Experiencing the Holy Land

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Steve Schunk

M.Div. ’18

This past January, a group from The General Theological Seminary embarked on a Pilgrimage and Study Tour to Israel and the Holy Lands, and it was a resounding success for the 12 of us who travelled together. The mix included three family members, one outside faculty member, three M.Div. Juniors, one GTS faculty member, one GTS staff member and three Trustees.

In particular, this nine-day tour brought the ancient texts to life. We explored the geography and the ancient ruins of the northwestern coastal port, Caesarea, on the Mediterranean Sea, including the Palace of Herod the Great; and also of Paneas in the foothills of the high mountains of Hermon. After that, we headed south to the rolling, rocky hills with short green grass and scrub around Nazareth and Jerusalem. Then, we traveled west toward Capernaum and the grassy banks along the Sea of Galilee. Moving south toward the arid desert and the plateau at Masada, we traveled to Qasr-Yehud, the traditional site of the baptism of Jesus on the Jordan River, and then down to the mineral water of the Dead Sea, where you can float unassisted. Our group spent several days in and around Nazareth, one day in Bethlehem, and the remaining days in Jerusalem.

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There were some particularly memorable aspects of our journey, compared to other available Holy Land tours. The first was having the high scholarship of both a New and Old Testament professor lead the tour, in addition to the Israel guide. Together, they brought up-to-date archeological knowledge and insight into the geography and the sites we explored—particularly in and around Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

The second was our group size and mix, of students, faculty, advisors, trustees and some family, that formed a strong social and worship community. We gathered daily for either Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer, celebrated Eucharist once, and attended Mass at the Anglican Church in Jerusalem. We ate most of our meals together and enjoyed evening conversations, recalling the day’s highlights. One of the most moving worship services was an Evening Prayer service which was held on a boat offshore on the Sea of Galilee. Experiencing the culture first-hand, especially the local foods and cuisine, helped us take root in these ancient lands.

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Having a new sense of this particular geography, the ancient lands breathed life into the historical biblical stories. In my mind's eye, I now have many new and improved images when I read passages about tending the sheep. I’ve seen the manger in Bethlehem and Qasr-Yehud where Jesus was baptized by John. Even my picture of the entire Passion Narrative is forever changed, because I’ve walked the Via Dolorosa (the Way of Sorrows), and touched the rock of Calvary. In one way or another, we all came back from this trip having had many new and deeply moving experiences.

In terms the Old Testament and our Jewish heritage, while in Jerusalem, we could see how the oldest section, the City of David, was first located next to the water, and was later expanded to a higher, fortified position up on top of the hill, where the Temple was built. We visited Qumran and saw the cave where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and then visited the fortress on Masada, where the Jewish zealots held off the Romans for over a year after the destruction of the Temple.

General Seminary is considering offering these pilgrimage tours annually, and making them available to the larger community—for the value of their academic, worship, and social components. We all had a great time, made new friends, and shared new experiences.

Next year, perhaps Oxford or Rome?