My dear friends, yesterday marked the first time that we encountered a few holy sites of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths. For the past two days we have been getting a sense of the surroundings and now it is time to delve more deeply into the life and ministry of Jesus. For me, the day was all about prayer and how followers of three different religions connect to the different sites that are important in their traditions. Each group wants to be able to pray at their respective site without interference or fear of others preventing that from happening.
Our day started early, and perhaps a little too early for my taste but there is clearly a method to Iyad’s madness. We boarded the coach at 6:15am and were dropped off at one of the gates to the Old City. We walked into the city and we were at our first stop, the Western Wall.
Iyad intentionally wanted us to get to the wall for two reasons; the first being that the as the holiest site for prayer in Judaism the Western Wall gets very busy and because our second stop also gets backed up very quickly with pilgrims and tourists. So he wanted us to get there early enough to be able to pray at the wall without interference. The wall was originally erected as part of the expansion of the Second Jewish Temple begun by Herod the Great, which resulted in the encasement of the natural, steep hill known to Jews and Christians as the Temple Mount, in a large rectangular structure topped by a huge flat platform, thus creating more space for the Temple itself and its auxiliary buildings. The Western Wall is considered holy due to its connection to the Temple Mount. Because of the Temple Mount entry restrictions, the Wall is the holiest place where Jews are permitted to pray, though the holiest site in the Jewish faith lies behind it. The wall became a source of friction between the Jewish and Muslim communities, the latter being worried that the wall could be used to further Jewish claims to the Temple Mount and thus Jerusalem. During this period outbreaks of violence at the foot of the wall After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War the Eastern portion of Jerusalem was occupied by Jordan. Under Jordanian control Jews were completely expelled from the Old City including the Jewish quarter, and Jews were barred from entering the Old City for 19 years, effectively banning Jewish prayer at the site of the Western Wall. This period ended on June 10, 1967, when Israel gained control of the site following the Six-Day War. Three days after establishing control over the Western Wall site the Moroccan Quarter was bulldozed by Israeli authorities to create space for what is now the Western Wall plaza.
After spending some time praying at the wall, we then moved towards a large enclosed wooden ramp that leads from the Western Wall plaza up to the Temple Mount or al-Haram al-Sharif which is the location of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque; our second stop for the morning.
As pilgrims we were allowed on the Temple Mount and were able to walk around the grounds and take pictures of the buoldings. However, since the Second Intifada, as non-Muslims we are not permitted into the Dome of the Rock or the al-Aqsa Mosque. So unfortunately we were unable to enter and experience these two magnificant and beautful houses of prayer. Iyad gave us some history of the buildings and then we had time to wander around on our own.
After spending some time walking around the al-Aqsa complex we made our way to a little shop owned by one of Iyad’s many “cousins” who served us various juices and Turkish coffee. We also had a snack of bread and herbs; a perfect way to re-energize for our next stop in the Old City, the pools of Bethesda, the site where Jesus heals the paralytic on the Sabbath.
The fifth chapter of the Gospel of John describes a pool in Jerusalem, near the Sheep Gate, which is surrounded by five covered colonnades and it is associated with healing.
Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”
“Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. – John 5:2-9
The Church of Saint Anne, run by French monastics, is built next to the Pool of Bethesda. We entered the church grounds and it was packed with other pilgrim groups. The grounds were covered in a variety of flowers of all colors. We made our way over to the ruins that contain structures from both the 1st and 4th Centuries. We found a quiet place to read the scripture above, and then Fr David and I offered healing prayers and anointing. It was an amazing moment of prayer and vulnerability as the pilgrims sought healing for their families and themselves. It was truly moving for me to offer those prayers.
After that moving experience of personal prayer and anointing, we made our way back towards the college for another excellent lunch at a Muslim family owned restaurant in East Jerusalem. We then had some time to ourselves so I took a nap!
After a quick rest we boarded the coach again for our final stop of the day, the Israel Museum. The museum is a great museum dedicated to the culture and history of Israel. Of all that is housed in the museum the two best exhibits were the very large scale model of Jerusalem from the Second Temple Period, or the time of Jesus, and the exhibit on the Dead Sea Scrolls.
After taking in the sights of at the museum, we all boarded the bus, exhausted, but full from a day that connected us to three different holy sites for three different religions. We returned to Saint George’s for dinner and some rest.