Finding Jesus at Easter in Israel
A Personal Pilgrimage
BY SUE SCHUMANN WARNER –
Just a few days ago, I stood on a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee. The breeze ruffled the early spring wildflowers–vibrant red poppies, yellow mustard, purple sage–and white clouds dotted the sky like cotton puffs; fishing boats appeared as punctuation marks on the blue green water below.
From my vantage point on the Mount of Beatitudes I looked across the expanse of water and the hills circling the lake. In the distance to the right, a notch in the far hills–called the Valley of the Doves–marked the road to Nazareth, where Jesus spent his youth, only a day’s journey away.
I could see the shoreline below, where Jesus called Peter and John to be “fishers of men” and where he escaped the crowds by teaching from a boat.
I stood in awe, realizing that in this very place Jesus used to look at the same things I was now observing. This was the hillside where he choose the 12 disciples and taught them the Beatitudes. As he spoke and prayed, they were surrounded by the same sea, same sky, same hillsides.
“Now, when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…” (Matt. 5:1-3)
The Garden of Gethsemane, with its ancient olive trees, faces the Old City of Jerusalem.
His humanity as the Son of Man suddenly became tangible. These were the same views and vistas, flowers and fields that were “home” to the Son of God. They were familiar, they were dear to him; they must have given him pleasure and comfort. God must have been pleased, I thought, to give his only begotten son such a lovely spot in which to spend much of his time on Earth, such a peaceful place to be connected to his creation. What a loving act of a loving Father.
How bittersweet it must have been for him–in his humanity–to leave it all as he made his final journey to Jerusalem.
A few days later I stood in the Garden of Gethsemane, at the foot of the Mount of Olives, where Jesus often met and prayed with the disciples. In the short distance across the Kidron Valley I could see the Old City of Jerusalem, with its massive stone walls gleaming in the sun, and the ancient Gate Beautiful (believed to be the gate through which Jesus entered the city on Palm Sunday), facing the garden. The Dome of the Rock, the Moslem religious site covering the rock where Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac, now looms above the walls. In Jesus’ time, the Temple Mount towered on that same spot; he would have faced it, no doubt, as he prayed and agonized over the coming events.
Here, in the garden, Jesus met Judas with his accusers, was arrested and taken to the high priest for questioning. Brutal beatings and mockings followed. Pain and isolation from his Father lay ahead. He knew the cross was soon to come and that the events leading to his death–and resurrection–had been set in motion.
“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:42-44)
Today, ancient olive trees–descendants, I’m told of those in Jesus’ day–remain in the garden, providing shelter from the heat of the day. It’s quiet here; warm breezes ruffle the flowers, birds chirp in the trees. The agonizing events of more than 2,000 years ago seem far away…and yet, quite near.
My Easter journey concluded at Gordon’s Calvary and the Garden Tomb, located outside the walls of the Old City near the Damascus Gate. According to tradition, Stephen was stoned just outside the gate…a place known to be used for executions.
The hill called Golgotha rises above the city walls; at its foot is the intersection of what were two busy roads in Jesus’ day, one going to Damascus and one to Jerico. Romans held their crucifixions in public places such as this, where the crowds gathered to jeer at and ridicule the victims.
“Carrying his own cross, he went out to The Place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). Here they crucified him, and with two others–one on each side and Jesus in the middle.
“Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek.” (John 19:17-21)
The Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, traditional site of the angel’s announcement to Mary that she would bear God’s Son.
Death came before sunset. Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for Jesus’ body; with Nicodemus, he wrapped it in spices, in strips of linen in preparation for burial.
“At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.” (John 19: 41-42)
The tomb is a few hundred feet from the site of the crucifixion. Carved into the side of the hill, one can enter and view the burial chamber. Outside the entrance, a channel remains in the rock, wide enough to guide a heavy round stone to block the door.
I could picture Mary Magdalene and the other Mary that Easter morning as they went to the tomb. I wondered if the garden was as beautiful and peaceful then as it is today. When they arrived, the Bible says, they found an angel sitting there who had rolled away the stone.
“The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.” (Matt. 28:5-7).
Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!
The empty garden tomb proclaims
Christ is risen.
There are two sites revered as the place of Jesus’ death and burial. One, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, is recognized by the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches and is located inside the Christian Quarter of the Old City.
Many Protestants believe that Gordon’s Calvary and the nearby Garden Tomb are where Jesus was crucified and buried. Identified in 1883 by British General Charles Gordon, the site is owned and managed by a British interdenominational group called The Garden Tomb Association. Our guide was British chaplain John Marshall who, when I introduced myself as a staff member of the Western Territory’s New Frontier, told me that his great-great-grandfather was the first editor of the British War Cry and worked with General William Booth in London’s East End. He added, as he pointed to Golgotha, that Booth preached one Easter Sunday from atop the hill.