To begin today’s reflections, a number of people have continued to ask about our safety following yesterday’s attack at a synagogue in Jerusalem. I can say two things with great confidence – our pilgrimage has not been negatively affected by the attacks, and we are completely safe. We are one of a great number of pilgrimage groups in Jerusalem right now, and everyone has been continuing their itinerary as planned. In our group, we are extremely blessed with our guide, Raouf, who has a background in security and thus has friends and contacts in various security forces who are able to keep him updated as necessary. His primary concern is our safety, and if either Raouf on the tour company would think it necessary, we would stay in our hotel for the day. But they are convinced that it is safe for us where we are going. And it also certainly seems that the American media blows things out of proportion and creates fear when caution is needed instead. Continue to pray for us, as we pray for you, and pray always for the peace of Jerusalem.
Because of centuries of violence and conflict in this part of the world, when you visit Jerusalem today, you cannot visit anything that was around at the time of Jesus, with only one exception – the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, which we plan to visit tomorrow. Otherwise, no buildings or walls or structures in Jerusalem survived the destruction of the city by the Romans in AD 70. So there is no Upper Room to visit and see the actual room where Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples. But new buildings have been built in the area where the Last Supper was held. Yesterday, we visited one room that has long been venerated as built over the actual location, although we don’t know that for sure. This morning, we celebrated Mass in a beautiful chapel located on Mt. Zion right next to the room we visited yesterday. What we can say is that our Mass this morning was in the very close neighborhood where Jesus instituted the Eucharist and the priesthood, where he appeared to the disciples after the Resurrection, and where the Holy Spirit descended on Pentecost. I sound like I’m repeating myself from previous days, but it was a beautiful and meaningful Mass, almost beyond description. There is a large metal sculpture of Jesus and the disciples at the Last Supper behind the altar in the chapel, and the tabernacle is located in this heart of Christ. As yesterday we celebrated Christmas in Bethlehem, today we observed Holy Thursday, in a place as close as it is possible to be to where the events actually happened.
Following Mass, we left Jerusalem to visit three places in the Judean wilderness – Masada, Qumran, and the Dead Sea. Masada is quite impressive – on top of a tall mountain, here King Herod the Great built a magnificent palace. Later, as the Romans were conquering Jerusalem and the surrounding area around AD 70, a group of Jews sequestered themselves on this mountain fortress, withstood a Roman siege for as long as they could, and then killed each other just before the Roman troops came into the city, preferring to die at their own hands than to be enslaved by the Romans. The ruins of the palace and the fortress are almost secondary to the sweeping views from the top of the mountain over the Judean wilderness, the Dead Sea, and the land of Moab beyond – which today is in the Kingdom of Jordan.
From Masada, we drove back along the Dead Sea to Qumran, famous as the location of a community of Jews called the Essenes. They lived an almost monastic lifestyle in the desert and wrote copies of the Hebrew Scripture and other texts. Shortly before the Romans came to destroy their community around the same time as Masada, the Essenes his their scrolls in caves in the mountains. A shepherd boy stumbled upon these caves in the 1940s, discovering what have come to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. We were able to see the ruins of the community where the Essenes lived and, from a distance, many of the caves where the scrolls were found.
Finally, we made a visit to the Dead Sea – the lowest spot on earth and a body of water so salty that you can easily float on it. The minerals and mud of the Dead Sea also have great health benefits for the skin. A number of the members of our group both floated in the water and covered themselves with mud, hoping to come out looking and feeling years younger!
Tomorrow morning, we have an early start – we leave the hotel at 5:15 am! – so we can prayerfully walk the Way of the Cross and then celebrate an earlyy morning Mass in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We will then follow the Palm Sunday route on the Mt. of Olives, visit the Garden of Gethsemane, and spend the afternoon in the Old City of Jerusalem.