We gathered in the El Al check-in area at JFK in New York on the evening of 19 January (a Monday), and were joined by Sara, an Israeli-American who is one of the owners of Jerusalem Tours. El Al, the Israeli national airline, is renowned for its security screening procedures. Every passenger is interviewed by agents trained in behavior profiling. (After 9/11, they were the primary "trainers" for the TSA.) As we milled around the rope line, one of our number apparently didn't fit the profile of "pastor." He's a thirty-something Associate Pastor of an Assemblies of God congregation in Texas. His dress and grooming are typical of a member of his generation who is travelling, which on this cold New York day, featured a knit stocking cap. I admit, he did look a tad menacing. Anyway, they pulled him out of the line pronto and quizzed him for what seemed forever. We all breathed a sigh of relief when he came back with a validated passport. My own interrogation was brief, but it made me nervous nonetheless.
Our departure was scheduled for midnight, but while we boarded the 747 on time, it was a least 90 minutes between boarding and wheels up because of the need for de-icing. We heard later that ours was the last plane out of JFK that night; the weather was on the nasty side. Being a veteran of overseas travel in four of the last five years, I knew to ask my doctor for a prescription sleep aid, a technique I now swear by enthusiastically. I popped the little magic pill somewhere over the Candadian maritimes and came to somewhere over the Austrian Alps. It's the only way to fly.
Traveling eastbound as we were, of course, we passed the sun on our respective opposite courses and chased down the advancing darkness. As we began our descent into Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport, the sun was already beginning to set over the Mediterranean. By the time we actually landed, at around 5 PM local time (which was 10 AM EST) it was already dark. Even while en route we began to get the feel of our destination, as several Orthodox Jews stood at various times to recite their obligatory prayers (the equivalent of our Anglican Daily Office).
Probably because of our Hebrew-speaking Israeli-born leader, passport control and customs went very smoothly. Everyone's bags arrived, which is always an occasion for thanksgiving, and we were shepherded through the quite beautiful airport to the 50-passenger capacity tour bus that would be our daylight-hours home for the next week. There we met Yossi, the guide whom we would come to regard with great affection. Yossi is 60ish, Israeli-born, the son of Polish holocaust survivors, a veteran of the 1967 war in which he helped Israel take possession of the
Golan Heights, holding a university degree in archeology, and a veritable walking encyclopedia on all things Israeli, both ancient and modern. Though Jewish, he is thoroughly versed in those parts of the New Testament that would be of interest to Christian tourists, and in the Christan theological significance of the places we would visit.
It was about a half hour drive, via a six-lane freeway that appeared to meet every standard for a U.S. interstate highway (including the familiar white on green directional signs, the contents of which generally appear in three languages: Hebrew,
English, and Arabic), from the airport to the Dan Panorama Hotel just south a downtown Tel Aviv, right across the street from the beach. We check in to our rooms (definitely the Five Star caliber they were touted to be) and them reassemble in the dining room. Dinner is buffet style (the norm for our entire trip), and there is a great deal to choose from. After dinner I bought 30 minutes of internet time (on a computer in the hotel lobby) for about $7USD. I was able to update my Facebook status, but not get into either gmail or Blogger because they came up in Hebrew and I couldn't decipher the error messages!
Wake-up call Wednesday morning was at 6:30 AM. We had to have our luggage outside the door of our room by 7:00 and then head down to breakfast. The morning buffet was quite sumptuous, though lacking in anything resembling pork sausage! We were on the bus by 8:00 AM. Yossi invited one of us to lead the group in prayer, after which he broke out into (what I call the "happy clappy" version of) "This is the day...", which became a daily norm.
Our route puts us back on the freeway heading north out of the city along the coastline, tracing the route that St Peter traversed from Joppa (the ancient city that is now effectively south Tel Aviv) to Ceasarea in response
to the entreaty of the centurion Cornelius. I am amazed at how much the territory reminds me of southern and central California--beautiful sunny
January weather, similar vegetation (lots of eucalyptus and date palms), similar ocean view. Yossi informs us that Israel occuplies a land mass equal to that of New Jersey, though I'm aware that about half of this area makes up the Negev Desert and is very sparsely populated, thus putting some 7 million people (roughly 5 million Jews and 2 million Arabs) into an area the size of half of New Jersey.
In less than an hour's time we arrive in Ceasarea. This was a coastal city build by the Roman Governor-King Herod the Great the honor Caesar
Augustus. It was the seat of Roman governors, including Pontius Pilate, who journeyed from there to Jerusalem at least annual to be present for the celebration of Passover. It was in Caesarea that St Paul was held for over two years after his arrest in Jerusalem and before he was sent to Rome for trial before the Emperor. There are still substantial ruins of the grandeur that Herod built there, and it remains an active archeological site.
Back on the bus in relatively short order, we drive past Israel's only golf course and turn inland, heading for Mount Carmel, site of Elijah's epic encounter with the prophets of Baal in the 9th century B.C. in the 9th century B.C. (a narrative I was particularly fond of in my Sunday School days and which I have appreciated in adulthood as the basis for Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah). There's a shrine church at the peak that is operated by Roman Catholic Discalced Carmelite monks, which leads me to recall that there is a devotion (and
feast day) to Our Lady of Mt Carmel.
