An Ecumenical Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Thursday - the Way of the Cross

It's not me.

But I found it moving and in a strange way very special.

Our day began as we passed through the checkpoint and made our way to the old city of Jerusalem.

We walked through the Muslim Cememtry on the sides of the Kedron Valley and through the Lion's gate (though I may be mistaken with the name) and through the old city of Jerusalem to St Anne's church.

A church dedicated to the mother of Mary and celebrating Mary's upbringing as tradition would have it in Jerusalem, and may be in the temple courts.

By the entrance is a stone commemorating a deacon. Each of our church traditions values the part played by 'deacons' though in very different ways. They each have in common the notion of service. Our reading took us through Philippians 2:5-11, the hymn to the servant christ.

In the rich acoustic of the stone built church we sang Brother, Sister let me serve you. The pause between each verse, so much longer than I am accustomed to, allowed the echo to die away.

Outside we looked down on the pools of Bethsaida, read the account of the man who was healed there by Christ, and shared in prayers for healing and wholeness for ourselves and for those who are dear to us. This is one of those places of which it can be said 'it was here'. Not hereabouts. Here, that Jesus shared in his healing ministry.

A short walk took us to the church of Ecce Homo and in the basement the 'pavement', which tradition has it is near the Antonia Fortress and would have been the base Pilate used during his stays in Jerusalem.

Here it was we began our stations of the cross. You can follow them with us in our worship booklet link to the right of these thoughts.

A coffee break was much welcome. And then we started on the Via Dolorosa.

For me it was something special, and yet something I had done before. In our walk of witness on Good Friday we walk in silence through the bustle of the town centre and re-live the way of the cross. So too through the bustle of an Arab souk in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem we made our way from chapel to street corner, from street corner to chapel, marking the way of the cross.

We reached the Church of the Holy Sepulcrhe, known in the Orthodox tradition as the Church of Resurrection.

And here it was that I did what simply isn't me.

In that location which archaeology suggests is in all probability the place of the skull, the place of crucifixion, we read the account of the crucifixion of Christ. And then we waited in line, and in a spirit of devotion could see people kneeling to the foot of the cross to mark the place with a kiss.

As I had done when first I shared int the Good Friday vigil at Prinknash Abbey on the very day the Good Friday agreement was signed bringing the first steps towards peace in Northern Ireland, I joined that line to kiss the foot of the cross.

I found myself on my knees. Service at the foot of the cross.

I moved to one side, and someone from locally, or maybe Eastern Europe in the black of a widow's garb knelt to one side of the altar. It was moving to see. And then I could see Felicity lighting a candle.

That too is not something we do. Not in that setting.

And yet it was moving.

I didn't have to ask. I knew that as before she had remembered Angela and Nanny Zemlak, by lighting a candle, so too she, and I were, thinking in our prayers of Angela and Jan. Our prayer very much with them in a place we knew would be special to them.

And then we moved down to the tomb. The church of the holy sepulchre became for us the church of resurrection, as we shared in acclamation of the resurrection victory of Christ Jesus.

Lunch was very welcome, but not until we had had a group photograph taken on the steps of teh church.

A coach ride around the old city walls took us to the church of St Peter Gallicantu, and the house of Caiaphas the high priest.

In the peace of the church it was good to share in a service marking the light breadking into the darkness in that place of tears, the tears of Peter's denial.

And then down to the dungeon where Joanne shared with us the words of Psalm 88 and led us in quiet meditation in the depths.

It was time by now to relax a little and enjoy the peace of the gardens and a refreshing cup of tea, before returning through the checkpoint to our dinner and an evening exploring the power of Herod and the response of Jesus the peacemaker. The connections to be made between the world of Jesus's day and the world of our own are many, and disturbing.

The day has come to an end ... and tomorrow we make our way down the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane and on to the road to Emmaus.

But tomorrow is another day.

Do continue to remember us in our prayers ... and especially pray for the peace of this place.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Wednesday - to Bethlehem

Today our pilgrimage got under way.

At breakfast we looked over Bethlehem to the church of the nativity. That was our first destination.

