Bill Bromley revisits the Holy Land

Islam has its five pillars: the worship of the one and only God, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and pilgrimage. These are not peculiar to Islam and they apply just as much to Christians, but unfortunately the powers that be did their utmost at the Reformation and afterwards to dissuade people from making pilgrimages. All Christians who are able to make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land and pray at the places where Jesus was born, ministered, died and rose should derive enormous spiritual benefits.

My first trip to Israel was in 1973 when things seemed good all round. The Yom Kippur war had not happened and there was freedom of movement for everyone everywhere. The Palestinians enjoyed various privileges for living under Israel and it seemed to be working well. Sadly it has gone badly wrong since then. In spite of all the adverse publicity, I returned to Israel last summer for a family wedding.

I was struck by the development of the country. This is where off-shore modern Europe meets the East, but in the Old City of Jerusalem you step back about a millennium.

The first part of my pilgrimage was the Stations of the Cross. Every Friday at 4pm, the Franciscans lead the Stations of the Cross from the site of the Roman fortress of Anatonia to the Holy Sepulchre. Normally hundreds of pilgrims gather for this sacred walk, but due to the intifada there were only about fifty. They were from all over the world, but I seemed to be the only English person. One of the friars carried a portable PA system and the devotions at each station were in three languages. At some stations there are chapels that are only open for this occasion each week, like the chapel where Jesus met his mother and another where Simon took over carrying the cross. The route goes right through the shopping area until the ninth Station, which is on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre Church where the Egyptians and Ethiopian churches have their space. Passing down through the two Ethiopian chapels, we come to the courtyard of the Holy Sepulchre Church. A chapel up stairs to the right of the (only) door is the tenth Station of the Stripping. Then inside and up the stairs beside the rock of Calvary for the eleventh Station of the Nailing to the Cross. We move across to the sacred rock itself for the twelfth Station of the Crucifixion, then down to just inside the door to the Stone of Unction for the thirteenth Station. Then the procession moves to the sacred Edicule, or chapel, containing the rock ledge on which Jesus was laid and from which he rose again for the fourteenth Station. A Greek Orthodox monk stands guard over the entrance to the Edicule and allows four people at a time to go in, kneel down and revere the sacred slab. I thought it was all over and queued to make my devotions at the most sacred spot in the universe, but when I came out I found a different service of stations was being led by the Franciscans around the church. Other people had acquired candles and service books for the next devotion, which was entirely in Latin, and included going down two levels to where the Holy Cross was discovered when the church was built. There is a touching statue there of St Helena embracing the Holy Cross.

The next day I returned. There is a day’s worth of devotion in the Holy Sepulchre Church, but it pays to have done your homework first as I could find no guidebooks for sale. The church has two domes: the major one above the Edicule and the lesser but far more impressive one over the main worship area that we would call the nave. Here is the icon of the risen Christ surrounded by his twelve Apostles looking down on his people, and the dome rests on four pillars depicting each of the four evangelists. This area has just been restored and I found it the most magnificent sight in my whole pilgrimage.

Just outside the walls of the old city are the gardens of Gethsemane. The principal church here is the RC Church of All Nations with wonderful murals of the Agony, the Betrayal and the falling down of the troops at the mention of the Divine Name. Up the hill to the top of the Mount of Olives is the chapel of the Ascension, originally Christian but now in the care of the Muslims. On the way up is the Chapel of Dominus Flevit with the window looking out across the city where Jesus wept.

I did not have time to visit Galilee, but I was keen to go back to Bethlehem. I had heard stories of the difficulties of getting in and out of the Palestinian areas and I was prepared for the worst. I asked at the Arab bus station in Jerusalem about getting to Bethlehem. No bus to Bethlehem itself, but Bethlehem joins on to Beit Jala and there is a No 21 bus from Damascus Gate to Beit Jala about every 20 minutes and then you take a taxi. There was no problem at all.

The bus driver put me down at the taxi interchange. This is where the road is physically blocked with huge rocks and concrete, over which there is a well worn rough path to the taxi rank on the other side. It was 5 shekels (60p) on the bus, 20 shekels (£2.40) for the taxi to the Church of the Nativity. I arrived at ten o’clock. Manger Square was deserted except for a guide, two policemen and a souvenir seller. I told the guide that I had come to pray and regretfully had no need of his services. You go in through the west door which was lowered to only four feet, and there is a big threshold to step over. This was all done hundreds of years ago to stop people coming in on horses and to keep out hand carts. Inside is a simple cruciform Greek Orthodox church with a lot of features of the church as it was rebuilt by Justinian. Going up to the iconostasis, there are at either side steps going down underneath the sanctuary to the sacred Bethlehem star on the floor marking the traditional site of our Lord’s birth. In a tiny chapel off to the side, a priest was saying Mass for four pilgrims. A group of German Franciscans who had been on the Via Dolorosa came in followed by about a dozen Indians. Apart from a few local people we had the whole complex to ourselves. I say complex because there is also the RC Church of St Catherine adjoining it by a connecting corridor. It is from here that Midnight Mass is broadcast around the world on Christmas Eve, and it was here in the back row that Arafat and his wife Suha were pictured some years ago before she converted to Islam. Accessed from here are the catacombs which include a chapel that is said to be part of St Jerome’s monastery where he translated the Bible into Latin in the fourth century. When I came out of the church at one o’clock, the square was still deserted and the guide had had no business. He took me to his friend’s shop, full of wonderful things that pilgrims would want to buy, but there are hardly any pilgrims and the plight of the tourist traders is desperate.

I took a taxi back to the rocks at Beit Jala and waited for the bus. A mile or so on, we were on the Hebron to Jerusalem road and had to pull in to a check point. As I had heard of four hour delays in getting from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, I timed the event. Everyone except one old man off the bus and everyone’s ID checked, a cursory glance over the vehicle, all aboard and we were off again in exactly five minutes. The tourist buses and cars take the other road into Bethlehem. Not having travelled that way, I cannot say how that route works. I followed the advice from the Arab bus station and I found no problem visiting Bethlehem.

On my last day I was anxious to visit St Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem which claims to be the first church in Christendom and incorporates the house of John Mark where the Last Supper was held and where the Spirit came on the Apostles at Pentecost. Worship is in Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

Jerusalem is good to visit now as there are no queues with tourist numbers being low and Bethlehem is desperate for the pilgrims. What is holding people back are the scare stories in the British press. Pilgrimages have always had an element of risk, but the greatest risk is not terrorists but the traffic on the wrong side of the road.

Bill Bromley is Rector of six parishes in the Diocese of Hereford