Nearly every Pilgrimage to the Holy Land begins at the top of the Mount of Olives with the panoramic view of Old Jerusalem and beyond. This is always a special moment for pilgrims realising that, after all the planning and preparations, they have actually arrived in Jerusalem. The scene is dominated by the 7th century Dome of the Rock. This mosque with the iconic golden dome commemorates Muhammad’s ascension to heaven. However, the ancient rock on which it stands is holy to the Jews as the rock where Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac. Originally King Solomon built the Temple on this site. The Temple to which Jesus came, was destroyed in AD 70 and the nearest Jews can get to their holy place is the great bastion of the Western Wall while Palestinians flock into the Temple Mount. The Dome of the Rock stands as an immovable political and tragic religious impasse between Jews and Palestinians.
Beyond the walls of the old city the “new” Jerusalem expands and bustles like any modern city. From John chapter 18: verse 2, we understand that this was a familiar place for Jesus and his disciples and from the viewpoint it’s easy to imagine Jesus looking out over the Holy city. A steep walk down the Mount of Olives leads to an upper part of the Garden of Gethsemane. Matthew, Mark and Luke describe how our Lord agonised in the Garden, where, today, a couple of the olive trees are estimated to be from two thousand year old stock. The stocky trees, look ideal for disciples to lean against. Ideal also for the young man to hide behind: Mark chapter 14: verses 51/52.
Throughout the Holy Land many striking works of art, sculptures, paintings, windows and mosaics enhance the traditional sites. In the Garden of Gethsemane, almost hidden beside the great Church of All Nations, a stone carving of a distraught Jesus evokes the desolation and torment before his betrayal and arrest.
Across the road from the main tourist site for Gethsemane, a more natural, open area of olive trees has been set aside for quiet and personal prayer. The atmosphere in this part of Gethsemane is profoundly moving.
Walking in Jerusalem gives the pilgrim a new understanding of the area’s geography and the distance between the Garden of Gethsemane, Caiaphas’ house, Pilate’s HQ and Golgotha. Relatively short distances of under 3 miles for us, but for Jesus, bound and dragged up the steep stone steps to Caiaphas’ house, mocked and scourged, a crown of 4cm thorns pressed on his head and made to carry the heavy wooden cross-bar, it was truly a way of sorrows, a Via Dolorosa, with each footstep a bloodied torture nearer death. For us, carrying a hand-held cross, we threaded along the narrow suk, the ancient cobbled road ways packed with colourful (sometimes odourous) shops selling everything from startlingly coloured pickles and spices to raw meat, gold jewellery, to pots and pans, clothes and sandals.
We successfully navigated uneven steps, hazardous drains, water-channels, other pilgrim groups and Palestinian shoppers. This hub-bub of life did not detract from our stops at various Stations of the Cross for appropriate Bible readings on our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional Golgotha since the fourth century.
We visited the Garden Tomb. This is a 1st century “garden” which meant it contained a wine-press, huge water cistern and tomb chamber. Today’s pilgrims walk along neat paths bordered by flowers and shrubs and hear the strains of various Easter hymns mingled with bird-song. We celebrated Holy Communion in a designated worship area. Visitors from all over the world arrive in their hundreds each day to this site which manages to combine joyous praise yet still offering an oasis of calm. That afternoon I met a Methodist couple from Fiji as well as seeing groups from Nigeria, Illinois USA and Korea.
That we still have these sites in the Holy Land after two thousand years is a living miracle. A testament to the billions of people putting their faith in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Garden Tomb is, for many, a spiritual highlight and for all, an unforgettable experience.
See, what a morning, gloriously bright,
with the dawning of hope in Jerusalem;
folded the grave-clothes, tomb filled with light,
as the angels announce Christ is risen!
On the door of the 1st century tomb is God’s message of Hope and Joy, a message for all people in every time and place: “He is not here – for He is risen”