Stories From Israel and Palestine
Holy, Holy, Holy,
Lord God Almighty,
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee.
Holy, Holy, Holy,
Merciful and mighty,
God in three persons, blessed Trinity.
After Andrew closed the morning devotion in prayer, he led us in this simple hymn. There were fifty people in our tour group, spanning ages 23 to 83, all with some loose connection to Wycliffe College where Andrew goes to school. By then most of us had lost the double-sided song sheets that we’d brought, but we didn’t need them anymore. We’d already sang that song more than 15 times together on the bus, through the streets, and in the churches that we visited in Israel and Palestine.
Singing was a major theme and a highlight of our trip. It was how we lifted up to God our ineffable awe and gratitude for the things we were encountering.
Earlier that week, our tour guide, Steven Notley, led us in that song as we sat in the church in Capernaum, a small fishing village on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus performed a number of miracles. The church – a raised octagonal room – is suspended over what is thought to be the house of Peter.
All morning we’d been following in the footsteps of Jesus’ ministry, visiting Chorazin and Bethsaida (woe to you!), the Mount of the Beatitudes, and finally Capernaum. The church was our first opportunity to sit and reflect.
Its windows overlooked the sea and, through the glass floor the foundations of Peter’s ancient house could be seen. There, 2000 years earlier, Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law of her fever. Some people were peering down through the glass and others were praying or sitting quietly, when Steve started singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy…” Slowly, all fifty of us, and many other Christian pilgrims in the church, joined him.
Meeting Steve, a historical geographer, professor, and founder of the Emmaus tour, was among the highlights of our trip. I swear he knows every rock and stone in the country, not to mention every shopkeeper, scholar, museum owner, bus driver, tour guide and falafel sandwich maker. He did his graduate work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has spent a good chunk of his life in that city with his lovely wife, Sunya, who also joined us on the trip.
The Emmaus tour is intended to give pilgrims the chance to walk within the biblical landscape, discussing the life and ministry of Jesus, and reflecting upon the prophets, priests and kings who shared the hope of his arrival.
How can I explain this pilgrimage? I will start with this: I walked where Christ walked.
It really hit me when, like Jesus, we left the peaceful beauty of the Galilee behind and turned our faces to Jerusalem. On the southern wall of the Temple Mount, there are three ancient archways. They were an entrance to the Royal Stoa, an ancient basilica constructed by Herod the Great during his renovation of the Temple Mount at the end of the 1st century BC.
“Here,” said Steve, “I can say without a doubt, that Jesus would have walked on these stones.”
I took a video of our group as they walked in file across the stones, some with hands to their chests, others smiling, others brushing away tears. This was among the most intensely spiritual moments of our trip – at least it was for me. (For those who know me, yes, of course I teared up).
On the one hand, these were just some old, cracked paving stones. On the other hand, they were the signification – and my deep realization – of Christ’s reality and personhood. He was a man. He walked on these stones. Stones that, in the context of the far more ancient things we’d seen (like 7000-year-old Jericho), aren’t even all that old.
Christ was real. I guess I knew that before, but… did I? Maybe. Maybe theoretically. But maybe not really. I think I just took it for granted without really thinking about it too much.
By the time I’d gotten to those paving stones, I’d already walked through the desert, the wilderness, the “lonely places”. I’d walked through the fishing villages of Galilee where Christ taught, and through the streets of Jerusalem where he was condemned. But for some reason it was walking on those cracked stones where it all coalesced.
The places and people of the Bible aren’t a fantasy. They aren’t set in Middle Earth. They are set here. They are real. And knowing that, well, it’s kind of a game changer.
On the Road to Emmaus
Luke 24: 13-32
Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him.
He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”
They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
“What things?” he asked.
“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”
He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”