1. Repeatedly, we saw things that could have been the actual place where someone did something. (I know this observation sounds quite obvious as I say it, but bear with me please.)
- In the ancient town of Joppa, now called Joffa or Yafo near Tel Aviv, we saw the port Jonah sailed from to escape God's call to Ninevah, and we viewed a home labeled as the former home of Simon the Tanner. It certainly looked like it could have been, with a flat roof perfect for praying and having a vision, like the one Peter had in Acts 10 before Cornelius' men came to the door to invite him to come to meet with the Gentile Cornelius.
- In Caesaria, the home town of Cornelius and Peter's destination after his vision opened him up to new experiences, we saw the ruins of the coastal town built up by Herod the Great, the place where Paul was imprisoned and where he appeared before Festus and before King Agrippa. We were led over to the assembly room that "could have been" the room where Paul gave his defense in Acts 26, and also the prison where Paul was likely held.
- In Capernaum, we saw Peter's house, or at least the ruins of an ancient stone house over which a 5th century church was built, and then over which a modern Catholic church was built, lofted above the site so that it is visible below and not disturbed by the modern worship space.
- Along the Sea of Galilee, we saw the "Jesus boat", which of course no one claims is the actual boat used by Jesus and his disciples for crossing the sea of Galilee, but which is dated to the same time, plus or minus a few decades, and is exceptionally well preserved and on display.The brief documentary about its preservation and restoration was fascinating.
- In Bethlehem, we went to the Church of the Nativity, which preserves the site that has traditionally been regarded as the birthplace of Jesus.
- And in Jerusalem, we went to two of the places thought to be where Jesus was buried, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb.
2. In general, all over Israel we saw signs of a lull in tourism, which I'm sure was a hardship on all who rely on tourism for their livelihoods but made our visit more peaceful and focused. We were in Bethlehem on Christmas day, and it was quite crowded, but that was about the only time we were really inconvenienced by crowds. People here connected the drop in tourism with the Gaza war from the summer, yet we never felt unsafe or worried about our security. But we were able to enjoy many chance encounters with others who were striving to visit Israel, as we were, devotionally and not just as tourists.
- One of my favorite times was on the above-mentioned "Mount of Beatitudes", where Jesus' beatitudes, such as "Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," are written on memorial stones along the path. When we went into the church, we heard a small choir of Fijian men singing songs, carols in Fijian and in English, with energy and reverence. When we spoke to them afterward, we heard that they were soldiers, sent by Fiji as part of a United Nations Peacekeeping mission to Syria, and were on break after the peace they were trying to keep broke down.
- We saw many groups of Nigerian pilgrims with identical scarves or patterned, brightly colored clothing. They have been sponsored for tours to the Holy Land by the Nigerian government, which is also sponsoring Muslims on pilgrimages to Mecca. We enjoyed their singing, and several times spoke with them. They were always glad to meet American Christians, and often requested to have our pictures taken with them.
- Singing Christmas carols in Christ Church in Jerusalem on Christmas eve was a real highlight, as groups of English-speaking people from all over the world cycled in and out of a sanctuary that was packed to standing room only. Singing familiar songs in such a place reminded me again that the events of the Christmas story, which if they were fiction would still be fairly called wonderful, a marvelously crafted story that we might wish were true, but because these events actually did happen, we can be grateful when their truth and beauty and power sink deeply into us. Jesus, Lord at his birth! Born that men and women no more may die! Angels downward bend their burning eyes at mysteries so bright...
3. We also took some time to visit the Yad Vashem, Israel's official monument to the victims of the Holocaust, at the heart of which is a museum that displays the history of Europe and Jews in Europe before and then during WWII. The architecture and layout of the monument and the narrative components, including first-person video interviews of survivors and documents telling of the lives of those who were lost, combined to make a very powerful experience. The message was not one of sheer numbers (6 Million lost their lives) but that each person who died had a family, a world, a history and a future and all of those families, worlds and futures were lost, each loss a tragedy in its own right.
We came to this part of the world over the holidays for many reasons, but mostly to enjoy meaningful time with our kids and friends in a place that could be enriching of our spirits and souls. This we certainly received, and we did receive all of this trip as a precious once-in-a-lifetime gift of God to us. We begin 2015 excited about the year before us, and the changes and gifts that 2015 will bring that are currently unknown to us.