“Is dad having a seizure?” Nathan thought to himself when I suddenly stopped talking.
“Did dad sprain his arm?” Joani thought to herself as she saw me looking as if I was in pain covering my face with my right arm.
“…I am sorry…” I apologized to the family as tears streamed down my cheeks. “…but I can’t stop crying…”
We were facing the Holy of Holies on Temple Mount in Jerusalem as I covered my face with my right sleeve trying to hide my tears and my uncontrollable sobbing. In front, the morning sun shone brightly on the Muslim mosque with a gold-covered dome. The spot where the mosque currently stands was the Holy of Holies of the Temple built by Solomon for God around 3000 years ago. The south side of the Temple Mount used to be an outer temple courtyard where people from all different nations can come and pray to God. And that’s where we were standing there.
Just few minutes ago, we each took turn reading verses from I King 8, the dedication of the Temple by Solomon, in the Old Testament. Following the advice of a pastor whom we met by chance at Petra, Jordan, we decided to read a passage from the Bible at each holy site we would visit:
“As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name – for they will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm – when they come and pray toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place…(I King 8:41-43)”
After the reading, I led the family in prayer. As I prayed from this passage, praying about how we as Gentile come to worship You, suddenly I began to cry. I did not know why. The urge to cry came suddenly. I tried very hard to control the feeling but I felt as if the Holy Spirit poured out on me and filled me so so fully that there was nothing I can do to fight against it. I tried to cover my face with my sleeve wanting to hide my tears but the crying kept going for 3-5 minutes. It was an unfamiliar feeling, an unexplainable feeling, but also an awestruck feeling of the reality of God within me.
Later, Edwin, a good friend of the family who had shared his experience in Israel few years ago, shared that maybe God gave me a special sign because He wants me to know that I am special and that he will use me to bless others through this experience. When I planned this one year Silk Road trip, I had marked our visit in Israel as the most important leg. I had shared that if we ended up going to only one country, it would be Israel. Today was only our first day in Jerusalem. After that morning, we couldn’t wait to see what else God will show us for our next 29 days in Israel!
A good friend, Ed, and my father both shared that the best way to experience Jerusalem is to see the sites in chronological order according to the events written in the Bible. This way we can understand better the distance between each event and experience what Jesus had experienced leading up to his crucifixion and resurrection.
So after having the best pita bread we had tasted yet for lunch near the Chain Gate of the Temple Mount, we started at “then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane…Jesus fell with his face to the ground a prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’ (Matt 26:36-39)” From the thousands year-old gnarly olive tree grove, we followed, with our hands tied at the back, the path Jesus might have taken through the Kidron Valley when he was arrested at the Garden of Gethsemane and “those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest. (Matt 26: 57)” through the Kidron Valley. The walk took us about 20 minutes around the old Jerusalem Wall until we reached the location of a ruin over looking the Kidron Valley supposedly to be the house of the high priest. There we sat and pictured in our mind “now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard…he denied (Jesus) before them all. (Matt 26:69-70).”
“Jesus feels more real now,” Joani said after we followed the footsteps of Jesus that day.
For all of us, it was a strange feeling to know that we could have been walking the same path where Jesus had walked 2000 years ago. At each place, we would take time to read the passage and to pray. It was a slow process so we were very far from our target of reaching the tomb of Jesus before the sun had set that day. But it didn’t matter because we were just so excited about our experiences that first day.
The second day, we continued where we had left off, which was to walk from the High Priest house to where Pilate condemned Jesus to the cross. From there, we followed the path of Jesus carrying the cross, Via Dolorosa, to “a place called Golgotha or Skull Hill (Matt 27:33)”. While walking, we noticed that the path first started downhill and then it changed to uphill right at the place when the soldier “forced (Simon from Cyrene) to carry the cross (Matt 27:32)” Having physically followed the path, many details in the Bible began to come alive and make sense.
Olivia shared, “Today, when we walked, it wasn’t just the street that Jesus walked. It was Him carrying the cross, and that was different. He, God of the universe, already lowered himself so much to walk on the same street we are walking. But having the God of the universe carrying the cross, our sins, and going through this, and then mocked, beaten. It was hard to comprehend. He didn’t just come to our level but went way below our level. So below that I can’t even comprehend that.”
