As the sun rose, I drove down through the Galilee region, made my way to the Dead Sea and then cut west to arrive in Jerusalem mid-morning. After dropping the rental car off, I hopped a bus and arrived back where I started at the Abraham Hostel in West Jerusalem. I was given my room key and found that I was in the same room as before and in fact had the same bed! There is something that puts me at ease when I find a bit of familiarity in the midst of traveling a foreign country.
The Abraham Hostel is a fantastic hostel, heralded as one of the best in the world. People of all ages and countries stay there. There were church tour groups with seniors and young people in the midst of traveling the world, and everything in between.
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I got to know one Israeli woman and two other single women who were living in Israel waiting to be granted Aliyah (the right to return). I enjoyed our conversations, learning more about Jewish customs and watching as they got dressed in head to toe black to attend the dinners and synagogue during Shabbat.
Breakfast at the hostel was served buffet-style and this is where I met with some of the other 100 people staying at the hostel. Most everyone was there to deepen their connection with their faith. Jews Muslims and Christians, orthodox, conservative and progressive staying at the hostel all ate together. An air of camaraderie and appreciation of the diversity permeated the group of people who were literally from all walks of life.
Invariably, though, there would be one person at each meal who felt compelled to promote their religious beliefs and viewpoints. There were a few Jews who would bring out scripture or research, feeling called to enlighten everyone on why Jesus could not have been the messiah that was promised. Or one young man was earnest about getting us to see that Christianity is actually a pagan religion. By the same token there were some Christians who felt obliged to evangelize and try to save the souls of the Jews present. Most of these proclamations were treated with good humor, but on occasion it did get a bit dicey as everyone present took their religion quite seriously.
For anyone traveling to Israel on a budget, I highly recommend the Abraham Hostel. The Hostel is very responsive to questions by email. They provide shuttle service to and from the airport. Upon arrival they offer maps, tours to anywhere in the country, and provide events where travelers can mingle. My first days in Israel, this hostel was instrumental in having me feel welcomed and oriented.
Once settled back in my bunk, I hopped the rail to Old Jerusalem for a last tour of the ancient city. From there I walked into the Palestinian settlement and caught the bus to the Mount of Olives. At this point, I knew my way around the old city and how to get to what I wanted to see.
My previous visit to the Mount of Olives was so enriching and the place where I could feel the presence of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. So back I went.
The last time I was astride this hill, just outside the eastern wall of the city, many of the sites on the Mount had been closed. I was interested in seeing some of what I had missed. The Church of Mary Magdalene was of specific interest to me, but I already knew its gates would be locked shut. On the grounds of a Russian Orthodox convent, the church dedicated to The Magdalene is open only on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2 – 4 pm.
For my pilgrimage, I was in the old city on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday and now back again on Wednesday. I was there every day except Tuesday and Thursday. What are the odds I would be in Jerusalem every day of the week except the two that the Church of Mary Magdalene would be open?
I had felt some measure of disappointment that I would not see the one location in all Jerusalem dedicated to Mary Magdalene. I concluded that because it was not meant to be part of my trip, it did not hold a piece of the puzzle I needed to enter the mystery of who Mary Magdalene was and is. I had felt her sitting in an olive grove just up the hill and so I returned on my last day in Israel to sit beneath the same olive tree.
After visiting Migdal, where Mary Magdalene came alive to me in a new and wondrous way, as I came back to Jerusalem, I felt that Jerusalem was not Jesus’ or Mary’s city. His ministry and life was in Galilee. Jesus was in Jerusalem only two times during his ministry. He came to Jerusalem for Passover in the first year of and was told he would be arrested if he came back. He chose not to go to Jerusalem the second year, knowing that if he entered the city walls, he could be arrested and potentially lose his life. And finally, at the end of his third year when he did return to Jerusalem, they crucified him.
With a view of all Old Jerusalem, I reflected on the relationship Jesus and Mary Magdalene had with Jerusalem. And my contemplation, led to the following musings:
Jesus’ ministry was never tied to Jerusalem. His interpretation of the Torah and what he was teaching was radical and threatened the way Jewish customs, laws and religion were commonly held.
Rather than being illuminated by hearing the Truth of what he spoke, the Jewish leaders – the Pharisees and Sadducees, only saw that Jesus was trying to dismantle or discredit the interpretation of God’s word that they had dedicated their lives to upholding. In some ways, it is similar to the lively conversations that happened at breakfast at the hostel with people wanting to uphold, further validate and prove the rightness of their religious point of view. In Jerusalem, there was not much room for learning a new way of looking at the Bible or understanding spiritual Truths.
I imagine Mary Magdalene did not spend much time in Jerusalem during her life. While all Jewish people felt compelled, by Jewish law, to travel to Jerusalem on three high holy days each year, it was Passover that most attended - expense and time away from the work of life I am sure were factors that contributed to this. On top of this, it was understood that only men were required to make this annual sojourn. Women could, but did not feel their faith or devoutness was being questioned if they did not make the journey. Therefore, I am sure families would prioritize the funds and time for the men to go, but less for the women.
So given this, Mary was most likely in Jerusalem a handful of times in her life. Perhaps every few years before she knew Jesus and then twice with Jesus. The second time was traumatizing to say the least.
