Until fairly recently few people from Chandler’s Ford had visited Israel, but now there are some of our parishioners who have joined groups of pilgrims and flown to the Holy Land. Some had pre-conceptions, other had eyes and minds open, ready and willing to accept anything which would strengthen their beliefs.
Here are a few of my own observations – certainly not all with a religious connection – which I hope will bring back happy memories.
“The little town of Bethlehem”
On my first day in Israel we were on the coach travelling from the port of Haifa southwards towards Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which was to be our first stop. I was filled with mixed emotions: I longed to see these towns but also feared that my vision of “the little town of Bethlehem” which I had treasured since childhood would be shattered by some modern atrocity.
We pulled up to the kerbside just before reaching the centre of the town and climbed out. The Roman Catholic padre tugged my sleeve and pointed to something behind me. I turned round, looked up and found myself staring down the barrel of a machine gun. What a welcome! What a way to demolish my boyhood dreams! The Wise Men would have quickly turned their camels round and retreated to the Jericho Hilton Hotel. I later found that the Israeli soldiers were there to guard against any terrorist attack on the tomb of Rachel, the mother of Joseph, which was on the other side of the road.
Mount of Olives
Later that same day we were on a viewing platform above the Mount of Olives enjoying an uninterrupted scenario of the ancient city of Jerusalem. There below us were the ancient tombs of the faithful, close up to the old walls which surrounded the former temples of Solomon and Herod.
The peace of the occasion was shattered by the screeching of tyres as a Mercedes wedding car came to a halt and out plunged the groom and his new bride. He rapidly approached a camel driver who had his beast ready. The bride climbed aboard, her husband stood beside her and they had their photos taken, with the ancient city in the background.
Apparently, this was taken as a sign that their marriage would flourish, providing that the sun had not sunk below the city walls. While we watched four more couples arrived to complete the ceremony. What I found difficult to understand was how Jewish people regarded this as a good luck token when the scene of the old city is dominated by the golden Dome of the Rock, one of the most powerful and significant signs in the Moslem world.
One further memory, for the moment. We were walking along the Via Dolorosa when the priest stopped before large double doors, turned the handle to open them and beckoned me to follow him.
We went down two sets of stone stairs and emerged into a fairly large open space, obviously of considerable age. “Do you know where you are?” he asked. “No,” I replied. Then came a statement which shook me. It still affects me, all these years later.
“You are standing where Jesus stood before Pilate to be condemned to death.”