Day 7 (Part 1) – Bethphage and the Mount of Olives

Text and images on this page are from our 2014 pilgrimage. Click on the pictures to see them in larger format.

Our pilgrimage time in Jerusalem always feels to me like “coming around the home stretch.” No matter how we organize the schedule, no matter how much free time we try to build into the days, it still feels like a big rush of events. There’s just so much to see and do and learn!

So for me, it was even more of a blessing to have our wonderful guide and driver, Foteh and Walid. Foteh kept us “on track” with a keen understanding of how much time to spend in one place. And Walid maneuvered the bus into some really tight spots in order to cut down on difficult walking. He was there “bright and early” each morning with a friendly welcome as we began the adventures of a new day.

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The first part of the day was spent on the Mount of Olives tracing the footsteps of Jesus and his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Our first stop was the village of Bethphage, which was considered the outermost edge of the city of Jerusalem — the distance one could walk on a Sabbath’s day journey. Its name in Hebrew means “house of unripe figs,” a reference to the gospel story where Jesus caused an unfruitful fig tree (representing the nation of Israel) to wither. (Matthew 21:18-22) Ironically, this is the same town that Jesus chose as the place where he would begin his ride into Jerusalem.

The Crusaders believed that a large, chiseled stone was the mounting block Jesus used to climb on the donkey. They painted murals on it of the raising of Lazarus and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and it became central to the medieval pilgrim’s commemoration of Palm Sunday. When the Franciscan monastery was built in the late 1800s, the block was rediscovered in what would have been the Crusader chapel, which itself had been built over an older 4th century Byzantine structure. And in 1954 the renowned architect Antonio Barluzzi renovated the current Sanctuary of Bethphage.

The front facade contains a Jerusalem cross at the apex. Other Jerusalem crosses festoon the interior of the church.

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The church was undergoing renovations and the Crusader mounting block had been removed. But there were lovely sepia toned frescoes of the Palm Sunday procession on the walls — they had a definite 50s “mid-century” look to them!

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And a glorious multicolored mural of Jesus and the disciples was above the altar, which was also covered over for renovations.

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As with the Church of the Beatitudes, the sanctuary had amazing acoustics. (Thank you, Mr. Barluzzi!) Praising the Lord with song was an awesome way to start the day.

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From Bethphage we walked downhill to join a mass of pilgrims at the Church of Pater Noster. “Pater Noster” in Latin means “our Father,”so this Carmelite monastery commemorates Jesus’ teaching his disciples the Lord’s Prayer. According to the “My Israeli Guide” website:

The earliest church on this site was actually called Church Eleona (Church of the Olives – named after the mountain) and was one of the four monumental churches constructed by Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, in the Holy Land. The church is built above a cave considered to be the site where Jesus would teach his disciples. Inside the cave are buried many important figures including Bishops of Jerusalem.

In the courtyard surrounding the church are colorful ceramic plaques with inscriptions of the Lord’s Prayer in 140 languages.

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Many of us had pictures taken under the mural that reflected our ethnic heritage or something from our history. Don Maas and his wife Cheryl Deininger had recently done a short term mission in the country of Georgia, so they were delighted to find a mural in that national language to remind them or their trip.

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The most moving spot, however, is the cave or grotto under the church. Christians since the 2nd century have honored it as the place where Jesus taught his disciples how to pray. (Though Matthew connects the teaching to the Sermon on the Mount in Galilee, Luke says it happened after Jesus was visiting Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany, which is very nearby. On this pilgrimage we visited both traditional sites.)

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No matter what time of year, there is often a long wait to get into this popular pilgrimage site. As we were standing in line among the crowds, I recognized and greeted a man named Aram, who was our guide on our second pilgrimage in 1996. Like Foteh, Aram is a Christian, and his faith really enhanced our trip. I was surprised when he remembered me after almost twenty years, but maybe not so surprising since we were his very first tour group. That trip was almost a disaster because our departure from Baltimore was delayed for three days due to a massive unexpected snowstorm. Aram did a great job “making up for lost time” and we still had a memorable visit. How wonderful it was to see him again!

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No thanks to architect Barluzzi, the prayer grotto has awesome acoustics, too. This time we sang the musical version of the “Our Father.”

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After the Pater Noster Church we walked downhill on a VERY steep and narrow one-lane road that is traditionally recognized as the path Jesus would have taken on Palm Sunday. It curves down the west side of the Mount of Olives, across the Kidron Valley at the bottom, and up the east side of Jerusalem to the Temple Mount. It’s always an exciting experience because you never know when a vehicle will have to get by.

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On the left side of the road is an immense Jewish cemetery. According to the 4th chapter of Zechariah, the Mount of Olives will be the place where the Messiah comes to judge people in the final resurrection. Since ancient time Jews have desired burial in this area, and now the cemetery covers almost all of the western slope of Olivet and much of the southern slope below the Temple Mount.

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Rather than putting flowers on the tombs, loved ones place visitation stones (also called “stones of remembrance”) on the tops. We would also see these mementos at other Jewish holy sites and at the Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem.

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Dominus Flevit (“Jesus Wept”) Church is the midway point down the hillside. It commemorates the site where Jesus stopped to weep over the spiritual blindness of the leaders and people of Jerusalem. (Luke 19:41-44) This is another of Antonio Barluzzi’s designs, so the structure is minutely planned to emphasize the story. The church itself is shaped like a human tear and the four supports for the dome are capped with lacrimosa (tear vials), which Roman and Victorian people used to catch and keep their tears when mourning.

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The inside is comparatively undecorated, the main focus being the window over the altar, which is situated to give an unobstructed view of Jerusalem.

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During construction of the modern church in the 1950s, excavators found remains dating from the 13th and 14th centuries BC to the Byzantine period — 7th and 8th centuries AD. Sarcophagi or “bone boxes” from Jesus time helped shed light on 1st century AD burial practices.

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There are several quiet outside areas where you can sit, have Bible study and devotions, and enjoy the outstanding views from the overlook.

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Then it’s back down the hillside, though some of us with bum knees (myself included) opted for a quick taxi ride.

Click here for more pictures of Bethphage and the Mount of Olives.

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