Any time Christians visit the Holy Land they come back with a new appreciation for their faith, a new understanding of the meaning of the events of 2,000 years ago, and a re-birth of gratitude. But when the group from Our Lady of Perpetual Help-St. Agnes parish was fortunate enough to visit Israel and see Jerusalem first hand just two weeks before Easter, I’m sure the result is a far deeper appreciation and gratitude for faith as we go begin Holy Week, 2016.
After settling in at our hotel in Bethlehem…on Manger St…….in the Palestinian section of Jerusalem, we had the opportunity early the next morning to visit some sections of the Holy City.
Jerusalem. The Old City. There really isn’t anything quite like it anyplace else in the world. Perhaps it’s all those huge stone walls. Or maybe it’s so many ancient buildings, themselves built on top of even older ancient buildings. An Archeologist’s delight. Maybe it’s because it’s home and sacred to the three major religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Moslem. Maybe it’s the stories that are connected with those seven gates in the wall that surround the city. Perhaps it’s the Tower of David, the citadel in the wall. Maybe it’s just because it was the City of David…and still is…. Maybe it’s the four distinct quarters in the city, the Christian, Jewish, Moslem, the largest section, and the smallest, the Armenians, the folks who settled there about 1500 years ago.
Perhaps it’s the Garden of Gethsemane. For Christians, this is the place where Christ prayed after His Passover, the Last Supper, and where Judas Iscariot approached him and betrayed Him to the Roman soldiers. It’s also the place where Christ chastised the Apostles who fell asleep rather than stayed awake and prayed with Him.
The Garden is at the foot of the Mount of Olives, not far from the route Christ took from the Praetorium where He was condemned to Calvary where He died on the cross. It’s quiet, peaceful, and beautiful, overflowing with old olive trees some of which even today give olives and oil, when pressed. There are other flowers and plants as well, but it’s the olive trees, strong, sturdy, gnarled and twisted, that attract your attention.
They are not the same olive trees that were there at the time of Christ. But olive trees have a special story of their own to tell, and the ones in today’s Garden might well be ‘offshoots’ of Christ’s olive trees. When olive trees are cut down, the roots send up shoots that then create a new tree, giving rise to the belief that olive trees never actually die. Many souvenirs of crosses, statues, and dinner ware carry certificates with them that highlight the fact that no trees were destroyed or damaged by harvesting the wood, since new shoots always form.
The Church just outside the fenced in Garden was built over the rock on which tradition says Christ prayed that night. A grotto close by is where it is believed the Apostles slept and also close by is another grotto revered as the Tomb of Mary.
As important as the Garden is to Christians, so is the Western Wall of Jerusalem to the Jews. Located in a busy section of the city, the Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall is believed to be close to the Holy of Holies within the Holy Temple that King Herod built centuries ago. It is regarded by many as the most significant site in the world for Jews.
Men and women are still separated in approaching the wall from the inside, and men must wear head coverings as a sign of respect. But all are invited to write their pleas, their prayers, their petitions, and place them in the niches between the rough limestone stones that make up the wall.
It is a moving experience to be among the hundreds of women, some with children in carriages, some carrying chairs to sit for long periods of time, some standing, their veiled heads leaning against the wall, their sobs quietly wafting in the air, and tuck your own pleas and petitions between the cracks with others of all faiths who somehow come here and all believe, it is truly a special place.
Garden of Gethsemane