EXCURSUS on Holy Places, Shrines, and Pilgrimage vs. Touring: I probably knew at a cognitive level before my trip that none of the places a Christian would be interested in visiting would be in pristine condition, looking essentially like it did when Jesus walked the earth. Nonetheless, I was brought up short by the experience of finding a shrine church at every such place. Almost invariably the ones that are open to visitors are under the control of Roman Catholics, even though the Holy Land is outside the natural geographical ambit of the Western Rite. For some reason, the Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic shrines, when there are any, are not as hospitable. Seeing reality thus as it is put me in mind of what seems an apposite distinction between the expectations of a pilgrim, strictly speaking, and those of what one might call a "pious historical tourist." The latter is interested in replicating, insofar as is possible, the sensory experience of those who were present on those sites in biblical times. In their ideal world, the Holy Land would be a sort of theme park that is as close as possible to being "historically accurate" ... but with convenient and clean restrooms. Shrines and churches, while possibly beautiful in themselves, are largely an annoying distraction from such an end. A pilgrim, by contrast, yearns to connect in a more mystical dimension with the spiritual reality represented by those places. Shrines and churches are therefore a welcome medium toward such an end. Based on my own limited experience on this trip, unless one has a
consuming interest in archeology, a visit to the Holy Land is most satisfyingly approached with the mindset of a pilgrim.
Looking eastward from the top of Mount Carmel one is treated to a spectacular view of the Jezreel Valley ... aka the Valley of Megiddo ... aka (via the structure of Hebrew grammar) Armageddon. The kings of Israel and Judah fought there. Napoleon fought there. According to currently popular interpretation of some biblical texts, there will yet be at least one more decisive battle in that valley. If you look at a map of ancient trade routes you can see how strategic its location is. Today it's the breadbasket of Israel, rich with diverse agriculture. And it was impossible not to notice in the distance runways marking an Israeli air force base, from which, presumably, missions had recently been launched against targets in Gaza. On the other side of the valley, Yossi pointed out the hill on which sits thecity (certainly no longer a village) of Nazareth (on our itinerary yet the same day), and turning the eye south from there, Mount Tabor (sadly, not on our itinerary at all), the traditional site of Our Lord's Transgifuration. On our way down the mountain we stop for lunch in a Druze village--falafel in pita bread, or, for the less adventurous, deep-fried chicken breast. It was in that location that I sampled the hottest peppers I have ever tasted.We then headed through the valley we had just seen from above and thenup another hill to Nazareth. The site of ancient town is now a 100% Arab city, though there is a Jewish community (founded since 1948) of the same name nearby. Yossi tells us that the population is now about 35% Christian (divided between Greek Orthodox, Assyrian Orthodox, and Latin Rite Roman Catholic) and 65% Muslim, tough, until relatively recently, the Muslim-Christian distribution was more even; this reflects a steady attrition of the Christian population across the Middle East. For the first time on our trip, we experience a distinct "third world" ambience. Our only stop in Nazareth (and it involved some walking, since the narrow streets didn't accomodate our tour bus) was the Church of the Annunciation, built as a shrine on the traditional site of the angel's appearance to Our Lady. The current structure is relatively new, and is gorgeous. Yossi described the Christian theological significance of the carvings on the doors with a fluency that belied his Jewish identity. Inside is the ancient grotto marking "the spot." Sadly, for us, there was a Mass being celebrated--in what language I know not, though I could certainly tell where they were in the liturgy and wanted to sing along with the Psalm refrain--which prevented us from visitng the grotto close up. My pilgrim soul felt deprived; I could have lingered there happily another hour or so--long enough to slowly pray the Angelus, at least--but it was not to be. Back on the bus again (now becoming an all-too-familiar move) to travel the same route Jesus walked between him home town and the Sea of Galilee, the venue for most of his public ministry. I was forced immediately to forever alter my mental map of the area. Being raised an Illinois flatlander, I had always pictured a nice level plain all over Galilee. Not so. There is some serious up and down movement for anyone living in the territory--easy enough for a diesel bus, more challenging on foot. It was a breathtaking moment laying eyes on that legendary body of water for the first time. The terrain was much greener than I would have imagined. (Of course, Israel is an aggresive tree-planting society; it's the only country in the world with more trees at the end of the twentieth century than at the beginning.) I'm also struck by the abundance and ubiquity of stones scattered across the landscape. Buildings and fences are all made of stone, and it's not hard to see why. It gives new meaning for me to Jesus' comment that if no one else praised him, the very stones would sing. And it's also not difficult to see why the normative method of capital punishment there in ancient times was ... stoning. As we drawn near to the water's edge, near the village of Ginosar (nee Genessaret in the New Testament) we pull into the the parking lot of a museum dedicated entirely to one archeological discovery that was made in that place only a few years ago--the relatively intact remains of a fishing boat from the time of Christ. Presumably, it is substantally the same sort of vessel that Simon and Andrew and the Zebedee brothers would have used to ply their trade, and which Jesus used as a preaching platform. Conveniently, adjacent to the museum is our hotel for the night, which is operated by a nearby kibbutz. The ambience is distinctly rural and peaceful, in contrast to our accomodations in Tel Aviv. After getting settled in my room, with time before our buffet dinner, I stroll through some lovely gardens out into the lake on a pier. Waves are gently lapping the shore. The air is pleasantly warm (probably mid-60s farenheit), unseen packs of canines of some variety (dogs? coyotes?) trade long howls with one another. It is surpassingly beautiful, almost transcendant. I turn and look westward, away from the lake, toward the mountain pass Jesus used to travel to the sea from Nazareth, and realize that, with all that has changed in two milennia, that particular view has not, and that he doubtless watched the same sun set over that same hill many times, perhaps not more than a few feet from where I was standing.This is obviously more than I can do in one day. More to follow in due course!