By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
This is a continuation of reflections on the March pilgrimage to the Holy Land with Father Ernie Davis, pastoral administrator of St. Therese Little Flower Parish.
Internet images, newspaper photos, even paintings don’t do it justice. The sight of the old city of Jerusalem as we approached it early in the evening took our breath away. There was total silence in the bus as we drew near; the high walls glowed gold in the lowering sun, emphasizing the ancient Tower of David, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the gleaming Dome of the Rock rising above them.
“We are going up to Jerusalem,” Father Ernie reminded us, “which is a spiritual direction. There are higher elevations in Israel, but this is the center of God’s heart.”
Seeing the city glowing in the hills, I could well believe it.
“Jerusalem” appears 626 times in the Old Testament and 141 times in the New. Its name reflects the melding of the names given to the site by Abraham and King Melchizedek. According to a midrash, Abraham brought his son Isaac to be sacrificed there, and named it Yahweh-yireh; “On the mountain the Lord will provide.” Melchizedek named it Salem, “peace.” Combined, they became Yireh-Salem or Jerusalem, mountain of peace.
King David conquered Jerusalem around 1,000 B.C., and named it his official residence and capital. He brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem intending to build a Temple to God, making it the religious and political capital of Israel. But, David was forbidden to build the Temple because his “hands were stained with blood.” (II Chronicles 3:1) Solomon, his son, erected the Temple on Mount Moriah.
More than 3,000 years have passed since that time; Jerusalem remains. The momentous last months of Jesus’ earthly life were lived in and around the holy city. When he and his disciples traveled, on foot usually, they could go quite a distance. We spent the next three days visiting many of the same areas Jesus visited, although we rode in an air-conditioned bus.
Mount Tabor, about 95 miles from Jerusalem, stands alone in the Jezreel Valley. From the third century, Christian tradition has held that the 1,900 foot mountain was the site of the Transfiguration of Jesus.
In Matthew 17, we read, “… Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him… a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’”
Another old tradition hints that the Transfiguration may have occurred on Mount Hermon, but as the “high mountain” is never identified, most Christians celebrate Mount Tabor as the site.
The modern Church of the Transfiguration, designed and built by Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi, was completed in 1924. The church was built upon the ruins of a 5th or 6th century Byzantine church and a 12th century Crusader church. Franciscan friars, who care for the church, live next door in a monastery established in 1873.
The church consists of three naves separated by two rows of columns supporting arches. Bell towers stand on either side of the entrance, each housing a chapel. The chapel on the south is dedicated to Elijah and the northern to Moses. The Moses chapel, small and intimate, features a painting of Moses receiving the Commandments. Father Ernie celebrated Mass there, and the couples in our group renewed their marriage vows.
In the main church, high above the altar, a mosaic depicts the Transfiguration, with peacocks, symbolizing eternity and glory, shimmering gold and blue in the arched window behind the altar, illuminated by the sun reflecting off a glass plate in the floor.
Across the road dividing the mountain’s top, is the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Elias, built in 1845 to honor Elijah. Nearby are the ruins of the 12th century Benedictine monastery of San Salvatore.
Back on the bus, we held our breath as Anwar, our driver, navigated the twisting turns of the narrow road so high above the meadows we saw out our windows. As we descended, Billy, our guide, pointed out a cow meandering through the foundations of an ancient settlement. He mentioned that that cow was wandering around in a valley with an ancient reputation for bloody battles. In fact, he said, John of Patmos, author of the Book of Revelation, thought by many scholars to be St. John the Apostle, placed Armageddon, the last battlefield conflict of history, in that peaceful valley.
As we snapped photos of the valley, the ancient foundations outlined in the grass, and of course, the cow, Billy told us that we would be driving through an area that sounded slightly unnerving. The West Bank.
The West Bank is a landlocked territory on the Jordan River’s eastern side. Its boundaries to the west, north, and south are shared with Israel and, to the east, across the river, with the Kingdom of Jordan.
The West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem (the Old City) comprise the Palestinian territories. In 1993, Billy continued, following the Oslo Accords, a treaty signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization to create a Palestinian nation, parts of the territories came under the Palestinian National Authority’s jurisdiction.
Under the Accords’ terms, the PLO assumed control over the Jericho area of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip on May 17, 1994. Sixteen months later, on Sept. 28, 1995, following the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israeli soldiers withdrew from Bethlehem, Jericho, and five other towns in the West Bank. Later that year the PLO took over civil administration in 17 areas in Hebron, about 8 percent of the West Bank. Palestinian territories are populated by Muslims, some Christians and a smattering of Jewish settlers.
As our bus continued on toward Jericho and Bethlehem, we approached an Israeli checkpoint. An electrified fence follows the border between Jordan and Israel, all the way to the Dead Sea, monitored by soldiers from both nations. Billy said there have been no illegal border crossings since 1994.
We were halted at the checkpoint. Anwar opened the bus’s door for a uniformed Israeli soldier, bristling with weapons. He looked around at us, studying each face for a moment, then nodded curtly and departed. As we thought about living in an area occupied by soldiers, the bus sped on toward a rest area.
Tall, pink flowering shrubs hid the small strip-mall-like rest stop from the highway. The flowers were abundant, coaxing bees, small birds and humans to stop and take a sniff.
As I returned to the bus, I glanced around and saw machine gun-carrying Israeli soldiers patrolling the area, seated at tables in a small cafe and zooming through the parking area in a Humvee. Despite the flowers, it was unsettling.
Lots to think about as the bus continued on toward the most famous oasis in the Judean Desert, 10,000-year-old Jericho. Jericho, which entered history with the arrival of the Israelites under Joshua, is the oldest city discovered so far in the world. The area given to Judah, head of one of the 12 Tribes of Israel, is known as Judea.
Jericho is under Palestinian control. Israeli citizens are forbidden to travel to Jericho or nearby Bethlehem except with special military permits or visas. British, American and other foreign Jews, Israeli Arabs and visitors from other nations may all visit. Our bus passed muster at the checkpoint, and we drove on toward Bethlehem, site of Jesus’ birth.
Although eager to see Bethlehem, our stomachs were beginning to growl as the time on the bus’s clock sped toward afternoon. Billy suggested lunch in a Bedouin tent. Intrigued, we all said, ‘Yes!’
He explained that a Bedouin tent is divided into north and south sides. During the day the men occupy the north side, entering from the rear to avoid seeing the women, who stay in the south side. At night the men and women of a family reunite.
“They are really good at reading faces,” Billy said. Visitors are offered three cups of coffee, finjans, by the host. Coffee is precious to the Bedouins, so just a little, is poured into each cup. The first cup is a welcome cup, honoring the guest. The second, for the sword, signals the host’s willingness to protect the guest, and the third is an offer of friendship, accompanied by an invitation to remove his shoes. One full cup poured by the host, symbolizing a heart full of bitterness, signals the guest to leave.
As we entered the restaurant, which did resemble photos of a Bedouin tent, we were offered water or wine. Seated around low tables, we tried some traditional Bedouin dishes, goat and lamb, chicken, vegetables and lots of addictive hummus and pita bread.
Feeling happily stuffed, we strolled back to the tour bus.
On to Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born.