The last day of our trip was spent in Jerusalem. The whole experience had been heavy up until this point, and as I told Wes that morning, I was fairly certain that it would be more of the same as we visited the ancient sites inside the city. We were starting off with some place I’d never even heard of, though, so I thought I’d be able to hold it together until lunchtime, surely. That mystery place? Something about Peter and Gallicantu.
Yeah, Gallicantu. It didn’t connect until we were pulling up to the church. Rooster. Peter. The rooster crowing. Oh, good grief – this was the place where Peter denied Christ, the very place where Jesus was tried and beaten, held as prisoner, right before He was led up to Jerusalem and to Golgotha, carrying the cross as He went.
Well, so much for holding it together until lunchtime.
In the past as I’ve looked at pictures of Jerusalem, I’ve always kind of cringed at how these massive and opulent churches are built on top of the ancient sites, but during this trip, I actually grew to appreciate it as each church almost told a story. One of the churches on the Via Dolorosa, where Pilate saw Jesus, had a crown of thorns mural in the cathedral ceiling, with artwork throughout the building detailing the story of what happened there. The church at Gethsemane was filled with artwork that was dark and blue, creating a mood in the bright light of day that felt like nighttime, just as it would have been when Jesus was there in the garden. And so it was with this church, with pictures of Jesus on trial, of Jesus being beaten, of Jesus being lowered into a pit —
Wait, what? A pit? I never knew this. We were led to the place where Jesus was beaten with thirty-nine lashes, there below the church, preserved and kept safe with glass now in our modern day…
… and then, onto a pit, with a hole in the ceiling, marked as early as the Byzantine era as the exact place where they lowered Jesus, bleeding and in agony, to wait for His fate. My mind was still reeling from seeing the place where He’d been whipped, honestly, and standing in this place where He’d suffered in silence and darkness was even more overwhelming. I listened to one of the pastors read from the Psalms, words that Jesus would have known, that He might very well have prayed as He bled, as He waited, and as He praised God, even still. We sang a hymn as we all stood there, our hands on the very walls that He would have laid against, imagining the horror of what we’d seen, of what Jesus had gone through.
It was a subdued morning, in other words.
We headed back into the old city after lunch where our guides told us that we were on our own to explore and shop. The day before we’d very briefly visited the Church of Holy Sepulchre, the site of Golgotha and the empty tomb, but the lines were so long that we left after only a few minutes, not seeing much of anything. Wes and I had already agreed that we’d get back there on our last day, even if we had to sneak away from the group (for real!), but luckily there was no need for stealth. They all went shopping, and we hightailed it to the church.
This church was a lot like the Church of the Nativity, with different denominations (for lack of a better word) controlling different parts of the building. When we went to the shrine over the empty tomb, the atmosphere was very subdued, very reverent. No pictures… except for one that Wes got after we’d been in line for an hour and finally reached the entrance to the shrine.
We entered into this space where we stood in a small enclosure filled with incense, candles, and an Armenian priest who was directing people into a separate alcove in small groups where they would only get to stay for just a few seconds. When it was our turn, we had to bow to get into the alcove, and there — right there! — was the stone of the empty tomb. This place WAS the empty tomb, just with a shrine built on top of it and a church built on top of that. We’ve seen pictures of the Garden Tomb, a site in Israel with tombs cut into the natural stone of the hillsides, which is what the tomb would have looked like back in Jesus’s time. Given those pictures and what our minds have imagined as we’ve read the story of the resurrection, it was difficult at first to reconcile this – the real empty tomb – with the picture in our minds from Scripture. I mean, it’s in a building that’s in a building, and nothing but the stone He laid on is the same.
I say that, but y’all… as Wes and I knelt there alongside two other believers from another part of the world, all of our hands on the very spot where Jesus lay and where He rose again, we were both speechless, knowing that this was the place, proven by the generations and centuries of believers that have come here, starting with the disciples who had seen Him laid here. This very place. All I could manage in my awe was “thank You, Jesus” over and over again before the priest rushed us back out so the hundreds of other people waiting in line could go through and worship as well.
So if you’re planning a trip to Israel, the Garden Tomb will be less crowded and will look more like the tomb looked back in Jesus’s day, but the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the real place and is worth a long wait in line, all the crowds, and the very regimented way the priests handle it all.
