Reflecting on and writing about our final day in Jerusalem seems like a perfect way to enter the Lenten season as we spent the day immersed in the final moments of Jesus’ life here on earth, visiting the sites surrounding his arrest, crucifixion, burial and resurrection!
Our morning started on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Kidron Valley. The sun gleamed off the golden Dome of the Rock, the Muslim mosque that now stands atop Mount Moriah where the Jewish temple once stood. Before us lay the route that He took on His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the day that has become known as Palm Sunday. (Matthew 21:1-11)
As we stood atop the Mount, we were reminded that, according to prophecy, that is where He will return someday! (Zechariah 14:4) Come, Lord Jesus!
Walking down the Mount, we came to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus spent the final moments before His arrest. Even with the sound of traffic in the background, the garden was a place of great peace. In our devotional time there, we were reminded so clearly of the great burden that our Lord bore that night as He prayed alone, feeling the weight of the sin of the entire world on His shoulders. Kirk, our devotional leader, compared it to the deepest of depressions. For me, our time of reflection in the garden was spiritually profound. As I thought about the extreme anguish that I once felt when I was betrayed by someone I loved and then tried to multiply that by the sin and betrayal of every person who has ever lived, it was beyond my ability to comprehend. Is it any wonder that He sweat drops of blood and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take take this cup from me.” How thankful I am that He followed this up with “yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:39-45) Without that willingness to carry the weight of our sins to the cross, we would be forever lost with no hope of salvation and eternal life.
We stopped for a quick look at the Gethsemane Basilica of Agony with it’s beautiful mosaics above the portico.
Continuing down the hill and up the other side of the valley, we entered the walled city through the Lions’ Gate, which is also known as St. Stephen’s Gate or the Sheep Gate.
Inside the wall, we visited St. Anne’s Church where, when we sang Amazing Grace together, the acoustics were so amazing that each note hung in the air for a good four seconds! Though she isn’t mentioned in scripture, St. Anne was, according to tradition, the mother of Mary and the grandmother of Jesus. I was especially taken with the beautiful alabaster statue of a mother teaching her young daughter from scripture. The scroll in her hand has Deuteronomy 6:5 written on it in Hebrew. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” The delightful French Canadian priest told us that the church is often referred to as the “grandparents’ church” and reminded us of our Lord’s instruction to pass on His teachings to our children and grandchildren. (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)
In the area, we also saw where the pools of Bethesda were once located. It was here that Jesus healed a man who had been crippled for 38 years. (John 5:1-15)
A quick trip around the Temple Mount by bus took us to the Jaffa Gate where we entered Old Jerusalem and walked the narrow market streets to a tiny restaurant where we had lunch.
Our next stop was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a cavernous structure standing on the bedrock at a site said to encompass both Golgotha, or Calvary, the spot where Jesus was crucified, and the tomb (sepulchre) where His body lay. Filled with icons and incense, we could only think of what we saw as idolatry and, to me, it didn’t seem very different from what we’d seen in numerous Buddhist temples in Asia. Most disturbing to me was the Stone of Unction, or Stone of Anointing, a flat red stone some six metres in length and decorated with candlesticks and lamps that is located in the entrance of the church. It is purported to be the place where Jesus’ body was laid and prepared for burial after being taken down from the cross. It was surrounded by devoted pilgrims bowing before it, kissing it and rubbing their possessions on it in hope of receiving some sort of blessing. Personally, I was more than happy to leave. Apparently, people sometimes wait hours to enter the Edicule, an ornate cubicle that supposedly houses the empty tomb, but we had another tomb to visit!
Some 2000 years after the fact, there is, of course, no way of knowing exactly where the cross of Christ stood or where the tomb that held his body was located, but the Garden Tomb seemed much more authentic to me. The guide who met us there, gave us many pieces of evidence pointing to the likelihood that this could be the place. If nothing else, there was a great sense of peace there that I didn’t feel in the Church. He first showed us the hillside that would appear to be Golgotha, meaning “the place of the skull”. Though the nose crumbled several years ago and a bus station has somewhat obliterated the lower portion, it’s easy to see a skull in the rocky hillside.
Although I’ve always visualized the crosses standing at the top of a lonely barren hill, the guide explained that they were more likely positioned near the bottom beside a busy road and in the face of the throngs of passersby making their way into Jerusalem for Passover. That’s the way the Romans did things. He also pointed out the irony of thousands of lambs being brought into the city for the Passover sacrifices passing right by the true lamb of God hanging on the cross, but missed by the multitudes.
Next, he walked us through the garden to the empty tomb. Actually being able to enter and see the spot where Christ’s body may have lain was another very moving experience. The doorway has been enlarged and steps added to allow easier access.
This is a similar tomb beside a road in Galilee that shows what the stone would have looked like.
After we’d all had a chance to enter the tomb, we gathered in a tiny well-lit chapel in the garden for a service of communion. We drank our wine from tiny olive wood communion cups which we were then given to bring home with us. Celebrating our risen Lord with a group of people that we’d quickly grown close to and experienced so much with was very meaningful! Though that would have been a suitable finale to our pilgrimage, we made three more quick stops before our busy day was over!
On Mount Zion, we first visited the place that is traditionally held to be the location of the Upper Room where Jesus and His disciples shared their Last Supper. (Matthew 26:17-30) The building is actually a 12th century Crusader structure, but archaeological evidence of Roman construction on the lower level supports the possibility that this area was indeed the location where our Lord shared a final meal with his disciples. Like so many others, the building has changed hands many times throughout history.
On the lower level, we visited one of the most holy Jewish sites, the traditional location of the tomb of King David. The men were required to don yarmulke, the skullcap traditionally worn by Jewish males, and entered one room while we women went into a smaller adjoining room. In our room, a few women quietly read their Hebrew scriptures, but we could hear quite a din from the other side of the partition. Our men exited shaking their heads and describing a crowded room full of ultra-Orthodox men shouting, wailing and banging on a central table as they bowed and bobbed. There is obviously much that we don’t understand about their religious practices!
Our final stop was the house of Caiaphas, the high priest, where Jesus was taken after his arrest. There is clear evidence that this time we were, indeed, standing in an authentic spot. The stone stairs leading up to the house are the very ones that Jesus would have climbed on His way to trial.
Inside the house, we went down into the dungeon where Jesus likely spent His final night on earth. It was nothing more a large hole dug into the rock beneath the house. Somewhat overcome by all that we had seen and experienced, we sang our final hymn together.