My wife, Grace, and I just returned from a two-week tour of Jordan and Israel sponsored by Saint Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church in Corona del Mar.
What a great trip, and what a privilege to visit places I have read about in the Bible and elsewhere since childhood. It was truly sobering to think that we were standing in the places where so many important things happened throughout history!
As one of my best friends says, the Holy Land is a powerful place filled with confusion, but brings clarity to pilgrims seeking to know God. I agree and, first and foremost, this was a humbling religious experience. But it was so intensely personal that I don't feel I can share it with you, other than to ask you to pray for me, as I will pray for you.
Otherwise, as St. Augustine said, "Life is a book, and people who don't travel read only one page."
In that regard, there were many things I had not realized before this trip, such as how small Israel is. For example, the distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem is about five miles, to Jericho about 40 miles, and to Nazareth about 70.
Furthermore, and I don't think this is sacrilegious, often throughout our time in the Holy Land I kept wondering why God would have ever designated this place as the "Promised Land," where it is hot, dry and rocky. Why not Maui, Pacific Palisades or Newport Beach instead?
We started in Petra, Jordan, one of the great historic and archeological sites. The elaborate tombs of kings and nobles were sculpted straight out of the sandstone cliffs. And I am happy to tell you that Petra was not destroyed by Indiana Jones in his "Last Crusade" movie.
We also visited the Sea of Galilee, which is really a freshwater lake, and swam in the Dead Sea, which is the lowest point on Earth's surface at 1,400 feet below sea level, and is so salty that it probably is impossible to drown. In fact, I couldn't even sit down in 18 inches of water because my legs kept popping up.
The ruins of the synagogue at Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee were truly moving. This was where Jesus spent most of his time teaching, where he gathered disciples, and also performed some of his miracles.
We also learned that as best as can be determined, actual history does not match some of the stories we have heard all of our lives. For example, Jesus was probably born in 4 B.C. around harvest time, which would have been in April instead of December.
And there probably weren't any "inns" as we think of them in Bethlehem. Instead there were numerous caves, some of which were reserved for people living communally, and others were left for the animals. So actually the innkeeper in the Christmas story has probably been wrongly disparaged throughout history, because by providing the space in a cave with the animals he was giving Mary some privacy during childbirth, which she otherwise would not have had.
And because they had little wood in the area, what we call the manger was probably a stone watering trough for the animals. But although these variances are interesting intellectually, they certainly do not make any difference in the religious significance of the stories.
Another place that really had an impact on me was the fairly new Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, which was built near the site where the Archangel Gabriel informed Mary that she had been chosen to bear the son of God. Within the basilica are large and deeply impressive murals from many countries of the world depicting the impact of that wonderful story from their perspective. My favorite murals were from South Africa, Japan and the United States.
But the most overwhelming experience was being inside the Old City in Jerusalem where we followed the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa, and went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Being in the places where Jesus bore the cross, and was crucified, died, placed in a tomb and resurrected was beyond deeply moving and sobering. It really cannot be explained, but only experienced.
Although I am not Jewish, the Western Wall was also a place of deep impact. Their belief is that God is actually always present at this the nearest point to the destroyed Temple. And the people praying at this wall with such sincere devotion is something worthy of the utmost respect.
Throughout our trip all of us felt safe and even welcomed. But this certainly is a deeply troubled land where the Palestinians are obviously being occupied, and the evidence of past and present conflict is never far away. Throughout Israel are young men and women in the police or army, both Israeli and Palestinian, armed with machine guns. At the River Jordan we saw portable bridges that could be used by the army immediately in the event the bridges were destroyed.
And, of course, the tilt-up, 25-foot high cement wall in Jerusalem separating the Palestinian from the Israeli land, along with the armed checkpoints through it, were omnipresent scars. As a professional mediator of disputes, it continually went through my mind that all of this should be unnecessary.
If people would begin by understanding that there are no "solutions" to these problems that go back for hundreds and even thousands of years, that would be a good start. Instead there are only "resolutions," which will not be perfect, but the best that can be achieved under difficult circumstances.
Israelis should be ensured of their right to exist safely in their own land; Palestinians should have a designated country of their own, and be able to control their own water, power and movements; and all religious sites should be respected and as much as possible be under the control of the group that is affected by them.
Fortunately, the Palestinians now seem to be closer to having a responsible government with whom the Israelis and others can negotiate. The U.S. should step forward and exert some neutral and principled leadership to help bring a lasting peace to this confused place. Probably no one else could do it but us, and it is long since time for us to take that role.
JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of "A Voter's Handbook: Effective Solutions to America's Problems" (The Forum Press, 2010), and can be contacted at JimPGray@sbcglobal.net.