At the site of the crucifixion and tomb, an Orthodox Church, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was built over the entirety of both the hill and the tomb. The typical style of Orthodox Church is to have many statues and icons of Jesus, Mary, and saints. The insides are also decorated with incense urns, silver articles, mosaic, and stain glasses. The children had a difficult time trying to find the location of the cross and picture the hill it stood on as it has been turned into a ornately decorated chapel. Similarly, Jesus tomb was overshadowed by an elaborated marble chapel with spiraling candles, silver lined urns, and various icons.
“It was a complete different world for me,” Nathan sighed. “When I first went in there, I was like, ‘What?’ The tomb was already under a huge dome and then you have another tomb over it. It was like tomb under tomb under tomb. I was very skeptical.” Nathan observed.
“I don’t think God would have like it here. You see people kissing and basically worshiping the pictures and stuff…” Joani shared.
“People pouring oil, putting souvenirs on the stone, rubbing their hair…” Olivia interrupted with incredulous voice.
“But I think we should respect the Coptic and Orthodox Christians that come here. They came very far to here and they are very sincere. Their actions of coming here is also honored by God,” Nathan added.
As the sun began to set, we headed towards the Garden Tomb, the site most Protestant Christians believe is where Jesus is actually crucified, instead of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. When we arrived at the Garden Tomb, instead of stepping into another dark cathedral, we felt as if we were transported into a beautiful forest full of flowers.
“Wow!” We all responded at once seeing this place.
“Now I know I am a Protestant…to the core!” Joani laughed realizing how more comfortable she felt here in comparison to where we were at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Soon, we were greeted by an energetic and joyful Taiwanese lady called Sabrina with a contagious smile.
“Please come in. It is free! I am your tour guide.” Sabrina greeted us. “I am really excited because today for the first time, we just put up our first scripture sign in Chinese. Over the last 2 years, there have been more and more Chinese coming here. And now we have a Chinese family!”
She led us through the garden with various Bible scriptures signs to a viewing platform. In front of us was a small stony cliff that looked like a skull, just as what was described in the Bible as where Jesus was crucified. The hill was right next to the bus station parking lot and a major road that used to lead to Damascus. There she explained in detail of the crucifixion and shared the significance of Jesus death on the cross.
Then she led us through another path to a tomb cut out of stone. There was a small entrance into the tomb where we went him and saw to the right where Jesus body was laid. The wooden door at the entrance read, “He is not here. He has risen!”
Later we all shared our highlight at the Garden Tomb.
“It was really cool that we got to see the Chinese sign on its first day!” Olivia shared excitedly.
“The atmosphere here is so much better. It is all nice and green, fresh air. I think God would have liked it better. I don’t think God wants us to make a whole new ‘tomb’ for Him (at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre). At the other church, you kind of see the scriptures…ish. At the Garden Tomb you can really feel the scriptures. It makes it really come alive.” Joani shared. “The really good highlight was the Taiwanese lady (our tour guide). You can hear how excited she is. You can completely hear her faith.”
“The top highlight for me was when I saw the sign on the door of the tomb and it says, ‘He is not here. He has risen.’ These few days in Jerusalem, it was as if we were looking for Jesus at every place we went. Then coming to the Garden Tomb and to realize that it is true that ‘He isn’t here’. He’s everywhere! That just made it so real and that made me feel even closer to Jesus,” Olivia shared.
“That’s Jesus. He likes a good joke, a good laugh!” Annie laughed.
Nathan also shared, “Visiting the Garden Tomb helped with my faith. After visiting all the Muslim countries and walking through the different quarters of Jerusalem and hearing what they believe in and what the Jews believe in, I wondered how we fit in. After visiting the Sepulcher church, it made it even harder. If I was a Jew and walked over to the Sepulcher Church, I would have doubts, doubts, a lot more doubts. But here at the Garden Tomb, we see that ‘He is not here’. He is alive! I know what I believe in now.”
After three nights in Jerusalem, we took a bus to Bethlehem. Our hearts were fluttering with goosebumps and thanksgiving, because after wandering for 193 days around the world, we would actually be arriving at the site of Jesus’s birthplace, the “O little town of Bethlehem”, to celebrate Christmas.
Our first impression of Bethlehem was that it is no longer a small town but a large metropolitan sitting on top of a large hill. Instead of my usual imagery of Bethlehem nestled in a valley surrounded by hills with sheep, we actually travelled down steep slopes to reach the Shepherd’s Fields. Surprisingly, there was almost no decoration with Santa Claus, unlike what we are used to in the Western and Chinese world. It was then that we realized that when pilgrims like us travel half way around the world to Bethlehem, it is to celebrate Jesus’ birth, not Santa Claus which you can find at every street corner in our home country! We enjoyed the focus on Jesus for this special Christmas!
