It’s been one week. One whole week since I left my beloved Jerusalem and returned back to the states. Words have failed me.
My last week in the Holy Land was certainly one to remember. I’ve put off writing this blog because every time I sit down to my computer, I just can’t seem to find the words. But I know, above all else, that my experiences are not just for me. They are for you, dear reader. Thus, I can’t let this opportunity go by without chronicling it.
So, our last week. My sweet friends and I started our free day (Sunday) by doing a “religious pilgrimage” of all the sites we love most. We waited in a crazy long line to see the Edicule (Tomb of Jesus) in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We saw the Dome of the Rock and stood on the Temple Mount one last time. We tried (and failed) to get into an Armenian Church. We visited the incredible artwork in the Church of Alexander Nevsky. We read the account of Pilate and Jesus at one of the supposed sites outside Jaffa Gate where Jesus would have been presented to the multitudes. We walked forever into West Jerusalem to get dinner at this delicious Mediterranean place called Menza (highly recommend). We joked and laughed and enjoyed the sunshine and just tried to absorb it all.
Monday and Tuesday were some of the most meaningful field trips I’ve ever been on. Appropriately entitled “The Last Week of Jesus’ Life,” we followed the steps the Savior took during His last days. We started at Bethany, home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus. We visited the Tomb of Lazarus and go the opportunity to stand at the wall erected by the Israelis to separate the West Bank from the rest of Israel. I’m not here to pass judgement on the politics surrounding it, but that foreboding, 30-foot wall certainly brought tears to my eyes for all the people it has hurt.
Next, we visited the sites of Bethpage, Dominus Flevit, and Dormition Abbey (commemorating the death place of the Virgin Mary). We got spontaneously invited to join a Bar Mitzvah and we sang and dance our hearts out. We also stopped at the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu (meaning “cockcrow” in Latin), a site I had already been to on the eve of the Day of Atonement. It is symbolic of the 3 denials Peter made of Christ “before the cock crew,” and it is absolutely stunning inside. One of my dear friends Holly began to sing into the stifling silence of the church, and hearing her sweet voice echoing around the high ceilings of that chapel brought tears to my eyes and peace to my heart.
Our last stop of the first day was at the Cenacle, or the Upper Room. This spot commemorates the Last Supper experience. While there, I had the opportunity to share simple devotional. After much pondering, I decided to talk about remembrance. I find it so significant that, though 2000 years have past, some traditions have endured—the Sacrament being one of them. Why? So much of the world history has been lost over the years, but the story of Jesus Christ, of what He taught–it is still around today. I think that is God’s way of telling us that it is infinitely and eternally important. It is our sacred duty to keep remembering, to keep telling the story and to keep the traditions alive.
Our second day field trip was one that was so incredibly tender to me. We first went to the Orson Hyde Garden, a spot on the Mount of Olives that commemorates Orson Hyde’s dedication of the Holy Land. The gardens are beautiful, and have a wonderful view of the Old City.
But then we went to Gethsemane. Over these past four months, this site, above all, has been most meaningful to me. We didn’t go into the traditional garden. We walked a little northward along the Mount of Olives and sat amongst the olive trees there. We talked about what was accomplished in this spot, about how the world was changed and it happened right there. We were encouraged to just sit and think. I had millions of thoughts racing around my head, but one came through loud and clear: what happened here, happened for me. Plain and simple. A sacred moment indeed.
Similarly, we went into the Gethsemane Grotto, a lesser-known spot associated with the Atonement of Christ. It’s near the Tomb of Mary (not Dormition Abbey–Jerusalem is funny) and right across the street from the traditional garden. It’s a little cave, where they’ve found the remains of a 1st century oil press–a real live “Gethsemane.” There are theories that when the poor apostles and Jesus came to Jerusalem for the Passover, rooms would have been expensive and hard to find. Many caves were rented during this time, as the oil presses would have been dormant (olives are harvested in October) and it would have been sheltered. Some scholars think that either the Savior went into a cave to suffer and the apostles waited outside, or vice versa (this theory would explain why the apostles fell asleep–they thought they had come home for the night, why shouldn’t they sleep before the busy Passover days?). Regardless of the true origins, this little cave holds a very special place in my heart. It is another place for me to go to feel closer to my Savior. For me, that is enough.