I would say the same for Golgotha, which is even more bedazzled than the tomb. (It’s not my thing, but if it ushers others into truer worship, then by all means. Bedazzle and bling out those sites.) We made our way up the worn stone stairs to the place where the cross stood, where the crowds were even crazier than they’d been at the tomb. But can I tell you, the crowds in and of themselves were a holy experience. We found ourselves standing behind an older woman who was clearly from another part of the world, her two grown daughters by her side, watching and waiting with her as the line moved. As our line of vision allowed us to see the actual place of the cross, she was clearly overcome with the emotion of it all. I watched as this precious woman, from a love of Jesus and the overwhelming emotion that being in this place where He’d given all had brought, reached over to each of her adult daughters, holding their faces in her hands as she wept, kissing them tenderly as she prayed out loud over them, as they held onto her, their own emotions high as they cried with her.
This? Was pretty much the prevailing feeling of the entire trip. What a gift, to be in these places, to know Him better, to love Him more as we took it in and prepared to carry the witness of these very stones back home with us. And for me, the emotion was compounded as I watched other believers from all over the world, captured by the same truth, the same Gospel, the very same Jesus of Nazareth, as me. We don’t share a culture. We don’t share a country. But we share a Savior. How did Jesus do it? How did He live in just this tiny piece of the world, never moving beyond it, and yet reaching – through His death and His resurrection – the far reaches of the world, touching hearts and changing lives with the very same redemptive grace that transcends culture, race, gender, and time?
I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure I could’ve reached out to this woman and she would have kissed me, too, because we both love Jesus, and we were certainly feeling the same gravity and unworthiness, devotion and love, and overwhelming joy that He is the same no matter who you are, where you’ve gone, or how far you’ve wandered from Him. He doesn’t change. He never changes.
So I was in tears before we even got up to the cross. (Go to Israel. Bring Kleenex.) And when we were there, it was even more overwhelming, as we could see the stones of Golgotha beneath the glass that protected it, as we bowed down at the very spot where the cross stood, and as we said it again. Thank You, Jesus. Thank You, thank You, thank You…
We were fairly wrung out after all of this. We still had some time before we needed to be back at the bus, so we went to the Tower of David, which now houses a museum of the history of the city of Jerusalem. This significance of the site – which is completely renovated into a modern museum – dates back to Hezekiah, then to Herod. Yes, even the renovated modern museums in Israel have centuries of history in their very physical foundations. (Someone in our group asked our guide about the age of some stone work in one of the places we visited earlier in the week, and his response was, “Oh, that’s modern. Only about two hundred years old.” Well, I guess two hundred years old is modern if you’re from the birthplace of civilization.) We read through the history of Israel as we went through the museum, and it thrilled our seminarian souls that their history is biblical history. Ha! We knew the details because they’re the details of Scripture, from Abraham to King David, from exile to Roman occupation. And there in the middle, even in a place where Jewish historians had placed the facts, was Jesus of Nazareth. He has no divinity for Jews, yet they put an account of Him in their history. It was simply stated that He made Jerusalem the birthplace of a new religion, words that I read with my mind going back to all of those people of different nationalities and languages gathered around Golgotha, just as centuries of pilgrims have done before them. He did that, but He also changed history. He changed eternity. Even in this museum, this place where He was not regarded as God, I was praising Him for what He’d done. And as the history of Israel from that point on was wrought with difficulties and even more exile for the Jewish people, my heart clung to that, to how Jesus has changed eternity, how He is still changing eternity for people, and I prayed that it would be true for people here, for people so close to the places where He taught and lived, where He died and rose again.
We left the museum and headed out of the city through the Jaffa Gate, just as it began to snow. Yes, snow! I’m not sure how often that happens in Israel, but all of the Jewish folks around us just living their normal everyday lives coming in and out of Jerusalem looked just as shocked as we did. So I’m guessing that it hardly ever happens. Wes and I hustled to a coffeeshop near where we were going to meet the bus and enjoyed our last few moments in Jerusalem in the warmth.
From there, it was back to Bethlehem, then to the airport in Tel Aviv, where we bid farewell to Israel for now. (And where the TSA-type agents at the airport greet you with “shalom” and then grill you mercilessly while staring at you like CIA agents who can see into your very soul. Tightest security I’ve ever been through!)
What a gift this trip was, friends. I’m currently devouring the Gospels in my morning quiet time, noticing things I’ve never noticed before, getting all pumped and excited because I can SEE the places in my mind, and praising God with every story, so very thankful that we were able to go.
That said, if you get the opportunity to go to Israel — GO! It’s so worth it. So, so worth it!