a week of firsts and sacred things

14 january 2017

What a week it has been! I think the Holy Land is perhaps the most unique place I've ever visited.

Traveling here wasn't too bad - we left as a big group from Salt Lake City, had a 6 hour layover in the jfk airport (plenty of time for two visits to shake shack, no regrets) then off on a 10 hour flight to Israel. We arrived in tel Aviv around 4 pm local time. I slept the entire 10 hour flight from jfk (which was awesome), then we hopped in buses and headed to Jerusalem!

Upon arriving at the Jerusalem Center, all of us students were shepherded into a large auditorium with tall windows covered by blinds. Once we were all seated, we were introduced to the incredible city of Jerusalem. As we sat transfixed, the blinds were slowly pulled back, revealing a spectacular view of the city. We could see the lights of the city, as well as the Temple Mount and the dome of the rock. It was a moment that gave me chills!


In this first week, I only had two classes, both on Friday morning (next week we'll get into the bulk of our classes). The two lessons just got me even more STOKED to be studying here. As our Old Testament professor started his class, he shared with us this quote from a 4th century priest:

"Five Gospels record the life of Jesus. Four you will find in books. One you will find in the land they call holy. Read, [experience, taste, live] the fifth gospel, and the world of the four will open to you.” - Saint Jerome

If that doesn't get you excited about being here, I don't know what will. I cannot wait to experience the world of the four gospels and those testimonies of Christ opening up to me in new ways. If/when that does happen, I'll revisit this concept near the end of these four months and add my witness to that of Jerome.

This week, I visited two of the most holy sites in the world for millions of people: the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, sacred to Judaism, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, recognized by the majority of Christendom as the location of Christ's burial prior to His Resurrection.

the western wall

One of the things that excited me most about coming to Israel was the unique opportunity to truly come to know Judaism and Islam. I want to deeply understand these religions and their peoples, and I'd like to become a voice to promote greater understanding and respect when I come back to the states. In my desire to understand, I seriously underestimated how much I would learn from the way that these people worship and show their devotion to God. A prominent catholic priest once described a holy envy that he experiences when he learns about other religions. He specifically spoke of the LDS temples with that holy envy. I’m beginning to feel some of that same holy envy towards the Jews and Muslims I meet as I am coming to understand their religions more intimately.

First though, some background about the Western Wall. Just as Christians do, Jews consecrate one day of the week as the Sabbath - a holy day in which we rest from the labors, concerns, and activities of our normal weeks. For Jews, the Sabbath begins at sunset on Friday night and ends at sunset on Saturday evening. Each week, Jews welcome in the Sabbath by gathering in synagogues across the city (really, across the country and the world) to pray, sing, dance, and celebrate their holy day.

The most sacred of all the places to gather is the Western Wall (formerly known as the Wailing Wall). Jerusalem is the center of Judaism because in ancient times, the temple was located in the city. This temple is the pinnacle of Judaism, and is the place Jews were authorized to perform ordinances and other forms of holy worship. Jesus frequently entered the temple to reflect and instruct his followers. In 70 AD, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and razed the Jews' sacred temple. In the centuries that followed, the Temple Mount (the location of the temple) has become holy to Islam as well: Muslims believe that Mohammed ascended to heaven in a vision from a rock on the Temple Mount, and consequently constructed the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the very location where Jewish temple once stood.

Here's me with the Temple Mount in the background.

After Israel took control of East Jerusalem in 1967, there was significant conflict between these religions regarding who would worship on the Temple Mount, as it was a holy site for both. After much deliberation, Israel decided to dedicate the top of the Temple Mount (the location of the Dome of the Rock) to Muslims and their worship, while the Jews were given a portion of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount to consecrate for their worship. Though in ancient times this wall was merely an outer wall to the temple complex and would not have been considered holy, in a very real way, it is the closest that Jews can get to the temple. In that sense, it's the most visited and beloved location for all Jews.

We had the privilege of visiting the Western Wall at the commencement of the Jewish Sabbath (dusk on Friday). I watched with fascination as these people prayed with full devotion, some calling out with loud voices, offering their thanks for another week and for the Sabbath day. They danced, they sang, they praised their God! These people rejoiced to welcome in a day of rest, in which they do not DRIVE OR EVEN OPERATE ELECTRONIC DEVICES.

Though Christians also honor a Sabbath day, I was very impressed by these Jews’ appreciation of the Sabbath. They did not seem to view it as a hassle, or a day in which they aren't supposed to do what they really want to be doing - rather, they welcomed it in. The Jews truly make the Sabbath a delight. This impacted me, and gave me an opportunity to reflect on my own attitude towards the sabbath and my worship on the Sabbath. Do I truly welcome the Sabbath as a delight? Do I really rejoice to show God my love and devotion by refraining from those things which would not be appropriate on His Sabbath? I feel holy envy for these Jews’ attitude towards the Sabbath day.

the church of the holy sepulchre

Christians who visit Jerusalem tend to spend their time in the many cathedrals scattered across the city. The most important and famous of these is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - the church said to be built on top of the tomb of Jesus Christ. We had an opportunity to visit it on the quick tour on our first day here. It’s a unique cathedral, as different chapels and other areas within the church building are designed and managed by different churches – it’s a church for Christianity as a whole, and not so much for an individual denomination.

It’s an amazing building. The art is unbelievable. I don’t think I’ve ever seen or ever will see again a mosaic quite like one of the mosaics in that building. In the more sacred areas of the cathedral, including the stone slab where tradition states the body of Christ was laid, I felt a deep and abiding peace. I felt God’s presence. It's truly amazing to be here.

In related news, I’ve developed a new habit that I think is awesome. I’m working on a playlist of ethereal choir music that I listen to as I explore the various cathedrals and holy places that I visit. It turns a visit to a cool building with fantastic art into a spiritual experience. The playlist is still under development – but I’d highly recommend this song the next time you find yourself in a beautiful cathedral.

fun things

A couple of hilarious / fun things. At one point as we were wandering around the Old City of Jerusalem, my friends and I stumbled upon a bar mitzvah party, where a large crowd of Jewish people were singing and dancing. Naturally, as I normally do when I see people dancing, I started getting really into it and clapping along with them; when they spotted me, the party goers called our entire group over to join them in dancing with them.

So yeah. We partied with a bunch of Jews at a bar mitzvah. It was epic. Video footage is here!

So much more has happened beyond what I’ve shared (and this is already super long). More updates coming soon! We’re off on our very first field trip tomorrow, and more classes will be underway this week! Too excited!


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