Day 4 – Church of Visitation, Mount of Olives, Gethsamane and Church of Nativity
It’s a chilly morning as we set out for the Church of Visitation. Irrepressible Jack is at it again, he makes the customary speech on the PA system about how not everyone is lucky to get to see these holy places and he feels that this group is a blessed one. He explains the significance of John the Baptist in the Christian faith and then in an effort to sound knowledgeable he says that most people take the literal meaning of a sentence in the Bible that says John lived in the wilderness and survived on locusts and wild honey. He says locusts is actually a vegetarian dish. I have to admit even his ignorance is entertaining.
The Church stands tall and majestic in the faraway hills in a place called En Karem. There is a spring at the foot of the hill where Mary is supposed to have been greeted by her cousin Elizabeth. It would have been like any two cousins meeting after a long time and Elizabeth would have rushed down the hill unable to contain her excitement about her cousin’s visit. Her husband Zachariah would have cautioned her to be careful, in the manner of an expectant father. The house of Zachariah is about a 150 kms from Mary’s home in Nazareth. A steep climb takes us to the church that is built on the spot of Zachariah’s home and there is a well that is preserved inside an anteroom. The chapel is above this. In the anteroom I encounter a group of Nigerians I had seen in the Church at Cana, they are singing and trembling in prayer while some are lying on the floor weeping. The air is cool and it is quite nippy up on the hill. The return takes us on roads through almost barren rocky land with scattered bushes. This was how the landscape would have looked in the biblical times.
The view from Mount of Olives is impressive, the Dome of the Rock, the most recognisable structure Jerusalem skyline gleams in the afternoon sun. The wall encompassing the old city of Jerusalem with the walled East Gate is visible. The guide points to a corner outside the wall and tells us that it is the village that David founded. I go back in my mind to the time when David would have walked on these very slopes with his sheep and would have sat on a rock somewhere close by and played on the harp, the thought it gives me goosebumps. We walk down to the Dominus Flevit Church which means ‘The Lord has Wept’ in Latin. It was here that Jesus was overwhelmed by the beauty of the Jerusalem Temple wept as he foresaw its later destruction. The church is shaped like a tear.
Down the road is a church that houses the tomb of St. Mary adjacent to which is the grotto where Judas betrayed Jesus. Beside that is the garden of Gethsamane, where Jesus prayed on that fateful night. There is a massive church called the Church of All Nations, the general belief is that the church was funded by churches of various denominations across the world. However, there is a board in the church that denies that tradition and states categorically that it was funded by a few Catholic Churches around the world. There is a rock outside that is called the Agony Rock where Jesus is said to have uttered the lines, ‘Father if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt’. The garden evokes peace and serenity despite the blazing afternoon sun and the bustling crowds.
We make the long drive back to Bethlehem to visit the Church of Nativity. I have to say of all the holy sites I visited, this is the most disappointing. All those Christian qualities of love and brotherhood evaporate as you enter the church. It’s being renovated and that adds to the chaos. Boards outside ask guides to explain the details outside the church and maintain silence inside the shrine. However, it is a veritable Tower of Babel, with guides and tourists shoving and pushing. There was this group of obnoxious American tourists who were passing racist comments the moment they saw the Indians. They quickly surmised that brown skinned Natives cannot speak English and they should wait in deference to the white Masters. The Indians for once were not to be blamed and were being decent. The comments got nasty and I asked one particularly rude lady if she realised where she was and if this was her idea of being Christian. It did shut her up.
The holy site is in a narrow cave, a silver star marks the birthplace and a few feet away a step down is a glass enclosure that marks the spot of the manger, we are literally hustled out by the attendants. We then went to a nearby Syrian Orthodox Church where the priests in the group performed mass and Communion was delivered. It was quite a moving experience hearing the Malayalam mass at the site where it all began. However, back in the hotel the experience at the shrine with Americans kept playing in my mind and left a bad taste in the mouth. I washed it off with a local beer called Taybeh.