of the Covenant was here for 369 years. We see a hologram describing the ancient tabernacle – a portable temple that contained the Ark. Inside the Ark were the broken and unbroken stone tablets with the Law of Moses inscribed. The Ark was lost to the Philestines in a later war who likely destroyed it.

We are in the ‘C’ section of the West Bank which is under Israeli control. Sections A and B are under Palestinian Authority control. These territories are not contiguous and are all mixed together. There are quite a number of Jewish settlements in between Palestinian towns. Our guide who is packing a pistol, says both communities are thriving here thanks to Israeli management. The UN has declared Israeli settlements like this to be illegal. There are a lot of restrictions on people movement.

We see a movie about Hanah’s prayer to Eli the High Priest, for a child. The concept of prayer is born. Samuel was born to her who helped reunite the 12 tribes.‎

We drive to the large Palestinian city of Nablus. ‎We visit Jacob’s well where the Samaritan woman encounters Jesus. A Greek Orthodox Church is built over it. It is the real well and we buy water samples. As we sit outside we hear the Muslim call to worship as a feral cat walks by. As we drive out, everything is under construction, the buildings, the street, the statehood. This is all part of the Holy Land!

‎We stop for a treat – Palestinian Knaphel – a flat honeyed cake topped with pistachio pieces and that has a doughy texture. Yum! We are the only tour bus in Nablus, a special treat as Sammy is not a Jew and can go everywhere freely.

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Holy Land – Day 6

Jerusalem is a strange place. Covering a series of high hills, there are very deep uninhabited valleys in-between. It must have been very difficult walking in Jesus time from town to town. Now too, there is a 20 foot high concrete wall between the Palestinian quarter and the rest of the city. There are checkpoints on the roads that allow Arab-Israelis to enter freely into the Palestinian areas but restrict Palestinian plated cars from leaving their quarter‎ to enter Israel. And the Israelis keep putting up new walls to enclose more and more territory. Very strange and sad.

The fact Trump moved the US embassy here from Tel Aviv signifies he personally does not support the 2 State solution for Israel and Palestine. All this being said, we have not felt unsafe in the least here and only seen a few armed soldiers at the checkpoints or border with Jordan. Then you have all the ancient Bibilical sites in the middle of a modern city with traffic jams. It is surreal here, like nothing we have experienced before.

Today we visited the Church of the Birthplace of John the Baptist. John the Baptist was the last prophet and links the Old to the New Testament. We visited the Church of the Visitation. ‎Elizabeth, 6 months pregnant with John the Baptist, is visited by Mary, pregnant with Jesus. John jumps in the womb.

We visited the Museum of Jerusalem. There is a huge outdoor model of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus. We started our day at the tomb of Lazarus where he was raised from the dead. This infuriated the Pharisees because Lazarus had been dead for 4 days and had started to decay.

When we read of these stories again in the Bible, they will have new meaning for us.‎

It rains off and on and we are happy to come to the end of another great experience and day.

D and M

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Holy Land – Day 5

What is really going on here? We are searching for safety from the storm, for comfort from the pain and for ‎love for the journey. This pilgrimage is a ‎cry for salvation. We realize we are in great need of sanctification and salvation.

Our Christian Israeli guide, Sammy, is a scripture freek. He constantly refers to passages in the Gospels and Old Testament by chapter and verse as we visit each holy site. If you have not read your Bible deeply, it is too late to do it now to try to keep up with him.

We head first to Mount Tabor – the site of Jesus transfiguration with Peter and James witnessing. It is a high domed hill a few km from Nazareth. At the top is a church built on the spot and we celebrate Mass. I take a selfie photo afterwards and the top of my head is lit up eerily.

Next we head south for the spot Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. We wade in and Fr Susai reads from the Bible. Then we baptize each other in the muddy water. There are a few hundred others doing the same thing as a couple of soldiers look on from each side of the border. The river is maybe 50 feet across and Jordan is on the other bank. Bishop Sylvain and Dave splash each other.

Lunch in Bethlehem followed by some religious article shopping. They have great olive wood carvings and Dave finds a St Joseph with Mary and Jesus. Marie finds some nice things. We check into the Dan Jerusalem Hotel – a large hotel that has a huge terraced lobby. Somewhat dated, it has a large spa complex and dining room. The beds are particularly comfortable.

We say goodnight after a nightcap with John and Christine.

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