Setting foot into Israel is like walking into a bylane of history. It is a discovery of olden times, of the potential of the spirit, the hardships which are a test of our faith, and the awakening into joy that dwells in our hearts forever. The journey is magical; to see in tangible stone and mortar the places we thought belonged to another era tucked away several hundred years ago or to the confines of a book that many revere as the Bible, is sometimes unbelievable. But the monuments do live on, conveying a past to the folk of the 21st century, and carrying as legacy some messages which are perhaps even more pertinent to our times.
And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God.(Luke 1:35)
Nazareth, the largest city in north Israel, is Arab dominated in terms of population, and reaching it meant clearing several layers of security. Houses exist in clusters and cobbled roads wind through them, as small shops and eateries merrily adorn the roadsides. One could spend half a day just walking through the maze, but I was hurried as the time to visit the Church of Annunciation was drawing to a close. Just as edifice came into sight, I saw the doors shutting; it was almost as dramatic as a climax of movie and the guard told us that we were too late. I noticed a picture of Mother Teresa on the inside wall of the gate and told the guard I came from her land, the faraway India, and would possibly never return. He paused a moment and swung open the entrance, letting our party in and then shutting the door firmly behind us.
My moment of miracle had already happened.
The gray and daunting Church of Annunciation is the largest Christian cathedral in the whole of the Middle East. It is supposed to be the site where Archangel Gabriel appeared before Mary and announced to her the joyous news that she would hold in her womb the offspring of God.
The metal door is adorned with cravings and pictures of scenes from the life of Christ. The building is divided into two layers- the upper and lower. The portion above is the prayer area with the altar and pews and is lined with large stained windows and mosaics which have been contributed by churches and societies from all over the world and depict traditional art forms of various countries.
The lower level is more significant in the sense that it contains the grotto where the angel is believed to have appeared before Mary. The cave, which is believed to be childhood house of Mary, though small, is still alive with vibration.
Close to the basilica stands the St Joseph’s church and the original location of the workshop where Jesus may have worked as a carpenter.
And the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:9-12)
Possibly the place in Israel-Palestine which resonates with most peace and joy is the city of Bethlehem.
It is located in Palestine’s restive West Bank, where no Jews are allowed. Our Jewish guide had to disembark from our tourist bus while a Palestinian swapped places with him at the barricaded border.
Under the administrative control of the Palestine, the city was distinctly not as modern as the Jewish held territory nor was it as clean or lively. Nevertheless, the area of the Church of Nativity is very well maintained and has been declared a World Heritage site.
Close by are the Shepherds` fields where, as the name suggests, shepherds were met by the angel and told of the birth of the new king.
Right in the front of the antiquated basilica is the Manger Square – scenes from where are shown so many times on international television channels on Christmas day. Pilgrims and tourists gather there in large numbers to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
The Nativity basilica is supposed to be the oldest continuously operating church in the Christian world. The main area is divided into two churches maintained by the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic followers, who have different mass and service times so that neither interrupts the other. The churches have a mosaic floor, gilded lamps and archaic decorations.
I found the orthodox portion more ornate though both were beautiful in their own right. As we stepped below through a narrow stair-cased corridor, we found the manger where Jesus was born. The exact spot is marked by a 14 point star on the white marbled floor which is decorated by candles and smells of perfumed incense.
Pilgrims from all over the world bow before the star and utter prayers sitting in nooks and corners of the crammed area. The atmosphere is as serene as a still winter lake and compels one to spend time in introspection in the consecrated room.
I imagined what the scene would have been years ago when this cemented building was a mere shack of wood and straw standing beneath a shining star, and how it would have been with the new born baby surrounded by donkeys and other domestic animals.
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. In you, O Lord, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame. In your justice rescue me. Into your hands I commend my spirit; you will redeem me, O Lord, O faithful God.” (Psalm 31)
Jerusalem is perhaps the most historic city of Israel and the Middle East. Each stone speaks a story and each boulder is like a tableau inscription of an age-old narrative.
The largest city of Israel, it is divided into four quarters—Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim. Incredibly, over its hundreds of years of existence, it has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times.
We first visited the Mount of Olives which is the place where Jesus is believed to have stood and wept, as per the New Testament. The church here demarcates the area where Jesus often preached and broke bread on a table with his disciples including Judas during the Last Supper.
At the foot of the Mount of Olives is the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus and his disciples prayed the night before he was arrested. It is a beautiful place with a splash of colour thanks to the several trees and flowers growing in the enclosed area.
Besides it stands the Church of All Nations as a tribute of the international community to the glorious Lord.
The Old City area is the one which has most of the monuments and churches of historic importance and leading up to them are several narrow lanes adjoined by traditional bazaars.
Perhaps, the most poignant journey for a Christian or for that matter anyone else with a keen sense of history and spiritual query happens in the city of Jerusalem. Because it was through these constricted lanes that Jesus passed as he carried the cross. A guided tour, which shows all 14 stations on way to crucifixion, is available.
But the most heart wrenching experience happens at the Church of Sepulchre – the place where Jesus Christ was crucified. I could bet my life on it that there is not a single eye that was not moist on reaching the altar.
Even the walls scream with agony, the pathos overwhelms and flows over, unable to be contained within. There were some who needed assistance as they grew faint, unable to deal with the grief when they reached the venerated Golgotha.
Close to it is a stone monument where it is believed Jesus was buried and from where he rose.
The church serves as the headquarters for Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem and is shared by Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism.
The Protestants are not a part of this church and believe that Jesus’ tomb was on a rock hillock close by, which is called the Garden Tomb and is open to visitors. Though extremely beautiful, no mention of this place is found till recently in ecclesiastical history.
Most of all the churches across Israel were built during Constantine`s regime and under the aegis of his mother Helena.
My visit to Israel and Palestine and all the places associated with Jesus Christ was a once in a lifetime experience. I could feel a palpable sense of tension in most places; possibly, the soil has been the stage of unending conflicts through history, of intrigue and betrayal and the need for assertion of conflicting identities.
It is where truth was tested and swallowed by an ocean of human maliciousness and spite.
For me, personally, it was a very fulfilling journey; of observing through fragments of the past the Lord’s journey from mortality to permanent immortality.
Standing under the blue canopy of God’s beatitude in the Holy Land, I realized most of all how a crib sometimes can hold more promise than all the stars in the sky.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)