On my birthday today, I am remembering a very special birthday that I had while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land three years ago. I have struggled with how to share this incredible experience on my blog. It was such a deeply meaningful journey for me, and it would take a whole book to share all that I experienced on this incredible trip. But then I thought, why not just share one day of this trip? And why not have that day be my birthday? It was certainly a birthday that I will certainly never forget!
This “bucket list” pilgrimage to the Holy Land was spent with my daughter, Katie, who was then serving as a volunteer with our ELCA Lutheran Church’s Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) program. I will always be grateful to Katie for helping me to plan this pilgrimage, and for accompanying me almost every step of the way. Here, then, is an account of our very special day in the Holy Land, a day which began in Nazareth:
We woke up early at the hostel where we were staying, the Fauzi Azar Inn in the heart of Old Nazareth. We had a big day ahead.
After breakfast at the hostel, we got in our rented car and headed to the River Jordan. As we drove, I thought about Jesus growing up in Nazareth and then walking to that same river to begin his public ministry.
The traditional site of the baptism of Jesus is remarkable in many ways. Located in the middle of a desert, with signs surrounding it warning of mines, and with military on both sides of the river, this site also serves as the border of Israel and Jordan. You simply cannot escape politics as you remember Jesus being baptized in these waters. While we were there, a young man decided to do more than just wade in the water, and jumped in to go for a swim – he was immediately shouted at by the Israeli military, and returned to land.
But, somehow, this was still a remarkably spiritual experience. Wading into the River Jordan, remembering my baptism, remembering Jesus’s baptism, filling water bottles with a little bit of this holy, muddy, water.
And then turning and seeing the vast wilderness, and thinking of Jesus being driven by the Spirit into that same wilderness, to fast and to be tested by Satan.
It was right there, all around me. I couldn’t think of a more powerful place to observe my birthday. But there was more to come.
We drove from there down to the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth. When we arrived, we found something of an oasis, with a beach filled with sunbathers, tents, and “The Lowest Bar in the World.”
We skipped the bar, but waded into the Dead Sea to float in its amazing water. I am usually a “sinker” in the water, but not in this water!
Skipping the gift shop, and the special offers on the Dead Sea mud that is known for its healing properties, we drove on to the city of Jericho for lunch, passing signs that read “This road leads to Area “A” under the Palestinian Authority. The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives, and against the Israeli law.”
We felt no such fear there, and had a wonderful falafel sandwich for lunch before walking around the famous city of Jericho.
We spent some time at a sycamore tree that is reported to be the tree that Zacchaeus climbed to see Jesus. As is usually the case in the Holy Land, this particular tree cannot be verified as the actual tree, but I still couldn’t help but think of Jesus walking these actual roads, and Zacchaeus climbing a tree just like this to see Jesus.
Leaving Jericho, we began the drive back to Jerusalem, taking the famous road from Jericho up to Jerusalem through the Wadi Qelt. This is the road that Jesus mentions in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, a road that is steeped in history, with a Bible story around every corner.
We did not have time to hike through this beautiful desert terrain, but the views from the side of the road were breathtaking.
We pushed on because I really wanted to visit the Tomb of Lazarus in Bethany before returning our car to Jerusalem. Bethany is now known as Al-Eizariya, which is Arabic for “Place of Lazarus,” and is a fairly short walk from Jerusalem, or at least it used to be. Now, because it is in Palestine, with a security wall blocking the way, it is quite difficult to get to, and even difficult to find. GPS does not work in Palestine, so we had a bit of a struggle finding Al-Eizariya.
Arriving there, we discovered a Palestinian city that was clearly struggling economically, not least because it seemed to be off the beaten path of most Holy Land tourists. There were no gift shops, museums, or churches expecting visitors. No signs to the Tomb of Lazarus. We parked the car, got out, and began walking.
We found a church that was closed, but my daughter spotted someone through the keyhole and knocked on the door.
They opened it up, and we learned that this church was built on the traditional site where Martha went out to meet Jesus on the road.
We paused for a prayer at the stone marking this site, and then asked about the Tomb of Lazarus. Further up the road, we were told. We continued walking up the road until we spotted it – the Tomb of Lazarus.
There was a small gift shop across the street, but no one around. When we walked up to the entrance to the tomb, a local man came out from the gift shop, approached us, and told us that it would cost us $2 each to enter the tomb. I happened to have exactly four American dollars with me, so I gave them to him. Whether this was a legitimate fee to enter the tomb or not really didn’t matter to me at that point. I was happy to part with my $4, and eager to step into this tomb. This is the site of one of the greatest miracles that Jesus performed, the raising of Lazarus to life, after he had died and spent four days buried in this tomb.
My daughter and I descended into the tomb, the only ones there. We arrived at the entrance to the traditional site of the tomb, which is marked with a sign that reads
Death is followed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?1 Corinthians 15/54 + 55
And also a wonderful quote, whose origin I have yet to identify:
The glory of God shall be seen by those who put their faith in Jesus in times of greatest distress and hopelessness, they are certain that He is greater than any distress, even greater than death itself.
We spent a few quiet moments in the tomb itself, before making our way back out. My daughter left first, and I had a chance to pause, at the end of this remarkable day, in this holy place, to ponder the remarkable gift of my life. On the day of my birth, I had the opportunity to go to the river where Jesus was baptized, to think of my new life in Christ, and to go to the tomb where Lazarus laid, to think of the gift of eternal life. Leaving that tomb, I knew, would be the beginning of my new life. Every day is the beginning of a new life, of course. Every moment. But some moments serve to remind us of this, and this holy tomb was one of those for me, as much as any other place I visited in the Holy Land.
My daughter and I returned to our car, drove back to Jerusalem, turned in our car to the rental agency, walked to the Damascus Gate, had a snack, and then returned to her host family’s home in Beit Jala. A birthday like no other, for which I will always be grateful.