Leaving the hotel we walked through Bethlehem's narrow, bustling streets with its wonderful shops selling everything from herbs to hi-fi's. The steep road took us down to Manger Square and to the Church of the Nativity.

One at a time we had to bend low to walk through what has come to be known as the door of humility. We entered the dark, but strangely moving Orthodox church. Typical of an orthodox church and its architecture we entered as it were from 'the world' and passed into the main body of the church. There were no pews. The walls had the remnants of once fine wall paintings of many saints. We were standing as it were in the middle of the wonderful communion of saints that binds us together with God's people of every age and every land.

There in front of us on a raised platform was the 'iconostasis' the screen bearing the richest of icons. Each icon painted with deep devotion to draw us into a sense of the divine presence and to open as it were a window for each of us on to the presence of God. And beyond the iconostasis the place where the bread is broken and the cup shared in the liturgy which is at the heart of the Orthodox way. As we could glimpse through the opening in the iconostasis into the dark mystery beyond it is as if we were glimpsing the mystery of heaven.

We explored parts of the church complex, moving into the neighbouring St Catherine's church laid out in the western tradition we are so used to with pews, a lecturn, an altar, albeit in the centre as a table around which people gather to celebrate the mass.

On to a memorial room and then we went round to the milk grotto. Here we shared in quiet contemplation recalling the care bestowed by Mary and Joseph on the little babe in their care. A wonderful icon of Mary breast feeding her baby. We were invited to think of those expecting, those hoping for pregnancy, and of those recently born ... and to say a prayer.

I couldn't but think of our ne grandson, Lake and of his parents, Dave and Steph, and think of them in my prayers. After all he was born on Easter Sunday, 2009! Easter Sunday, that is if you follow the Eastern Orthodox liturgy and their dating of Easter!!

Then it was time for lunch in a fine restaurant decked out as a bedouin tent. A lovely meal!

On to the Shepherds' fields. Into one of the modern churches that adorn the holy land designed by a famous 20th Century architect whose name escapes me. There we listened to beautiful singing by a group from some east European country and others from Slovenia. Led by a nun who was entering into the singing and leading it powerfully and so movingly. Then they started to sing Silent Night. It was most moving as so many joined in, each in their own language.

We went into the open air and sat in a worship place. And suddenly, after all the bustle of the day it was as quiet as could be. We shared in the worship you can follow in our worship book by clicking on the link to the right of this blog.

Glory to God in the highest heaven was the invitation to prayer.

And on earth, peace to all people, was the response we all shared.

Back for some retail therapy at Johnny's shop! All the souvenirs bought on the first day!!

And then we were home for a short break and dinner.

Our guest for dinner was Alex Awaad together with his wife Brenda and George and Alison colleagues. Alex and George work with the Bethlehem Bible College and the Shepherds' society. After dinner Alex, a Palestinian, Arab Christian, gave us a Palestinian Christian perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

You can find out more about the Bethlehem Bible College, the Shepherds Society by googling Alex Awaad and teh BBBC and the Shepherds Society.

A long day is over, we are setting off in our coach at 8-00 in the morning, when we shall make our way to Jerusalem.

We finished our day, and I will finish our blog with prayer for the peace of Jerusalem.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Tuesday - we've arrived!

Everyone was up at dawn and at the Royal Well in time for the Castleways coach to set off at exactly the right time, 3-45 am.

In spite of a foggy journey to Heathrow we arrived on time and sailed through terminal 5 only to find the flight delayed by an hour because of fog.

Arriving an hour late in Tel Aviv we were met by Joanne and Omar and his coach and made our way through the rich fertile farmland around Tel Aviv up into the high limestone mountains. Within an hour and a half we reached Jerusalem, skirted around the city, passing the Tantur Ecumenical Institute where I had stayed last year.

We passed through the checkpoint into Bethlehem and made our way past Rachel's tomb, the Bethlehem Bible College up to the Star Hotel.

What a stunning location!