“In China it is just our small group celebrating Christmas. I really like how here, it is the whole town celebrating together,” Joani shared her highlight in Bethlehem. “Also, people from different countries come here to celebrate Bethlehem together!”
“I feel the same. In other parts of the world, ‘Merry Christmas’ is just like saying hello. But here, when I hear ‘Merry Christmas’, I feel people really mean ‘Jesus’s birthday is coming soon!'” Nathan shared as well. “For so many people around the world to come to Bethlehem and spend all these money, isn’t just because of a tradition but to come here to see and celebrate Jesus’ birth.”
The Orthodox Nativity Church, built over the supposed location of the “little manager”, was quite far from our imagination with again lots of statues, icons, and or ornate silver urns. Instead of the usual wooden straw-filled crib, on the marble floor is a 14 pointed silver star marking the location of the crib. Nearby was the Milk Grotto which marks the spot where Mary’s breast milk dropped on the ground turning the cave into white stones. Again, it was not what we had imagined for Christmas.
On Christmas Eve, we went to the Shepherd’s Field, where the angels announced the birth of Messiah to the shepherds. It is located downhill about 2k from the city center.
“Come on in!” An Asian looking man beckoning with his hands for us to come into an small enclosed cave-like shelter.
We walked inside the well-lit cave thinking it is an archeological excavation. Instead, a miracle happened. We were greeted by more than 20 Indonesian Christians wearing Santa Claus and reindeer hats! The pastor had a big smile and a even bigger vocal cord and he led us all in singing Christian carols after carols. Although they sang the songs in Indonesian, the songs were familiar tunes and we were able to join them in English. As they sang, some began to celebrate the birth of Jesus in tongues and everyone, including all of us, began to worship and praise with lifted hands remembering what Jesus did by humbling himself as a baby to save us.
“I think this worship time might be the highlight of my trip in Israel,” announced Olivia with excitement. “I felt like we were really celebrating Jesus’ birthday! Even though the Indonesians were singing and wearing ‘commercialized’ Santa Claus and reindeer hats, which was really hilarious, they meant what they’re singing. We were all so happy. You can feel God’s presence there. That’s what Christmas is all about. I never felt the Christmas Spirit as much as I did there ever in my whole life. At the Garden Tomb, I know ‘He’s not here’. Here, I felt ‘He is here’. That’s the difference.”
“Me too. When I was singing, I had goosebumps all over my body,” I agreed heartily.
Everyone else also agreed with Olivia. Here at the Shepherd’s Field, there was no silver marker, no ornate decoration, just groups of pilgrims sitting, singing, and thinking about what happened here 2000 years ago.
Afterwards, we sat on one of the wooden bench out in the field and read:
“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’ (Luke 2:13-14)”
In similar fashion of reading, meditating, and praying the stories from the Bible at each location, we followed the footstep of Jesus at the Last Supper Room on Mt. Zion, Mt. Olive where Jesus ascended to heaven, Pool of Shiloach where Jesus healed the blind man, Jordan River where Jesus was baptized. We camped three nights on the shores of Sea of Galilee and biked 60 kilometers around the lake witnessing where Jesus had his ministry home base at Capernaum, feed 5000 with 2 fish and 5 loves and walked on water near the ruin city of Beisaida, preached the Beatitudes near Tabgha, allowed the legion of demons to possess the 2000 pigs down the cliff at Kursi, transfigured on top of Mr. Tabor, and grew up in the old city of Nazareth.
We also understood more clearly and visually the historical events in the Old Testament by walking the tomb of the Patriarch (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) at Hebron, Mt. Zion where King David was buried, the old Jerusalem around the time of King David (City of David), the underground tunnel of the western wall of the Temple Mount, the Sodom mountain composed entirely of salt, the Judea Desert and the Dead Sea where David hid from Saul, and Old Jaffa where Jonah sailed off to flee from the command of God. One by one these stories from the Bible turned into history.
Joani concluded our experience in Israel aptly, “Coming to Jerusalem and Israel, I really like it. We got to see amazing things. We have been touring so much of other people cultures on our trip. It is so nice to tour your own. That makes it more real.”
Indeed, there in Israel, we walked through the Bible…and we each met God face to face. Amen.