Thursday, August 25, 2011

Holy Land Journal: Into the Dungeon

Dungeon where Jesus may have been held.
Archbishop Colin Johnson reads from
a book on a lecturn.
JERUSALEM – The day was not the most enjoyable of our Holy Land pilgrimage, but it was certainly one of the more enlightening.

We also have in our prayers and thoughts the earthquake in Virginia and Hurricane Irene bearing down on the North Carolina seaboard. We pray everyone is safe and hunkered down. It feels oddly strange to be here while all of that is going on back home.

We began our day by following orders to report to the local Israeli Police Station down the street. Armored cars are parked in front, and soldiers guard it with automatic rifles. It was our third visit to the Police Station, and it is a profoundly unsettling feeling to be admitted inside.

You may recall that we had a camera stolen by a pickpocket who dug it out of Lori’s bag last week. We received a message a day earlier that a suspect had been caught, and we were required to identify him if we could.

We arrived promptly at 10 am Thursday, as ordered, and after a half-hour wait, we were driven across Jerusalem in a police car accompanied by two officers. Eventually we ended up at a central police station in West Jerusalem, and when we arrived, one of the officers in the car picked up handcuffs and shackles and said “Put these on.”

It was a joke, but not very amusing.

We were escorted inside and Lori and I took turns looking at photographs of suspects on a computer screen. The photos were not very good and neither of us could make a positive identification. We were then led outside. The officer we worked with was friendly but seemed haggard and probably overworked. As we parted, he told us the suspect is in jail "so not to worry." And, no, we didn’t get the camera back.

Entrance to Syrian Orthodox Church in the Old City
Although we had been promised a ride to St. George’s, we were left on the sidewalk to figure out how to get back. The police car that had brought us had disappeared, and our officer had to take off on foot. Fortunately there is a new light rail system – and it is free for two weeks – and we had an escort from the college who knew the way back. On our way back, we got a taste of West Jerusalem, with its European style shops and pedestrian malls, the wealth of that part of Jerusalem that is in sharp contrast to the Palestinian neighborhoods that we've seen.

With our foray into the Israeli criminal justice system, we missed the primary exploration of the day, a walk on the Mount of Olives and several historic churches. But we managed to catch up to our pilgrimage group in the Old City.

In the afternoon, we visited a Syrian Orthodox Church that purports to be the place where Jesus held the Last Supper in the “Upper Room” (biblical scholars dispute that it is the place, but like so many other shrines, it is a place of veneration).

Sister Justinia of the
Syrian Orthodox Church
With centuries of building and rebuilding, the Upper Room is now deep underground. So we descended to the Upper Room, which has a stucco ceiling and plastic chairs. We met Sister Justinia, a Russian nun who sang the Lord’s Prayer for us in Aramaic, the language Jesus would have spoken. She told us stories of many miracles at this shrine.

Finally we went to the Church of St. Peter of the Cockcrow outside the City Walls (so called because it is where Peter is purported to have denied Jesus three times “before the cock crows”). It is a modern Catholic church, built atop the ruins of a Byzantine Church of the 3rd century. I found it one of the more moving places we’ve visited because underneath the church are cisterns that functioned as dungeons during the Roman occupation.

It is here where Jesus may have been taken after his arrest, and it is here where he would have been tortured before being led to his execution.
Jerusalem gate pockmarked
with bullet holes from the
1967 Arab-Israeli war

I climbed down inside one of the holes. The stone is streaked with reddish quartz that looks like blood. It was easy to imagine the pain and evil that took place in these holes. There was certainly no escape.

Jerusalem is a city where ancient conflicts regularly collide with the present. We got a taste of that near these dungeons. Just above the church of Peter is a city gate that is pockmarked with bullet holes from the Arab-Israeli “Six Day War” of 1967.

I was very thankful to leave to leave the dungeons, and to leave the modern police station.

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