Friday was spent getting to Israel, crossing the border, checking into our room at ASOR, and then walking around the predominantly Arab area of East Jerusalem, close to where we were staying. Saturday was our visit inside the walls of the Old City, and to the Mount of Olives, as well as to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. I particularly liked visiting Bethlehem, as it was less crowded. And while it was still hard to imagine Jesus being born in a manger where what is now an underground "basement" area of the church, I knew it had to have happened close by, even if not in that exact spot. And the same with his crucifixion and burial in Jerusalem. As most people are aware, Catholics and Protestants in general disagree as to whether Jesus was crucified at the top of the hill which is now encased inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or a little ways away at the Garden Tomb, which at least looks more likely, whether it is or not.
Now for some reason almost no one was at the Church of the Nativity when we were there, and so we had a much better experience. We didn't have to wait in a single line, which made it easier to get our minds around what had taken place here some 2000 years ago. Of course Bethlehem itself is no longer a small remote village (Bethlehem was not then a Palestinian Territory), and as can be expected, one street close to the church had a row of shops that sold to tourists, and to that end I couldn't help but buy a few souvenirs. In a shop right across the street from the church I ended up buying a bunch of olive wood nativity Christmas ornaments (which I have given out over the years as presents), plus I bought myself one really cool souvenir, something I have worn everyday for the last 16 years since I purchased it -- a thick silver and black band ring with silver flowers adorning it. I call it my Bethlehem ring, and it's a constant reminder to me that Jesus was born into this world in the flesh to save me and all the rest of mankind until the end of time. I especially appreciate it on days when I feel a whole lot like I could use rescuing! When I'm lonely, broken and tired, short of money and short of hope, when I've run out of answers, when I feel no peace! When I need the living waters of grace and love to flow over and through my weary, dried up soul. I need a living God! I need communion with the Divine. I need to let Him do His thing. Get out of His way. Let Him be God. Remember my place in the universe. Remember that my only job is to love Him and love my neighbor. And I need that reminder here, in this strange, holy land. That somewhere in all the mess over here in this part of the world, Christ was born, he lived, he preached, he loved, he laughed, he listened, he got angry, he pitied, he healed, and he wept. Then he was crucified and buried (and it's not important exactly where). But then, he rose. He's not herein this place. He was raised from the dead, and if I can't feel him in all this mess, well, then maybe at night under the stars at Abila, or in the desert, or back at home, or in my car driving along the highway, or at a friend's house, or in the woods, or in a sunset, or on a mountaintop, or at the ocean, or at school . . . Or on my knees. And Christians everywhere are arguing about the details. And the Jews are still waiting for a Deliverer, and the Muslims say that there is only one God and Muhammed is his prophet. And they fight and they hate, and there is no peace.
On Friday, the Muslims go to the Mosque to pray, and it's their holy day; and on Saturday, the Jews go to Synagogue, and it's their holy day; and on Sunday, the Christians go to church, and it's their holy day. And so for three days in a row God gets special recognition from these His children who do not get along with each other. But today is Sunday, and we can easily rent a car and travel, as there is less reverence for this day and everything's open for business. So we get a small car with yellow license plates, meaning our car has been registered in Israel (as opposed to the Palestinians who have white plates) and therefore we can more easily travel throughout Israel, Jerusalem and the Jewish settlements, though we will stand out like a sore thumb in the Palestinian Territories. For the most part, while we will be close to the Gaza Strip when we're at Ashkelon, we will stay away from there, though we pretty much have to drive through Jericho Sunday night after dark, as that's about the only way to get back to Jerusalem. There's no way we can make it back earlier, as we need the entire day to go everywhere we have planned. One of the Catholic priests who was at Abila with us also came to Jerusalem this same weekend (also staying at ASOR, THE place for archaeologists to hobnob), and he spent Saturday with us inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was super cool because he knew all the nooks and crannies of the place, and took us into areas that most tourists do not get to see. (Plus he knew where there was a portrait painting of God the Father, and I had always wondered what he might look like! Well, you know, there are tons of pictures of His son, but none of Him. And not surprisingly, he was depicted as being white, elderly, Anglo-Saxon.) So we invited Father L along with us on our Sunday sightseeing trip, which made me feel a little safer, maybe because he was a priest, or maybe because there was more safety in numbers (and because he was a priest)! Besides, this trip was still not feeling like that much of a honeymoon, so who cared if a priest tagged along!