On this day, we also visited the remains of the Pools of Bethesda, where the lame man was healed, and went into St. Anne’s, a church for Jesus’ grandmother. We got to sing and hear other sing their hymns, as the acoustics are incredible.
Our day ended at the Garden Tomb. It was surreal knowing this was the last time (at least for a good long while) I would visit this place. Even though I don’t personally believe that it is the location of the tomb of Jesus, there is still a special spirit about it. At the JC, we often talk about how we don’t know for sure if any of the sites we go to are the actual places, but the fact that millennia’s worth of pilgrims have visited it makes it sanctified just by their faith and devotion. This concept has certainly helped me reconcile how I feel about the Holy Land and it’s traditional sites.
The next day was supposed to be our last. My original flight plan had me leaving Wednesday evening for a red eye to Paris, then a direct flight to Salt Lake. Unfortunately (or fortunately), due to strikes at Air France, our flight got cancelled, which affected about 55 of us. This caused an enormous amount of stress all at once, but I ended up getting a flight the next evening going from Tel Aviv to New York to Salt Lake.
So I had an unexpected extra day in Jerusalem! We spent a lazy day hanging out, hitting the city for a few last sites, watching movies late into the night, jumping into giant piles of pillows and comforters, and essentially living our best lives.
The next day there was massive flash flooding (10 people were killed) but we still managed to sneak out to the Garden of Gethsemane one last time to consecrate some oil. While there, we met the man who has been tending the garden for 21 years, essentially keeping those 2000-year-old trees alive. Though I was hours from leaving, I couldn’t help but be struck by just how incredible every last second of this trip has been. It is moments like these I will treasure most.
And then came the dreaded final hours. We made a mega-table in the Oasis and had our “last supper,” which even included ice cream. We gave our last hugs and said our last goodbyes to our professors and their families. I stood out on the terrace for a long while, just soaking it all in one last time. 107 days. That’s all I got in Jerusalem. 107 sunsets, 107 sunrises. I listened to the call to prayer one last time. I breathed in and out, smelling the roses. Was this place a dream, or reality?
And then we got on the bus. I started bawling the second we pulled away from the Center. It was a moment of coming full circle, recalling how I felt pulling up in our bus the first night and then seeing that same exact image (and even at the same time of day) just made it all feel so final. Someone suggested we sing “I’m trying to be like Jesus” as our parting song, and I made it through exactly 3 words before I was uncontrollable. We had a beautiful devotional about taking our skills and using them in our lives going forward. Through it all, I couldn’t help but feel an odd mixture of sadness and peace.
And before I knew it, we were at the airport, getting our last exit visas. 12.5 hours later, we were back on American soil, and 7 hours after that I hugged my mom and dad for the first time in nearly four months.
I have no other word to encapsulate my time in Jerusalem. All I can say for now is my simple testimony: I know that Jesus Christ lives. He walked the land of Israel, preaching truths that endure to today. He suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane, was crucified, and rose on the third day. Living like Him gives us a path back to God, and gives us immeasurable happiness along the way. I know it more now, but a little part of me has always known it. It is the truth, and because of it I am a better person.
To my Jerusalem family: There are not words. I know that each and every one of us was put into this program at this time for a specific reason. Even though we sometimes disagreed (rather like siblings often do), I learned valuable something from each and every one of you. You made me laugh and cry and every day I loved you more and more. You are not my friends, you are my family—all 83 of you. I wish I could continue to live with each of you forever, but I know that our paths will cross again and again throughout our lives. I also believe that each and every one of you will continue to grow into the incredible people you were meant to be, and I for one cannot wait to witness it. I love and miss you all terribly.
And to you, my beautiful city: this isn’t goodbye. I have absolutely no doubt that I will be back someday. Until then, thank you for making me who I am. Thank you for stretching my heart and enlarging my soul. Thank you for giving me an appreciation and love for all religions, cultures, and people. Thank you for making me uncomfortable and for forcing me to grow in ways I never imagined. Thank you for the deeply difficult days and the unbelievably exceptional ones. Thank you for making me the happiest I’ve ever been. I’m eternally grateful for you. May the memory of these 4 months never fade. See you soon.