Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Holy Land

THE HOLY LAND
Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
First published in LA Pinoy (Feb/March, 2009)

Last year in April, my husband and I visited the Holy Land. Our families and friends warned us of the tense political situation between Israel and Palestine, but we had heard that Israel goes through great lengths to protect their tourists. Born and raised a Roman Catholic, I was very excited about visiting the very place that Jesus had walked on.


We stayed in the Jerusalem Hotel, which is right outside the ancient walled city of Jerusalem. It was Good Friday, and right after throwing our bags into our room, we hurried to the walled city of Jerusalem to find the Via Dolorosa, the path that Jesus had taken during His Passion to His Crucifixion. The winding streets were narrow and crowded that afternoon. A large part of the walled city is like a marketplace, and both sides of the streets had lively bazaars selling clothes, spices, food, souvenirs, and other things. In fact, the Via Dolorosa was such a busy street, crammed with vendors and pilgrims. One had to realize that Jerusalem has changed through the centuries; its walls for instance have moved, and so what had been outside the walled city are now inside it, which is what they say about the Via Dolorosa – it used to be outside the city walls during the time of Christ.
We did the Stations of the Cross, pausing at the various sites where Jesus had been flogged, crowned with thorns, and so on. There were markers along the way, although it was tricky to get to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where tradition says Christ’s crucifixion and burial sites are located. The number of people in the Church was horrendous, and while I managed to climb up the narrow stairs to the place of Crucifixion, I could not get inside Christ’s tomb. I tried two other times but the lines remained extremely long. I had to contend with praying alongside the tomb, pressing the rosaries I had bought on the walls surrounding His tomb.

There is a site in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that is highly revered, and it is the Stone of Unction on which the body of Christ reportedly lay. There is liquid on this slab of stone, which people sop up with cloth – shawls, bandages, every bit of cloth that they have - people save this fluid to keep or give away as something holy and miraculous.

My other favorite place in Jerusalem is the Mount of Olives, which are rolling hills riddled with olive trees, just outside the walled city. We exited the Gate of St. Stephen (where St. Stephen had been stoned to death) to the Mount of Olives. Near the Church of All Nations is an ancient olive garden of Gethsemane, and some of these olive trees are said to have been witnesses of Christ’s Passion. Nearby is another church which has a cave wherein Jesus and His Disciples used to rest. Not far away is an ancient Roman cemetery. It is all so peaceful and calm; one can understand why Jesus liked to spend time in this place.

The Dome of the Rock, whose golden dome dominates pictures of Jerusalem, makes one reflect on the Jewish Temple, which had stood there, before the Romans tore it down. This was where the Child Jesus had gotten lost and was found discussing with the elders.

Jerusalem is riddled with biblical places such as these, and in fact there are usually two or more churches or sites claiming to be the place where the Last Supper was held, or where Mary was born, or where Mary was buried. These contradictions did not bother me. It was not so important to be accurate about where some event took place; it was enough to know that indeed somewhere in this place this event did happen.

We also drove outside of Jerusalem, to the River Jordan, which was another peaceful and beautiful place. The river was green and clear and a church allowed baptized people to swim in the river. Clothed in white robes, they bobbed up and down the green waters of the Jordan. Now there are eucalyptus trees along the riverbanks, but during Jesus’ time there were no eucalyptus trees.

The town of Capernaum is now in ruins, but you can still see the ruins of the synagogue where Jesus had preached; and you can also see the foundations of Peter’s house, where Jesus had healed his mother. There is a place along the Sea of Galilee where Christ was said to have given His Sermon of the Mount. And the huge Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth houses the Grotto of the Annunciation, where Mary said her simple and courageous, “Be it done to me according to thy word.”

In Cana, two churches – one Catholic and one Orthodox – claim to be site where Jesus turned water into wine, His first miracle in response to His mother’s plea, “They have no wine.”

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem awakens such a feeling of awe as you stare at the spot where Christ was said to have been born. Bethlehem, located in the Palestinian side, was clearly depressed, and I found myself wondering why the Palestinian souvenir stores in Bethlehem were closed, why the Palestinians were treated like second-hand citizens, why Palestinians born in Israel, did not hold Israeli passports. These are political questions; but then, even during Jesus’ time, political questions were asked.

There is a mental phenomenon called the Jerusalem Syndrome, where some Jerusalem-visitors exhibit strange behavior, such as thinking they are Mary Magdalene, or feeling compelled to shout verses or psalms from the bible. I could see how that could happen to someone overwhelmed by all the history and palpable energy in these biblical sites. There is something powerful in the Holy Land. How humbling and awesome to see where Our Lord was born, where He grew up, where He had worshipped, where He had walked, where He had died. How enriching to look at the terrain of Galilee and note that it was greener than Judea which is an arid desert. Or to look at the vastness of the Sea of Galilee and imagine Jesus and His Apostles on fishing boats on that same sea.

This was what the visit to the Holy Land did to me: it made the bible come to life. I can now imagine Jesus preaching, healing, walking with his disciples from place to place. I now have an inkling of the distance from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, or Nazareth to Jerusalem. I now have an idea of the multicultural society that had existed during the time of Christ, and which continues to this day in Jerusalem – Jews, Christians, and Muslims, live side by side, not always in harmony, but the three venerate many of the same sites in the Holy Land, and all worship the God of Abraham.

1 comment:

deped teacher said...

Wow she visited the Holy Land.

So what was the general feeling being there?