After unpacking we went up to the top floor of the hotel to a restaurant with wonderful panoramic views of Bethlehem and the mountains it is built on. It took your breath away. It's difficult to believe how close Bethlehem is to Jerusalem and how impressive the mountains.

We look across at the Church of the Nativity.

And in the morning our pilgrimage will get under way as we walk down from the hotel to the Church of the Nativity.

Remember us in your prayers and pray for the people of Bethlehem.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Will you come and follow me?

Welcome to our ecumenical pilgrimage of the Holy Land.

Friends from Highbury Congregational Church, St Luke's, St Gregory's, St Matthew's, St Margaret's Alstone, Trinity, Charlton Kings Baptist Church, the Congregational Federation and the Congregational Federation Training Course join together on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land from 28th April to 7th May, 2009.

It may be possible to update our Blog ... but equally that may not be possible on our travels!

We travel to the Holy Land, to Tel Aviv airport and then by coach to the Star Hotel, Bethlehem, where we check in just in time for dinner.

After breakfast there will be a talk about the history of the holy places, and instructions on making the most of our pilgrimage. We will make our first visit to Bethlehem, visiting the Church of the Nativity, the monastery of St Jerome and the Milk Grotto. After lunch there will be an opportunity to stop at a shop which is one of the best ones for souvenir shopping. AFter our evening meal there will be time for first reflections and prayers. We welcome Alex and Brenda Awad of the Bethlehem Bible College and the East Jerusalem Baptist Church as our guests for dinner. After dinner jAlex will share his reflections on his own life story with us.

A walking tour of the old city of Jerusalem. Visiting the Western Wall (the Wailing Wall), St Anne's Church, the siter of hte Pools of Bethsaida, the Church of Ecce Homo (Behold the Man) on the site of the house of Pilate. We walk the route of the Stations of the Cross, to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. AFter a short lunchbreak, we walk to Mt Zion, to teh Last Supper Room, and the Church of St Peter in Galli-cantu. We take a coach back to the Star Hotel, Bethlehem.

We travel to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, visit the Church of Pater Noster, then walk down the Mount of Olives and see 'Dominus Flevit' (the Lord wept) where there is a lovely church with a wonderful view of Jerusalem. From there we continue our walk to the Church of All Nations, the Garden of Gethsemane and the Chapel of Betrayal. We travel by bus to Emmaus and worship there. If time allows we will vist the Garden Tomb later in the afternoon. We welcome Fr Michael McGarry of the Tantur Institute as our guest for dinner.

This is an oppportunity to gather breath and reflect on our experiences so far. There will be an opportunity to visit places in and around Bethlehem, and enjoy local hospitality for lunch. Our day will finish with dinner and a time for sharing and prayer.

We will will worship at the East Jerusalem Baptist church and those who wish will take Mass at a local church. We will then take the road down to Jericho, up to the Mountain of Temptation and then take to the waters in the Dead Sea.

Today we travel to the North and to the Galilee. We visit Cana and then move on to Nazareth. We make our way to the C Hotel in Tiberias where we will stay for a couple of nights.

We start the day with a boat ride on teh Sea of Galilee, and then have a pilgrimage communion at the place of St Peter's Primacy. Avisit will follow to the Church of the multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, and then we go on to Capernaum. Lunch today will be in a restaurant where they serve wonderful 'St Peter's Fish', unique to the Sea of Galilee and the ones caught by the fishermen of Galilee in Jesus's day. Very tasty! In the afternoon we will visit the Church of the Beatitudes.

We will visit Mt Carmel, and then go on to Haifa, exploring Elijah's territory and making connections with the story of Jesus. On to the Church of Stella Maris, the Star of the Sea, near the beautiful gardens of teh Bahai Temple with views of Haifa Bay. If time permits we will go to Acre, a Crusader City on teh other side of the bay.

We check out of our hotel, and visit Mt Tabor where the Transfiguration may have taken place. We will travel to teh top of the mountain in taxis, and worship there in thanksgiving for our pilgrimage. Then we will have an early lunch and make for the airport for the flight back to Heathrow. We are scheduled to arrive in Heathrow at 20-20 and get back to Chetlenham around 23-00.