Every journey begins somewhere. Our class today was about understanding beginnings, and new beginnings, and even newer beginnings. You see, no matter the journey, it starts somewhere. With this journey, it was first important for us to understand the geography of the area before learning the history and stories.
We had an amazing first glance of the city from Mount Scopus much as generations of individuals before us had. They would come from afar and, as they headed to the city, this is where those who came from the northeast (especially conquerors) would lay eyes on Jerusalem. (Right near this view is where Churchill and others divided up the land when they conquered the region…that’s how new some of its borders are.)
The valley that seems to separate the left from the right hand hillside is known as the Kidron Valley. It separates the Old City (on the right) from the Mount of Olives (on the left). Atop the Mount of Olives is a bell tower. It is the Russian Church of the Ascension. That’s right, the Ascension…the one we read about in Acts 1:6-12…where Christ ascended into heaven. The bell tower was constructed for those believers too infirm to make the climb to be able to “see” where it happened. Before I get too far ahead of myself, I should add that being here, seeing the geography, allows me to come to new realizations. Like the fact that I’ve confused the Temple Mount as being the highest geographical point of the area when the Ascension Point was even higher.
To the right of the Kidron Valley is where the Temple Mount had been and the Jews had worshipped. Today, the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine, stands. The Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 AD (I’m too tired to look up whether there was something built there in between…and will later…but for now…) and the Dome was built in AD 688-91 with elements of both Classical and Byzantine architecture. More on it later when we visit there. However, I mention it here because up and behind its golden dome, two grey domes can be seen; this is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where the rock of Golgotha where Jesus died on the cross and the tomb where he was buried and rose are located. Realization #2: as I discovered in Phillipi, EVERYTHING is much closer in proximity than I’d ever imagined! I’ve seen the wall of the City, in the past, and remembered that Jesus was taken outside the City and thought of it as being MILES away. It wasn’t!
Furthermore, many of the places we are able to visit are here today because someone’s mother came to Jerusalem and made it happen! Early in the 4th century, Constantine the Great was emporer of the known world. He sent his mother, Helena, to Jerusalem in 326 AD and she supervised the construction of chapels and churches throughout the area to preserve and protect them for pilgrims to visit. Granted, many of the places she oversaw construction were later destroyed (as I think was the case at Dome of the Rock) but, we have them nonetheless because Constantine sent his mom. During Constantine’s rule, we went from Christians being fed to the lions and such to preserving the sites for pilgrimage. It had to be a very weird time!
However, this is where the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place for me. I was never crazy about history and could never get names and dates to stick in my head. However, give me something to look at and share a story with me and BOOM! it’s stuck in my head. (My own mother always instructs people to take lots of photos and write their stories down because of how effective it is for retaining memory.)
Which brings me to the Pool of Bethesda. This beautiful garden area in the Old City is Bethesda. Realization #3: some places in the Bible, like Bethesda, are not faraway places like I’d imagined. BUT, right there where the action took place. ( I hear Bethesda and always think Bethesda, MD which seems faraway.) Plus, just beyond those trees in the above photo…
…are these pools…the ones that were known to be at the “sheep gate” where the sheep were washed before they were sacrificed. This is where Jesus healed the paralytic man as told in John 5:1-15. Realization #4: Jesus went and asked HIM if HE wanted help. He did not wait for the man to ask for help! If Jesus is our eample, how often do we have it backwards then when we say, “Well, if they need help, they’ll ask for it.”!?! Seeing things here jog thoughts about old stories in new ways.
Some places are in ruin. In the many changover of hands in the region, some buildings have changed drastically. However, one that has remained the same is St. Anne’s Church by the poolside.
Saint Anne was Jesus grandmother on Mary’s side of the family. This church is built over the home where she lived with her husband, Joachim, and daughter. The church has amazing acoustics with tall gothic ceilings plus stairs that lead down to the rooms of the family home.
Not exactly the kind of family room we have in our homes. But, the room I want my Mom to see there is this one…
She isn’t much for icons or silver covered bible texts, but…
… she’d appreciate that on the lefthand side of this gated room is Anne’s silver crown. Okay, no, I don’t think Mary’s mother walked around wearing this crown! However, someone made this because they thought she should have a crown. My Mom doesn’t have a crown, but I’d bet she’d let you know that she should have one!
We covered a lot of ground for our first day of class and began our journey by learning how the geography played a role in the beginnings of the city of Jerusalem. We gave thanks for a mother who worked to preserve places for pilgrimage. We began the journey of pilgrimage with Jesus’ mother’s story. Tomorrow, we’ll travel to Bethlehem to the pilgrimage site of Jesus’ birth.
Tonight, as we ended our day, I had my first tears of this pilgrimage with our closing hymn at evening prayer. It was “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” It is the song I remember singing while standing between my grandma (my own mom’s mother) and her brother during the church services of my youth…the beginning of my journey. I only wish my grandma were still alive to hear me recount the story of this journey when I return home. Then again, I believe she & her brother travel with me in the communion of saints. Our stories begin again.