I had always wanted to visit Israel even as a child. At school we read many of the stories from the Bible and I wondered what sort of land it must be to produce such a people,such individuals, such a God. When the visit was first announced I told my wife, Christine,and she urged me to go but I couldn’t at that time because she was ill and needed care. She died in September 2016 and my daughter,Emma, told me I should go. (Even though she jokingly added I should consider buying a bullet-proof vest!). So I did. About 20 of us went led by Bishop Tim Ellis and Canon Peter Ingram. I can honestly say that as a group we got on really well, they were a splendid set of people from different churches, including one Quaker, and from different parts of the country.We were also blessed by having a wonderful guide who came from a Palestinian family long established in Jerusalem who was both a Christian (RC) and a graduate in Biblical Studies. He reminded us, gently, that over a million Palestinians are Christians.We flew from Manchester to Tel Aviv and right away things were different: a largish group of Jewish people were on board,dressed in Orthodox black, many with beards and sidelocks and large-brimmed hats.At one point on the journey they gathered to the rear of the cabin for prayers. They were also on the return flight so they must have been on pilgrimage.Our first four nights were in Jerusalem.The hotel (the Golden Walls) was excellent,the food superb and varied and plentiful. It was just across the road from the 16th century walls and several evenings some of us crossed the road,went in a gate and found ourselves in the Old City. Narrow streets, lots of shops and people of all nationalities –during the day. At night much quieter.We did notice at several places little groups of well-armed police.
Day 1: the Mount of Olives with a fantastic view of the City – the Temple Mount with the Golden Domed mosque.We visited the Pater Noster Church with scores of wall tablets each recording the Lord’s Prayer in every language possible.We were in the Garden of Gethsemane– not a bit like I’d imagined,steep hillside, lots of trees of different kinds, roofs of churches peeping up out of them. How old is this olive tree?Wednesday we went to the site of the Temple Mount. We climbed up to it and walked round the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque –the Mount is huge!(Continued ………….)6We were able later to go into the vast open space in front of the Western Wall – the Wailing Wall – a supporting wall for the Temple and all that is left of it, therefor sacred for Jews. This was one of my ambitions fulfilled. Men put on a skull cap and our women went to the women’s section. I can’t begin to describe my emotions when actually touching those huge ancient stones, survivors from the destruction wrought by the Romans 2000 years ago. To be touching something Jesus would have seen, the site of so much of the history of Israel, of God’s dealings with His Chosen People. To really see those paper messages/prayers pushed into the spaces.And to see Herod’s house and where the Roman headquarters was, where Jesus was questioned and sentenced.A visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre followed: different Christian Churches control different parts of it. The chief Churches in Israel are the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox. A small group of Coptic monks live on the roof – if they left they would never get back! We queued for hours but it was worth it to climb up what had, according to tradition, been the hill of Golgotha.At the top you can crouch and reach into a cavity and put your hand into what is said to have been the site of the Cross, and then move nearby and kneel to enter the tomb. Also the site of the Resurrection. Thursday was Bethlehem – Palestinian territory. A sad sight was the wall built for security reasons by the Israelis. There was a chance to see sites associated with the Nativity and buy souvenirs. I bought an olive wood Jerusalem Cross - a large cross with 4 smaller crosses on its arms. We also visited a site discovered in the19th century by a Briton known as the Garden Tomb. A rival for the Holy Sepulcre? Unlike so many sites this wasn’t covered over by a magnificent basilica.It really was a tomb, in a garden. You could look inside and see where a body had lain. Outside was a groove which could have been used to roll a stone across to close the tomb. Very moving and thought- provoking. We were all impressed and stirred. There was so much more we did and saw but space forbids writing.We went on from Jerusalem to Galilee and the Ron Beach hotel ( another super hotel with super food ) on the shores of the Lake. We were now in Tiberias I remember going down to the banks of the River Jordan (much smaller than imagined – lots of water taken out for people and farms) and we all paddled in it! My birthday! Another memory is of Nazareth and the homes of Mary and Joseph (or rather great basilicas built where they may have stood). More interesting was a visit to a reconstruction of a 1st century village constructed on archaeological knowledge, a woman spinning and weaving cloth – shepherd’s fold, carpenter’s workshop,synagogue, home etc. All staffed by people in genuine-style clothing (woven from wool from the sheep) demonstrating work just as Jesus would have seen. In the synagogue you could really see how easy it would have been for the men to break through the roof and lowerthe paralytic to be healed by Jesus.Finally we visited a nature reserve – fascinating,really so.The visit ended with a return to Tel Aviv airport.Our guide told us we had to pass through several checkpoints at each of which he and the driver would have to get off and account for themselves-and us! We had already been told never to photograph soldiers or argue with them. Penalty could be arrest and interrogation.At the last a very young soldier climbed onto the bus (with his gun) to see us holding up our EU passports. Suddenly he grinned and with an American accent said “Hi, guys, have a safe trip home!” A nice thing to remember.So much seen – I’d love to go back, soon, very soon. I’ve said nothing about the three open-air communion services we enjoyed. Another time perhaps by other members of the group. At a shared meeting? Just impressions. If you haven’t been then try to go.Thanks so much to Tim, Peter and Ian, our three priests and great friends, a pleasure to be with.