It’s about an hour bus ride from Haifa to Jerusalem across the Holy Land. Once in a while you get vistas which if you use a little imagination still look a bit like those of Biblical times. Israel is of course a growing, modern country, filled with history, but not “stuck” in Biblical times. There are car dealerships, shopping malls and of course what guides the world over jokingly refer to as “the American Embassy” a/k/a Mc Donald’s. It may be a tired line, but the tour passengers faithfully laugh each time they hear it. So rather than “walking” to Jerusalem, we whisk down the super highway to Jerusalem.
The first glimpse of the “Holy City” as I mentioned earlier, is from the Mount of Olives and it is just like it looks in all the tour books and posters.
There are five possible options for the “traditional” site of the Garden of Gethsemane. The tour operators pick the one that is the most convenient, the site of The Church of All Nations. Miraculously we get forty people from the bus across a busy road and into the line up of groups crowding our way through several dozen old olive trees and into a modern church commemorating Jesus’ prayer in the garden while his disciples slept of the wine of the “Last Supper” Passover celebration. A hustler on the street is selling twigs of olive branches for 1 Euro. Incredibly people are buying them! It is easy to forget all about why you are here. An elderly monk, or a character actor – one can never be sure here – wanders amidst the old olive trees providing a photo op. Then it’s back on the bus and off to the Old City.
Security is tight here. Lots of police and army vehicles. Scanners. Young, plain clothes Israeli security agents making eye contact. It is Friday afternoon. Muslims are heading to the mosques, Jews are preparing for Shabbat, and tourists are flocking in by the busloads.
Tourism in the Holy Land strikes me as . . . well, for want of a better term, “Mc Holyland”. Neatly packaged, zillions sold, all identical, another day another zillion burger . . . I mean tourists. Mass produced pilgrimage. Making a buck or shequel off the faith of others. I guess it is really no different than televangelism, but something about the whole thing sets my teeth on edge. I told you previously about the Yardinet baptismal operation which to me comes off the same as if I packaged food, called it Kosher, even although it wasn’t, and passed it off to the Jewish faithful justifying the deception by saying, “Well, they’re buying it, not complaining. I’m making a buck. So it’s not kosher; do you see anyone complaining? Who knows? Who cares?”
So we’re here at the Wailing Wall . . . which I already told you about and which, despite the best efforts of Israeli tourism, was for me a meaningful spiritual moment.
Now we’re walking the Via Dolorosa, the “way of sorrows” where Jesus carried his cross to Calvary . . . through the Jewish Quarter and Muslim Quarter [LOTS of Israeli soldiers here with machine guns] and the Christian Quarter. Lots of temptations: shops selling every kind of souvenir and religious trinkets. Me like a good sheepdog herding our group along. In any group there are a few folks who never should have booked a group tour in the first place; a few people you’d like to lose, but can’t. And there is no question that the Old City is fascinating, and would even if it didn’t have any religious significance, but it’s still fun to try and find some religious significance . . .
We make a few stops along the way. Our guide explains that there have been a couple of dozen suggested routes that Jesus took over the years. Finally the church, the city, the shops, the tourist board and the tour operators decided that this was the route that Jesus took and so it is sold as such. Who knows?
One of the most fascinating things I learned in four years of seminary came from Dr. John Piet a no-nonsense, brilliant theologian, and good teacher who was able to cut through a lot of the bull that was being served up and make sense. ‘History as a living fact consists not so much in what actually happened, as in what people believe to have happened.” That’s more essential to touring the Holy Land than bottled water!
So we’ve pushed through most of the Stations of the Cross with most of the group still intact and we reach the Church of The Holy Sepulcher. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, also called the Church of the Resurrection by Eastern Christians, is within the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. It is probably the most likely site of Golgotha or the Hill of Calvary, since this has been the tradition since around 300 AD, and it is said to also be the place where Jesus was buried and from which he arose from the dead. Today it also serves as the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem while control of the building is shared between several Christian churches and secular entities in complicated arrangements essentially unchanged for centuries. Thank you Jesus! Who controls what is very important in the Holy Land. Finally these folks have agreed on something! Well at least the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Roman Catholic. Anglican and Protestant Christians are left out in the cold with no permanent presence in the church. Really, what difference does it make? If we are all Christians who cares who has the keys to what: but apparently in Jerusalem it is a big deal. Gonna be interesting when we all get to heaven!
Rent-A-Cross – Conveniently pilgrims who wish to carry the cross along the path of sorrows of Christ can rent crosses at either end.
And this church is the place of the final stations of the cross . . . Covering the place where most traditions accept as the hill of Calvary, and the place where the borrowed tomb was in which Jesus was buried which is of course what everyone wants to see. Except that that your guide will tell you there is a “2 hour wait” to get into the actual traditional burial tomb, so a visit to the sepulcher is not included. On the “Mc Holyland” tour things are neatly packaged and timed. This disappointing announcement is delivered just before the guide announces we are heading back to the bus to go to a kibbutz for lunch. Ah, food! We’ve all be starving on the ship so the promise of food, wine, and rest rooms trumps not seeing the traditional spot of the Resurrection.
Old bomb disposal bin outside Church of The Holy Sepluchre. It was so much easier before people decided to blow themselves up.
Forget the images you had of a kibbutz back in college. This is a highly evolved giant wedding and bar mitzvah palace! Hundreds of tour bus passengers. “Mc Holyland” efficient and tasty as well.
Now it’s back on the bus and off to another country . . . The fallout of what you get when God gives away real estate to one group of people without telling the people who are living there that it’s no longer theirs. Kinda like with the American Indians . . . And not to get political, but when you get to the giant wall Israel built along the border with the West Bank you realize that the Palestinians and Israelis may be cousins, but they are certainly not kissing cousins. Through the ugly wall (one thinks of the Berlin wall, and the US wall with Mexico) and into Bethlehem, the City of David, the birthplace of Jesus, the Christ.
We shift guides. Israeli guides are not permitted to talk about Bethlehem, only Palestinian guides allowed, which is OK, because both guides have professional spiels. So we arrive at the famous Manger Square of Bethlehem.
Traditionally on Christmas Eve Manger Square in Bethlehem comes alive with security forces and tourists from all over the world who want to be here to celebrate what probably wasn’t exactly the actual night of Jesus’ birth. We know that December on the hills outside of Bethlehem can be cold and windy and it is unlikely that “shepherds would be in the fields keeping watch over their sheep by night” in the midst of winter. More likely they would be hunkered down in a cave or barn in town to keep warm. Because the Romans celebrated their pagan festival of Saturnalia on December 25th, the early church, burdened by persecution, decided that when the Romans were all drunk and whooping and hollering, it would be a good time to hold their celebration of the Savior’s birth, and nobody would notice. And so it came about that the western Christian church celebrates the birth of Christ on December 25th.
Again two churches, one Orthodox and one Roman Catholic. Different worlds. And yet again there is a “2 hour wait” to see the supposed cave where Jesus was born. By this time everyone has a glazed-over look and accept that we will not see what it is we thought we came to see. Time is of the essence here since we have an obligatory 45 minute shopping stop at an overpriced tourist shop that has a marketing agreement with the “Mc Holyland” tour operator. This shop has an ideal location: there isn’t a competitor in sight so they have a captive audience.
Almost everyone is back on the bus long before the allotted time, but the tour guide holds out hoping that someone will spring for the $25,000 olive wood, hand-carved crèche. Alas and alack, no sale. Just a few post cards, an olive-wood-look-alike plastic Rosary, and a few candles scented with the authentic smell of the West Bank.