Holy Land Pilgrimage Day Three – 8th November 2019 – by Sam Hall and Tim Cave
Journey to Jerusalem, Baptismal site at the River Jordan, the desert, the Mount of Olives, Garden of Gethsemene and the Wailing Wall
Today was a special day for me. After twenty-six years of identifying as a Christian I was baptised for the first time. Three aspects made this particularly special. Firstly, the baptism was administered by a Vicar who has known me basically my whole life, giving added resonance and meaning to the occasion I decided to say and commit to the baptismal vows before God. Secondly, I was able to enjoy the moment with not only my mum and Revd. Margaret, but the amazing group of people I am lucky to be on pilgrimage with. Some of whom I knew well before arriving, some a little and some not at all. Building this community of pilgrims and getting to know new people in the Holy Land and become closer to others has been a real gift for which I am truly grateful. Thirdly, the baptism took place in the River Jordan, the same place John the Baptist baptised Jesus. No explanation is needed as to why this added a unique and powerful dimension to my baptism.
All three of these special qualities reflect something else which has struck me on this trip. Before flying out here I deleted all social media and news applications from my phone in order to disconnect from the cacophony of inescapable noise we encounter everyday back in London. Looking out over the Sea of Galilee yesterday, with the benefit of having escaped the unrelenting noise and distractions of London life, I was thinking about how transient so much of what consumes our attention back home really is, and how grateful I am to have this time away in this ancient and special place to appreciate what really matters. The ins and outs of Brexit, ups and downs at work, matters which seem so consequential and all-encompassing back home are put into stark perspective when witnessing and enjoying the eternal gifts God gave us in the Holy Land. Love, family, friendship, community, togetherness, nature, faith. These are things we often forget to cherish but are what have always given us meaning, happiness and fulfilment, and the things which made my baptism today so special.
It had been a day of extraordinary encounters and contrasts. A perfect sunrise over the Sea of Galilee; driving south through the Occupied West Bank with Israeli and Jordanian border posts our constant companions; the joy and simplicity of Sam’s baptism in the River Jordan; purchasing a $2 souvenir bracelet from a Bedouin boy in the Judean hills overlooking the majestic Monastery of St George; our ascent and descent of the Mount of Olives, past the gnarled and more recently planted olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane, as we approached Jerusalem. And yet more was to come.
Arriving in Jerusalem as the sun set on Friday marked the beginning of Shabbat. We walked with thousands of others as the Jewish people made their way to one of their holiest sites the Western Wall. There was a sense of anticipation and expectation in the air as everyone headed towards the place that was so important and significant to them. Six days earlier I had been in a not dissimilar crowd moving as one, jostling, excited, full of life as we walked towards the Yokohama stadium for the Rugby World Cup Final. As many have observed, Sport and religion have powerful parallels in the passions and sense of devotion they engender.
I had not expected that we would be allowed entry to the heart of the large courtyard and to stand by the Wall itself and pray. But we were, albeit that the men were kept separate from the women with, for my western 21st century sensibilities, an uncomfortable sense of the division and barriers that are evident in so many aspects of life in Israel and Palestine.
On the male side, the scene of the crowd, hundreds and hundreds of men, milling about shouting, gesticulating, debating, praying, socialising, exhorting and immersed in their religious books was awe inspiring. But there were other emotions too: the sense that I didn’t really belong here, a tourist dressed as such at this most holy spot for the Jewish brothers, intruding on their time of worship and prayer. But I went forward to the Wall and said my own prayers and experienced the privilege of being able to worship in my own way in this most holy and historic of places.
Thirty-six hours on, as we prepare to attend Sunday worship at the Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem, what is my abiding emotion or thought from that time at the Wailing Wall? In truth, I cannot summon up a specific image. My senses have been so immersed in the torrent of sights, smells and sounds on this pilgrimage that it will take some weeks, perhaps longer, for the experiences to settle. The cascade of emotions and thoughts that we’re experiencing each day reminds me though of Seamus Heaney’s poem the Rain Stick as he describes the sounds and sensations of dry cactus seeds coursing through an upended cactus stalk: “Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash come flowing through”.
And now, breakfast beckons, before we upend the Rain Stick once again to see what Sunday brings.