Israel Trip – Day 11 – November 16 – Wednesday

This day is not only our last touring day, but it’s also the same day we head home.

We started the morning with a rare event.  Bethlehem.  Over the last decade or so, things have not been so good between the Israeli government and the Palestinian authority that runs the West Bank and Gaza.  One of the results of those tensions has been the elimination of the tourist industry in Bethlehem.  It hasn’t been impossible to visit Israel, but it has been rare.  Over the last year a new program has been started where 50 Israeli tour guides were licensed to bring tour groups into Bethlehem, and our guide Miriam is one of those tour guides.  We drove the bus up to the Palestinian check point and had to get off the bus, walk through the checkpoint, and hop on a Palestinian bus with a Palestinian driver.  I imagine it was a little like crossing into eastern Europe in the days of the Cold War.  Huge walls, barbed wire, armed guards.  Quite a trip.  Bethlehem is the place where Jesus was born, the place where King David was born, and the place where Ruth met and married Boaz.  We visited a site that had a big church as well as caves in the hillside, the kind of caves that Jesus would have been born in (a “manger” in those days wasn’t a barn, but a cave).  We then drove to the famous Church of the Nativity where the world watches by TV every Christmas.  The place was packed with visitors.  One of the things that the pilgrims do there is to stand in line to kiss the silver star that is supposedly the place where Jesus was born.  There must have been two thousand people in line, and I imagine they would be standing there all day. We never felt unsafe in Bethlehem, but when it was all over and we were back on Israeli soil, we did breathe a collective sigh of relief.

While driving from Bethlehem back to Jerusalem (about six miles), we pulled off the road and Miriam had us get off the bus to show us a treat.  A few years ago while working to expand the highway, workers uncovered the remains of a famous Byzantine church that had been lost in history.  There were various references to the place by ancient historians, but nobody knew where it was.  It supposedly was built to commemorate a supposed place where Joseph and Mary stopped on their way to Bethlehem.  The site hasn’t been excavated, there are just some rocks poking through the surface and if you look close you can see remnants of the ancient tile flooring.

Our next stop was lunch.  We stopped at a kibbutz near Jerusalem and had a buffet lunch.  By the time we finished lunch, it was starting to rain again.

Our next stop was Mount Zion.  We visited the St. Peter Gallicantu church – built to memorialize the time when Peter denied Jesus three times and the rooster crowed (“Galliicantu”).  The church is pretty impressive –it’s one of those buildings that stands out when you look at Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.  But even better than the church, there are structures beneath the church that scholars think might be the location of Caiphas’ house – where Jesus stood on trial before Caiaphas.  In particular, there is a room like a dungeon, thought to be where Jesus waited before His trial.

The next stop was the “Upper Room” and the tomb of David.  It’s a strange coincidence that they are in the same building.  The “Upper Room” is on the second floor.  This is not the actual Upper Room where Jesus had the Last Supper (it dates much later than Jesus’ day), but it certainly gives you an idea of what the room might have looked like.  The tomb of David is a special place for Jews, they go there to pray.

Our next objective was to get to the Garden Tomb on the other side of the city.  The traffic was really bad.  It was raining.  We were running late.  But it is the highlight of every trip to Israel to visit this place that is one of the possible locations of the empty tomb of Jesus.  Discovered in the 19th century, this location has some things in its favor over the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  But I’m not sure anyone can definitely say which is the correct location.  All we know is that the tomb is empty.  Jesus rose from the dead.  The Garden Tomb is a beautiful location.  Instead of a church being built on the site, its kept as a beautiful garden.  We had a short message by Terry followed by communion.  Oh, and it was pouring rain.  Pouring.

Our last stop before heading for the airport was a restaurant where we had dinner.  Mediterranean food – pita bread, falafel, and skewers of roast chicken.

We got to the airport about three hours before we left, but I think we could have used a little more time.  Israeli security is extremely thorough.  There are profilers working their way through the line asking various people questions about their stay.  Your check-in luggage is run through a security scanner, and if they see something they don’t like, you have to open it for them and they go through your stuff in front of you. About half of the people had their luggage searched.  But despite the hastle, you know you are flying safe, and we made it to our flight just in time.

It’s twelve hours to Philadelphia, then a two hour layover where you have to get through Passport control, customs, recheck your luggage, and get to your connecting flight.  We actually made it through with time to spare.  I’m typing this as we are on our final leg, six hours from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, where we are greatly looking forward to seeing our loved ones and sleeping in our own beds.

It’s been a great trip.  We’ve made some great friends from the churches at Anaheim, Fremont, and Eugene.  Again we have been reminded that you don’t get closer to God by going to Israel.  You are just as close in Fullerton.  But in Israel the Bible comes alive.  I’m sure that more than a few of my fellow travelers will never read their Bibles the same again.