We have started every morning this week with Shema – a traditional Jewish prayer. The word shema directly translates to listen. In English, the Shema prayer reads:
Hear O Israel
The Lord is our God – The Lord alone.
Love the Lord your God
With all your heart, With all your soul,
With all your might!
Love your neighbor as yourself.
The Shema comes in four parts. The first asks, “Do you hear me?” With the line “Hear O Israel…” we plead for Israel (now the church in general) to listen (remember shema = listen).
The second question is, “Do you understand me?” The Bible describes a practical metaphor for the Jews that Jesus is our shepherd and we are his sheep. A good shepherd can call his sheep, even amongst a mixed herd, and his sheep will follow his voice – because they understand his voice. Other sheep hear the call but do not understand it, so they do not follow. God is calling us to Him, but we do not all understand Him. We pray “The Lord is our God – The Lord alone.” to remind Israel who their shepherd is because we must know our shepherd to understand His voice.
The Shema’s next inquires, “Are you moved?” To be moved requires an emotional response. So we pray for Israel to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might!” We pray for the church to love God because we need to be moved and changed.
The Shema ends with a command, not a question. God commands us to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It says that if you hear God, and you understand God, and are moved to love God, then your life is changed, and you obey His commands.
Jesus would have said Shema often throughout the day. The Jewish people recited Shema as they go to sleep, and many hope to say Shema with their final breath. We say Shema every morning as a reminder to listen to what God has for us today and to set our hearts on God.
We spent our final day in Israel on the life of Jesus. Appropriately, we started our study of Jesus where it all began – at Jesus’ birth. The Church of the Nativity was built over the stable (cave) in which Jesus was thought to have been born. It is the oldest Basilica church standing as it has not been repurposed or rebuilt since the year 565. The entrance has shrunk over the centuries. When it was originally built, the doorway was extremely wide and tall, framed by stones that jutted out from the wall. It was later filled to be a more typical archway. Now, it is a small rectangle that can only be entered one at a time. They built the doorway so that the guest would have to bow down before God and for safety against invaders.
Inside we were fortunate and/or unlucky depending on how you look at it. We came on the rare occasion that the church was being restored and cleaned. Soot from all the burning candles dirtied the mosaics and the walls, requiring them to be treated. Unfortunately, this meant that scaffolding was everywhere, and many of the sites were obscured by metal and tools. However, it did present a unique opportunity to watch a restoration at work. Some of the group really enjoyed seeing the fine detail that was put into cleaning the pillars and bringing back the original colors of the walls. We were at the church too early to go into the stable where they believe Jesus was born, but we did see the entrance!
Next, we fast forwarded 33 years to the time of Jesus’ death. We drove into Jerusalem and visited the Israel Museum. There, they had constructed a 1:50 scale model of what scholars believe the city of Jerusalem would’ve looked like in ancient times. George showed us where the main areas were located such as the Mount of Olives (the triumphal entry), the Antonia Fortress (where Jesus went before Pilate), Herod’s Palace (where Jesus was put before Herod), and other important locations. We went to the model first to help orient ourselves as we walked the streets. We were ready to see the Old City for real!
Driving into Jerusalem immediately felt like any other tourist town. People were selling random souvenirs in the streets and hassling us to buy from them. The sidewalks were crowded on both sides, and cars were forcing their way through the streets. We navigated the area as best we could, holding hands and trying to stay tightly clumped. Honestly, our friends did an excellent job keeping up with George, staying together, and not getting anxious from all the distractions!
We entered Jerusalem the same way Jesus did, descending from the Mt. of Olives. The path was steep and longer than expected. We walked past the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of Agony and further down the hill. At the bottom, we approached the entrance to an ancient olive press, and this is where many scholars believe that Gethsemane was really located. We didn’t have time to go into Gethsemane, and even if we did, it would’ve been difficult to navigate with our large group amongst all the crowds. However, George was wise enough to take us into the olive press yesterday, so we knew roughly what Gethsemane must’ve looked like.
Because we wanted to preserve as much of our group’s strength as possible, we took the bus around the city of Jerusalem and entered the Old City from the Herod’s Gate on the northern side. We walked through the Muslim quarter and took a single left turn (at the Via Dolorosa) until we reached the Lion’s Gate. Inside the Old City was truly like walking through street markets in other countries. Vendors were selling souvenirs, and clothing, and food, and anything else you could think of selling. The food took some of our friends by surprise. Many places were selling whole, raw chickens literally inches away from us, or they have whole pigs hanging in the windows. Again, I cannot stress enough about how well our friends did as they walked through Jerusalem.