Now, when I think about all the places we went, I don't see for the life of me how we did all this in one day, so it's possible that I'm a little confused here. I am relying rather heavily on photographs that I took from that year to remind me of everything we did, or otherwise I might get that trip mixed up with others I've taken since. But in any case, I know I'm not wrong about where we went that particular summer. It's just that we might have taken two days to do what I'm about to tell you, instead of one, though in all honesty, J could squeeze more sightseeing into one day than anybody else would ever dream of trying to do! So, if you're not a stickler for an exact itinerary, then we're good. Here goes.
At some point we headed south towards the Dead Sea, though we didn't stop. We drove through groves and groves of date palms, which I thought were quite beautiful; and we drove to Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, and where I, in typical tourist fashion, took a camel ride (you might say I was suckered into making a fool of myself, which J caught on camera!); then, pointed in some direction or other, we drove through the Judean Desert, where there is absolutely nothing for miles and miles as far as the eye can see (though its magnificence was astounding!); then we turned north, making one quick stop (much to my husband's chagrin) to walk around and peer in the gate at Beit She'an (only one of the finest archaeological sites in the country!) and then continued on towards the Sea of Galilee (or, Lake Kinneret) and Tiberias, where we visited the Church of the Bread and Fishes and the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter, places where Jesus fed 5000 pilgrims with 5 loaves of bread and 2 small fish, and the spot where Jesus made Peter the "Shepherd of his People." Of course we ate lunch overlooking the sea, each of us ordering the famous St. Peter's fish, which comes on your plate complete with head and bulging eyes looking straight at you; never mind that you have to skin and fillet the darn thing before you can begin eating it. WAY too much work! Oh, and I almost forgot -- you do get fries with that! (I want to comment here that, really, everyone should try it at least once just so they can say they've had the same fish from the Sea of Galilee that Peter and the other disciples caught, and that which Jesus multiplied, even though in my opinion it's much too salty besides its being generally overall disgusting! Sitting across the water on that steep bank listening to Jesus speak, I would have probably asked if I could just have more bread, please! Sorry. But I doubt if I'm the first person who has not liked it!)
Okay, after our delightful lunch we took a boat ride on the sea, but because we couldn't wait around for more tourists to show up, or afford our own private tour, we ended up on a boat full of Arabs having some sort of party celebration -- music, dancing, and the works! I have to say that all this gaiety detracted quite a bit from my ability to just sit in awe and reflect on the significance and profundity of where I was! Aargh! We did, however, experience a very nice breeze and lots of waves, which aided me in better understanding how rough the sea could get, and thus how scary it might be if a person or persons were on a small boat like the ones used for fishing during Jesus' time. From our boat, once we crossed the water, we could see the Mount of Beatitudes (where Jesus delivered his sermon on the mount) and Capernaum (where Peter lived and where Jesus might have preached in the synagogue). During our little venture I tried hard several times to picture Jesus walking on the water, or sleeping in a rocky boat as Peter and the gang became terrified out of their wits by a storm that had very quickly brewed up on the sea; but, alas, Arab music and everybody's loud talk and laughter kept disturbing my imaginings. This is what happens when you're poor and trying to save money but still see and do as much as possible. But all in all, it was way better than not going. Once we were happily deposited back on land, we drove around to the other side of the lake where we could see the Golan Heights up over our heads, as we made our way to a Kibbutz where Father L knew some "Kubbitzniks" (people who live and work on a Kibbutz). From there I think we must have driven back to Jerusalem by way of Jericho (which I do recall, as it was close to midnight, the roads were desolate, and I was sleepy and scared!).
But this is why I think we might have spent two days touring: at some point we drove with Father L along the Jordan River. I know this for certain because we stopped at a nice quiet spot and Father L blessed my new Jerusalem cross, the one that I had just purchased. I figured, why not, as the water from the Jordan is supposed to be holy, and people use it to bless all sorts of things, and while I wasn't Catholic (though I was once for a very short time back when I was 18), I figured that it wouldn't hurt to ask the priest I had right there with me to do me the honors, which he graciously did! And now, while I remember the sun setting on us at the Kibbutz, I also remember J and I driving to Ashkelon and watching the sun go down there over the Mediterranean Sea as we ate dinner.
I realize that I am rather confused by our long weekend getaway, but let's not forget that I was a tad worn down, both physically and emotionally, and squeezing so much activity into my every waking moment made my days seem to more or less run together. But I do recall how perfectly that sunset dinner inspired feelings of romance, though I have no recollections of anything happening once we got back to our room. Now HOW could I have forgotten THAT?