Wednesday, October 26, 2011

on the holy mountain

On the holy mountain stands a city
cherished by the Lord.
The Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all Jacob's dwellings.
Of you are told glorious things,
O city of God.
(Ps 87)
25 oct 2011, Jerusalem

I arrived in Tel Aviv around 2:30 AM. That's, obviously, not the best time to start your day, or end it, as the case may be, since you're totally between hotel check in and check out time. So my plan was to hang out at the airport until the first shards of daylight (and maybe write a song), and then take the shuttle into town, (there's a shared taxi service called Nesher, that Michaela had found all about) and then hope that our hotel could get me into a room as early as possible. I hadn't slept much at all the night before, maybe a few minutes here and there on the plane and at the airport; but I was too excited to sleep during the 45 minute ride in the shuttle from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. As I had hoped, teh sun was just peeking over the horizon as we made the climb into Jerusalem. The area around Tel Aviv seemed relatively flat, but as we neared Jerusalem the terrain got much hillier, and I really did get a sense that we were ascending, making the aliyah, there.

It all worked out, though I wasn't able to get a room as early as I hoped (about 11:30). The gentleman at the front desk of the King Solomon Hotel was very kind, and he told me that he would try to get me in as early as possible. So I stored my bags, asked for the directions to the Old City and headed out. I knew we were close and indeed I made it to Jaffa Gate before the stroke of 8, After spending so much time reading about the history of Jerusalem especially these last weeks and months, it was quite a thrill to gaze at the ancient walls for the first time. And I thought, "It is this little walled in piece of geography that has been fought over for centuries, this land that has comes to carry such a weight of meaning for so many Jews, Christians and Muslims." How many different musical versions of Psalm 122 went through my mind?! I rejoiced when I heard them say, 'Let us go to God's house. And now out feet are standing in your courts, O Jerusalem.

There were very few places open and very little activity at that hour still. I just began to wander aimlessly, hoping to find somewhere to sit down and have a cup of something and a little breakfast, which proved to be quite a task. I did have a small basic tourist map from the hotel, but had not studied my guide book much yet at that point. I sort of stumbled into the Church of Holy Sepulchre. As you enter you encounter immediately, to my surprise, a stone slab that foks were venerating. I wondered if that was what they were claiming was Jesus' burial place, until I discovered that that was the spot where he is reported to have been anointed after being taken down from the cross. The burial place itself was in another protected area which already had a long line of pilgrims waiting. I wandered about for a bit and then headed out, up and down narrow streets among the closed up shops until I finally came upon a few vendors selling baked goods and an open coffee and tea place in the Muslim Quarter near the Damascus Gate. The Old City is (as some of you will know) divided up into four quarters: Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian, which also is for the most part Christian, but none of the quarters contains exclusively sites proper to their tradition. Some great Christian sites are in the Muslim Quarter, and of course the Muslim Dome of the Rock and al-aqsa Mosque share the ancient Temple platform with the Western Wall, both of which are considered to be among the holiest places in their respective religions. As I munched on a couple of sesame cakes and drank a cup of strong Turkish coffee I got my bearings with my guide book, and headed immediately afterward to that area myself.

I can say honestly and without exaggeration that the Western Wall, the qotel, was probably the most powerful holy spot I have ever experienced. It is all that really remains of the second Temple, part of the great platform that Herod the Great built to support it by shimming off the rocky top of Mount Moriah on which is stood. In some way to understand the Temple Mount is to understand Jerusalem, it seems to me. Jewish tradition teaches that the Temple Mount is the focal point of Creation. In the center of the mountain lies a stone, called the Foundation Stone of the world. On top of the mountain is believed to be the rock on which Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac. Over that now sits the Dome of the Rock, one of the three holiest places in Islam. This is where the First and Second Temple were built, and the Ark of the Covenant was set. Jews believe the "Jerusalem was chosen by God as the dwelling place of the Shekinah," and a large a large placard told us that, even though the Temple in now gone, the Divine Presence--the Shekinah--never moves from the Western Wall.

The Wall itself is now considered a synagogue, an official place of worship. There is security screening getting into the area, a fence about 50 yards back separating the sacred space, another fence dividing the men from the women, and someone there issuing skull caps to anyone who does have one. I felt a little silly at first donning my white yamulka, but Bible in hand in made my way up to the Wall and found an open spot, and laid my forehead on it the Wall. It felt like the Wall was vibrating. I opened up my Bible and just happened to have Psalm 20 next in line to read, and it was perfect.
May God send you help from the sanctuary,
and give you support from Zion.
May he remember all your offerings...
May God grant you your heart's desire,
and fulfill all your plans
I thought of Valjean's 6th grade class at Salesian School in Aptos first (since I am on assigment from them to put there prayer request in a crack in the Wall, which I did); and then I was trying to think of everyone I knew and loved, and carry their intentions there too. I'm afraid to say any more about what the experience was like, but I read Psalm 20 again. It felt like the Wall was carrying suffering, and absorbing it but vibrating with it too. The psalm felt so real, more real than any psalm ever had. At one point someone had put a chair behind me to sit down, as is done, but I didn't want to take up any more time in the space. But I stayed outside the fenced in area for a good long time again. It was really extraordinary.

The security line and the queue for the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque were both so long, so I headed back to the hotel to see if I could get my room. It's a good long walk. It was still not ready but the gentleman told me that it would be soon so he sent me over to some couches to sit down. At which point I fell fast asleep (I had been up a while by then...) and woke up only when the same man was right over me me saying, "Sir! Sir Your room is ready!" So I settled in the room, showered and changed and headed out again and spent all afternoon walking and exploring again. I went back to the Wall, but the Temple Mount itself was closed to the public, so I still didn't get to see the Dome and the moasque. But that is on our itinerary for tomorrow. I also walked down through Lion's Gate, which it is believed the Messiah will enter, and down to look over the Kidron Valley (how many times I have sung about that in the Passion of St John? Jesus went out with his disciples across the Kidron Valley...), and then down to the Tomb of Mary, which is supposed to be the holiest church in Jerusalem, but it was closed too. From there you can see Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives, etc. but I didn't climb it yet. And then back through the Armenian Quarter and all the suqs (markets), and then finally back to the hotel where I crashed again. The rest of the group arrived around 6::45, and we had a sumptuous buffet dinner, and got right on the bus and went back to the Temple Mount again. I had no idea we were going at it right away. Our tour guide gave us a walking tour underneath the Western Wall, all the archeological tunnels, the huge stones layered below the present Arab Quarter, and the ancient cisterns, and finally even to the bedrock that is the foundation of the Temple. Simply amazing.

We'll be back there tomorrow for a tour of the Temple Mount which was actaully a garbage dump for many years after the destruction of the Second Temple. When the Muslims took over they recognized its holiness (which apparently the Christians did not) and built on it these two great structures, which we shall see tomorrow. Now, finally to bed...