From the Lion’s Gate, we walked the entire stretch of the Via Dolorosa (the “Way of Suffering”). This is the path that Jesus walked, carrying His own cross (or possibly just the horizontal beam), to His crucifixion. If you recall, yesterday schools were cancelled for Mohammad’s birthday; today Muslims completely packed the Jerusalem streets to pray within Jerusalem’s wall. We were walking the Via Dolorosa just as the praying ended. Hundreds of Muslims were exiting the city, but we were trying to push deeper in. George intentionally took us against the current, and it was hard to keep everyone together. Yet, when we finally made it through the masses, passed the street vendors yelling at us to buy their products, and beyond all the unique smells and sights, George told us to remember how it felt for us to walk the Via Dolorosa today because Jesus had to do the exact same. He likely had crowds that to trudge through – crowds that were yelling obscenities to him. He probably got blood in street vendors’ products or knocked over their goods with his beam, and they would’ve rejected Him with unfriendly names. Remember how hard it was to walk the Via Dolorosa, and remember that Jesus did the same for you.
The Via Dolorosa ends in the Christian Quarter at the Church of the Sepulcher, where Jesus is thought to have been crucified and buried. The church used to be two separate buildings for the crucifixion and the burial; however, because they were so close together and received so much traffic, they decided to combine the churches into one. Immediately upon entering the church, we saw a stone slab. Many people were kneeling at the stone, kissing it and/or praying. This stone is thought to be the slab where Jesus’ body was laid after He died on the cross. The church was incredibly full, so we took a fast loop around the building. We got a quick glance at the place where they believe Jesus was crucified. The room was large and people were currently using the room to pray. The other important place in the church was the location of the tomb. The cave was covered by a large monument, and people were lined up around the monument just to get a glimpse of the tomb. The rest of the room was a very grandiose sight with a large dome ceiling and mosaics and painting covering the walls. Again, we did not have the time to actually look at the tomb, but George assures us that it fits all the criteria of a first century tomb and that this location could very well be correct. George told us that this was his first group that was able to start the day with the Church of the Nativity, where Jesus was born, and end it at the Church of the Sepulcher, where Jesus died, in the same day.
Leaving the Church of the Sepulcher, we marched our way to the Jewish quarter for lunch. Walid, our guide, had ordered us lamb kabobs put into pita bread for lunch. We also had fresh Israeli bagels (which are huge!) with goat cheese and chocolate spread. It was our first non-deli meat sandwich lunches since day 3! The pitas were fantastic, and people loved George’s creation of spreading both goat cheese and chocolate spread on the bagel and eating it all together.
As it turns out, we were eating lunch on the Cardo! Remembering way back to Zippori on day 2, the Cardo was the main road that ran through large cities. It would have sidewalks on both sides and was the most ornate of all the city streets. A detailed painting shows what the Cardo might’ve looked like in Jesus’ day with carts being pulled in the streets, people walking the sidewalks, and businesses housed along the sides.
At this point, we almost ended the day and came to the hotel. But so many of the friends and buddies wanted to see the wailing wall (now called the western wall after Israel achieved independence; also called the Kotel) that we could’ve leave Jerusalem yet! We trekked towards the Temple Mount (which is considered the holiest site in Judaism) heading east. Yes, east. We were surprised to find that the western wall is actually right in the middle of the Old City. It turns out that Herod the Great built a retaining wall around Solomon’s temple when he came to power. Since the Temple Mount is the holiest place in the world, Jews want to get as close to the temple as possible. However, they are only allowed to visit the excavated church as tourists, and they are forbidden to pray within the Temple Mount. The Western Wall (of Herod’s retaining wall) is the closest that the Jews can get to the Temple Mount, so thousands of Jews pray at it every day. We split men and women, because the wall has two appropriated sides, and the men donned a head covering. Then we were allowed to approach the wall and pray.
By now the afternoon had begun to wane, so we loaded the bus and said our goodbyes to Jerusalem. We rode the bus back to our first hotel of the trip in Tel Aviv, Herod’s. And just like we began our first morning in Israel on the beach, we ended our last evening there as well. Tonight we partook communion while standing on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. As George was wrapping up the trip, tears flowed from within the group. We had all become a family, and now we were all headed our separate ways again. We had all touched each other’s lives, and we have loved seeing how our friends have grown.
We had a miraculous dinner as the Jewish people celebrated the beginning of Shabbat. We said our goodbyes to Walid and Elle and thanked them for their excellent work. We shared cards with George that were written by the friends and had a beautiful moment in the hotel lobby. We all came to be on this trip in different ways at different times, but we are all so glad that we listened to God’s call and heard His voice. We now understand God’s word more than we did before. God has moved us in powerful ways, and our lives have been changed. Not only have we said Shema every morning, we have lived it out together.
And now, sadly, we must head to bed and prepare for our flights home.