by the Rev. Todd McDowell, Rector

todd - garden of gethsemane

Fr. Todd celebrated Holy Eucharist in the Garden of Gethsemane

They say if you spend a week in the Holy Land, you want to write a book; if you spend a month, you think you could write an article; if you spend any more time than that, you’re not sure what to write.

And so it is with me. Volumes could not contain all that I hope to share with you, but in time my thoughts and reflections from the pilgrimage and my sabbatical will most certainly be known.  Although this was my fourth pilgrimage to the Holy Land, this one was very different, very transformative. I’m sure it is due to the great gift of time — time to pray and reflect, to worship and time to be still and to be in God’s presence. In the weeks and months ahead I want to share with you my encounters with the “living stones” — God’s people who are drawn to and gather in the Land of the Holy One. Many of whom are Christians who have maintained the Christian presence in the Holy Land since the first

My time away began with a two-week pilgrimage where I joined with 12 other pilgrims: Ruth and Jim Moore, Marty O’Leary, Becky Coulter, Christie Boyle, Betty Bowersox, Shelia Stanton, Becky and Dick Entenmann, Jane and Jeff Klieve and Sonja Freeman (aka: Mom). What a privilege and honor for me to walk along and share this journey with these incredible people. For them what we encountered was new, a new way to experience the gospel; and for me a new experience as well. We read the appropriate passages from scripture, sang a hymn, and prayed at each placed we visited.

Each day we celebrated the Eucharist together in some of the most inspiring and holy of places: in the Shepherds’ Fields, where they witnessed the bright star of Bethlehem; along the shores of the Sea of Galilee; on the Mount of the Transfiguration; in the Garden of Gethsemane overlooking the city of Jerusalem; the place where Jesus was held for trial and Peter denied him three times; and at the Ecce Homo Arch at the
beginning of the Via Dolorosa. On our last day in Emmaus before some headed back home, we worshiped in the place where, after our Lord’s resurrection, he was “revealed in the breaking of the bread,” just as Christ had become known to us each day through Eucharist, scripture, song, prayer, and the geography of this Holy Land. We renewed our Baptismal Vows as we stepped into the River Jordan at the place where Christ was baptized.

They call the Holy Land the “5th Gospel” because a pilgrimage there opens up and reveals God’s work among humankind through Jesus’ footsteps. The geography that surrounds one throughout this journey reveals new insights into the other four Gospels. One of our pilgrims said the Bible was two-dimensional before this experience, and that this pilgrimage made the scriptures come alive and become three-dimensional. Our group will come together soon to offer an opportunity for all of you to share more deeply in our experience.

The last month of my sabbatical had many blessings and many challenges. As I mentioned, the gift of time was such a blessing. Many of the places I had experienced on the pilgrimage with the other 12 were places I returned to — with time to sit, pray, contemplate, and worship God. With Ash Wednesday at the beginning of my sabbatical, I spent much time in the Basilica of the Agony (in the Garden of Gethsemane), and the Church of Saint Peter in Gallicantu (meaning cock’s crow). What a powerful way to start Lent, contemplating that Maundy Thursday night when Jesus agonized in the garden and then was taken to the Chief Priest, commemorated at St. Peter’s in Gallicantu; to wait with our Lord, to reflect on that path, to more deeply understand the abandonment, denial, and betrayal of those closest, most trusted by him. I returned to the dark pit many feet below ground where it is believed Christ was lowered as he awaited his trial. I again read the 88th Psalm, which we had also done as a group: I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I have become like one who has no strength. Never had I experienced the beginning of Lent in such a profound way.

I found three places where music lifted my soul: St. Ann’s (Catholic), the Garden Tomb (Protestant), and Saint James’ Armenian Cathedral (Orthodox). All three were very different experiences, yet all three were made holy by the music heard there. I spent many hours in all three of these places. The place I visited most was the Church of the Holy
Sepulcher, the holiest site for Christians containing the chapels where Christ was crucified, died on the cross, and the tomb where on that first Easter morning he rose from the dead! What an incredible and mystical experience. I visited different times of the day. One Friday I followed the Franciscans as they lead a group at 3 p.m. through the 14 Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa and into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. With scripture, prayer and music they make this journey every Friday. On several occasions I followed the Armenian Orthodox as they processed about the church and chanted their prayers. I did the same with the Copts, Syrian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Latins (Roman Catholics). The church is a place that is usually very crowded, but I found times when I was the only pilgrim standing on Golgotha.

Throughout my sabbatical I worshiped every day (usually many times a day) often in languages I did not understand, but I always felt very present and a part of the worshiping community which I joined. Our own Saint George’s Cathedral was my base for the sabbatical. I had a two-story apartment in the bell tower for the month and it was also my place for worship in our Anglican tradition (although at times in Arabic).

I have only touched the surface of so many incredible encounters, but I must save more for another time. In closing, I share with you a quote from the Talmud which has become a song that was used on several occasions at St. George’s:

Ten measures of beauty gave God to the World:
nine to Jerusalem and one to the remainder.
Ten measures of sorrow gave God to the World:
nine to Jerusalem and one to the remainder.

In Christ’s peace and love,

Todd +


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