Thursday, 5 March 2015

The last day in the Holy Land

The last day of my travels in Palestine and Israel took in the Mount of the Transfiguration – also known as Mount Tabor. It is a mountain that stands apart from those that fill this region, with the others forming chains that form beautiful peaks and troughs along the horizon in every direction. On this mountain, Jesus is believed to have been transfigured so that his face shone as the sun, and the three disciples who he had taken with saw a vision in which Moses and Elijah appeared. It is an awe-inspiring ‘story’, the events of which must have left the disciples wondering what on earth was going on. In addition to this event, Mount Tabor is the site of an amazing battle recorded in Judges 4 in which the Prophetess and Judge Deborah joined with Barak to defeat the Canaanite forces on the Valley of Jezreel. Today the valley is fertile and used for agriculture and the like but, as we drive from here along the road to Megiddo (Armageddon), it was not so hard to recall the fact that the valley must have been soaked in blood over many hundreds of years as the warring factions sought to take control of this region – being that it was part of the well-trodden along important trade routes.

We were blessed with sunshine as we drove away from the Sea of Galilee towards Mount Tabor and the perfect weather continued just until we reached the Basilica on the top of the Mountain. Unless one walks up the mountain from the car park, the route up is via the most tortuous of roads – absolutely not for the faint-hearted of drivers. The series of hairpin bends is shown quite clearly on the map but the map doesn’t reveal the taxi-vans that come hurtling round the corners at a rapid rate of knots, taking unsuspecting drivers unawares. Neither does the map forewarn you that the wall built to protect cars from heading over the precipice in case of slipping in wet weather (or seeking to avoid said taxis) is only about a foot high, so will be of absolutely no use whatsoever if the need to use them arose. Indeed, one of the walls had quite a seriously hole in it, and I imagine it had only barely managed to stop the vehicle that had hit it. Jesus and the disciples will have been far safer walking up the mountain, whilst Deborah (whose namesake town, Daburiyya is at the bottom of the mountain) will, of course, have been riding on her trusty, valiant and noble steed! (Not that I’m biased…)

The Basilica at the top of the mountain is quite lovely. The nave is open so that the remains of an earlier Century Basilica can be revealed through glass ‘windows’ in the ground. Designed by Bertolucci, the Basilica has what I have come to think of as his trade-mark windows. These can be seen in the Church of All Nations, the Church of the Beatitudes, the Church at the Shepherd’s Fields in Beit Sehour… amongst other places. We were lucky in that a large group was just leaving and so were able to be quiet and still in this lovely place on our last day as we made our way back towards the airport.

There were a few other people around and, as I made my way to sit quietly in the nave, there were a couple sitting closely side by side, singing a hymn together quietly. They then sat in complete stillness with their eye closed, praying. My friend and I read the account of the Transfiguration, and it was so powerful to hear it again in this place. (It is interesting the things one notices though – something new each time if one is lucky. On this occasion, it was that Jesus didn’t know what to say to the disciples because they were so afraid. I was moved by his humanity and also his helplessness…) The husband of the couple by this time was taking his wife’s photograph, and I offered to take one of them both together. They then did the same for me and my friend. Of course, then we feel into conversation as I showed them the photograph I had taken of them so calm and still as they prayed and they then told us that it was ten years since they had last visited and that on that occasion, the husband had led the prayers and, as he had done so, he received a vision. It was so lovely to hear them tell of this wonderful gift. (I should mention that they were French and their English so good. I tried my best in French, but was much relived when the husband of my bible reading companion came along and could continue the conversation in much better fashion than I!) the French couple suggested we should pray together, in our own languages, and so we did – praying the Angelus. How lovely it was to be joined in prayer with these complete strangers who were also friends in Christ.

This was such a fitting end to this time I spent in the Holy Land. From beginning to end, there was so much that was good, so much that was both thought-provoking and prayer-provoking, so much that challenged me, consoled me, comforted me, encouraged me. There is much to sift through in my mind and in my prayer. There is much to try to make sense of that has troubled me or made me wonder what faith and commitment to God are all about – and what faith and commitment can lead people to do – both for good and ill – in the name of religion/God/gods. I feel such a sense of privilege for having been able to spend this time in the land that I have come to love so much but I also feel a sense of responsibility to tell the story of my time well, and to tell well the stories of the people I met and the places and sights I saw.

What gifts I have received.

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