Saturday was a day of singing for the 34 persons on a Holy Land Pilgrimage from the Illinois Great Rivers Conference. Possibly because we are getting more comfortable with each other or perhaps because pilgrims through the ages have sung as they make their way, songs seemed to punctuate what the group was feeling at each oasis of the journey.
Saturday was a day of moving from Tiberias to Jerusalem, where we will be until Wednesday night when we make our way home. The journey was a desert trek through the West Bank following the Jordan River south to the Dead Sea and then on to Israel's capital city. Along the way, the group made several stops, most notably Jericho, which triggered the first two songs from childhood, Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho and Zaccheus Was a Wee Little Man.
Both events took place in the ancient city of Jericho -- which has marked 10,000 years of existence. One of the striking aspects of the city is how it stands out as an oasis surrounded by desert. Utilizing irrigation and springs of fresh water, Jericho has been able to thrive as a Palestinian city that has a storied past throughout the 10 millenniums of history. From Jericho, one was able to see the various dynasties of power that have come and gone, parts of the wall during Joshua's time. And although the original sycamore tree is probably long since gone from Zaccheus' time, Jericho still remembers the important story of transformation and has a tree for visitors to see and experience.
From the ruins of the original city, Elisha's participation in providing good drinking water is highlighted. In the mountains, one can see the place where Jesus, following his baptism, was tempted by Satan.
We also visited a second baptismal site, Qasar El Yahud, along the Israel-Jordan border. One participant who traveled here six years ago noted that the site wasn't accessible from Israel, but negotiations between Israel and Jordan has carved out a road of access lined on both sides by electric fences put up by both nations with land mines in any space where there is "no man's land." Although the group visited a baptismal site earlier in the week farther north, this site is probably more likely to be the site of Jesus' baptism, given that wilderness surrounds the area and John the Baptist was preaching in the wilderness at the time Jesus approached him to be baptized. The case is further strengthened when one realizes that immediately after Jesus was baptized, he was led to the wilderness and faced the temptation.
The presence of guards on both sides of the border, making sure no one crosses from one side to the other was very present at the site as if an unspoken warning was being given not to stray too far across or face arrest for illegal entry.
We also saw settlements of Palestinians along the highway and even saw camels, sheep and goats being herded by family members. At one point, our tour bus stopped to take a photo of a Palestinian and his sheep and the reception was a tense one at best. We quickly made our way down the road.
Another oasis that emerged before going to Jericho was Qumran National Park. When the Jews returned to Israel after the exile, they rebuilt the Temple between 520 and 515 BCE with the intention of reestablishing the monarchy, according to the writings of Haggai and Zechariah. However, since they were only the province of Yehud within the Persian Empire, a hierarchy of government emerged where the government was ruled by a high priest. Over the years, the ruling of the high priests became more and more politicized, even after the Jewish war of independence in 150 BCE.
In fact, the Hasidim, supporters of the Maccabees, were divided over the issue of whether it was lawful to defend oneself if attacked on the Sabbath. What emerged were two groups -- the more liberal Pharisees, which argued that one was permitted to fight on the Sabbath in extreme circumstances, and the Essenes, a more conservative group, who believed the world was doomed and yearned for the end to come, choosing the path of dying rather than fighting on the Sabbath.
A group of Essenes, convinced that temple administration was corrupt, fled to the Judean wilderness at Qumran, where they established a community where they could live in ritual purity until the end came. As part of their community life, scrolls of scripture were transcribed and hidden in caves where the community lived and slept. There is some evidence that John the Baptist had a connection with the Essene community, as both Matthew and Mark locate John's ministry just north of Qumran and both had an apocalyptic theology. When Roman armies destroyed Qumran in 68 AD, the surviving Essenes fled and the scrolls remained untouched until a Bedouin shepherd boy discovered the first of the scrolls which has now become known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
As we continued the journey toward Jerusalem in the desert, we saw more Palestinian settlements, we passed by Bethany, the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha. As we left the West Bank and neared Jerusalem, another fence separating the Palestinians and Jews could be seen at the checkpoint. As we came out of the tunnel, a third song, The Holy City, played on our bus with many of us joining in as we gained the first glimpse of the City of Peace.
The chorus resonated and the group felt what it must felt like to fellow travelers through the centuries that have made their way to Jerusalem:
Lift up your gates and sing,
Hosanna in the highest!
Hosanna to your King!
The song transported me back to many an Easter when Eloise Buffenmeyer, pianist at the Lerna UMC, would play this as part of the morning worship service.
But the journey wasn't complete. The last stops on Friday were at the Mount of Olives -- the site where Jesus taught his disciples to pray (and where the prayer has been translated in 171 languages); the site of the ascension, the site of where Jesus wept over Jerusalem; and the Basilica of the Agony, which was built on top of where Jesus prayed at Gethsemane. The group saw a 3,000-year-old olive tree in the garden area that remains outside the church and probably where the disciples waited and was to stand watch.
The stop helped us to see the shortcomings of man and the hope that still lingers that Jerusalem can be a City of Peace. And a fourth song welled up in the group as they sat in the Basilica of the Agony. Although signs and instructions say complete silence, the group, near the closing time, began signing, I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.
The trek of a disciple may be a journey through the desert but it can be a journey with a song in one's heart. And it begins with following Jesus, knowing he holds the greatest hope for Jerusalem to become a City of Peace.