Two thousand years ago, Jerusalem was where God lived, literally. He resided in the Holy of Holies within the Temple that sat atop the mount. Only the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies and only once a year. On high holy days, every Jew who made it to Jerusalem brought an animal to be sacrificed to God and paid the temple priest a handsome amount to climb the temple mount to offer their sacrifice. The sacrifice was a gift to God. It expressed one’s faithfulness, one’s obedience to God’s will and recognized the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
For Mary, I felt, she believed – like all her people - that God did reside in this temple. This inspired great reverence. Like Jesus, she took issue with the men that protected and served this temple; the men who were the guardians of the Torah and God’s directives to the people. Their greed and desire for power had compromised the purity of their heart. She believed that the priests did have ears to hear and eyes to see; and if they could just listen to Jesus, they would recognize the Truth he spoke and their lives and approach to priesthood would be inspired to move in a new way. In the end, however, she realized that they did not have a desire for Truth and that what had initially called them to priesthood had been irreparably damaged.
Because of the trauma associated with witnessing Jesus’ crucifixion coupled with her realization about the corrupted nature of the priests, I believe she may have never returned to Jerusalem. Yes, God lived there. But I feel Mary concluded that those who stood guard of His House and who held sway over the city were as the Essences had said: The Sons of Darkness.
In Migdal as I stood looking out at the Galilee, I felt I could hear the voice of Mary. In listening, I felt I was seeing Migdal through her eyes. Sitting there, I intuited that when she was small, she thought the Sea of Galilee was the whole world. In looking across at the opposite shoreline, she was looking at the edge of the world.
The Mary Magdalene I was getting acquainted with in Migdal knew that God lived in Jerusalem. It was a great desire for her and all Jews to make the journey to Jerusalem. As a young girl she thought that Jerusalem was in a place beyond the world, and that one needed to leave this world to go to another realm where God lived. It meant traversing a great desert to arrive at God’s city. The humans who lived in that city were special, given great honor by God to be able to live and serve in His city. In her youth, she had thought that these humans were better than the humans who lived in the world - the world of the Galilee - and were more loved by God.
So when Jesus died, not only did she witness the death of her Beloved, the death of a man that was enlivened by God, filled with the spirit of His Father, she also beheld the death of a perception about the people and priests of Jerusalem. The way in which she had understood the world had shattered. She had come to know the world was larger than the Galilee and even larger than all Israel, but she still held a respect and reverence for the temple priests. Her understanding of the world was shaken in the wake of witnessing how the people in Jerusalem did not see, did not hear Truth and see Purity when it was in front of them. This shook her to her core as much as the loss and then Resurrection of her Beloved Rabboni.
So now what? She had left her life behind to follow Jesus. She belonged to no man, child, family or village. Wherever Jesus went, she went with Him. And then he was gone. Resurrected, yes. But no longer at her side saying: Here is where we will go next. We will rest now. We will spend time with so and so…. As an unattached woman in Israel, there was no place or people that waited for her to come home. Now what?
The play that I will be writing begins at this moment, the moment of Now What? Jesus’ first words to her when he resurrected were: Don’t cling to me. For centuries, the scripture passage in the Book of John where Jesus says to Mary, as she comes to her knees to touch his feet, has been translated as “Don’t touch me for I have not ascended to my Father…” In fact, the more accurate translation is: “Don’t Cling to Me.” This has a very different meaning.
Don’t cling to me. What had she to cling to? No family. No home. No clear direction. Jesus is what she clung to. In the wake of this moment when Mary realizes that she had been given the incredible gift of His teachings, His attention, His healing daily for three years as a period of time to prepare her for another journey.
During the years with Jesus, he had planted a seed in her and His Light was coming to flower inside of Her. She was not to look to an authority outside the Light growing within her own heart. She was in unknown territory and with her faith the size of a mustard seed, she would lean on it. As Jesus spread his teachings like seeds, they had taken root inside of her. He was telling her she could trust this. And with this, she would be one of those who would continue His ministry.
So a new journey was beginning for her - the journey of what happens to someone after they have been in the living Presence of Jesus, walked alongside him daily for years. And so the play on Mary Magdalene is a contemplation of the first weeks and months after Jesus has Resurrected and Ascended, when she is left to find her way, find a new way of life.
Getting up from the olive tree I was sitting against, I then walked past the Church of Mary Magdalene that sits on the Mount of Olives and made my way to the bottom of the hill where I went through open gates and descended into the Tomb of the Virgin.
At the top of the Mount is the Chapel of the Ascension revered by Christians who believe Mary ascended into heaven. At the bottom of the Mount is the Tomb where many Christians believe her to be buried. After descending a flight of stairs that went into the bowels of the earth, I truly felt like I had entered a tomb. Dank with a smell of decay, I made my way around to the altar over the stone coffin and paid my respects to the Greek Orthodox shrine.
After, I made my way around to the Lion’s Gate, the East Gate of the old city, I once more entered its protective walls. The Via Delorosa (the path of Jesus’ walk with the cross to Golgotha) begins as this gate. And just inside the gate are the Bethesda Pools. I was delighted to see the gates to the pools were open.
The pools were renowned throughout antiquity for their healing properties. People traveled from all around to immerse themselves in their waters. In the Bible, Jesus came to these pools and healed a man who had come to these pools with the hope of being healed. Again, Jesus was emphasizing that He was the Living Water, the Healing Water and that through faith in God, we will be nurtured, fed and given what we need.
I enjoyed seeing the ruins of this site that was visited by people of all walks of life for millennia. Near the ruins was a garden and again I was drawn to the roses.
Then I ventured into the church on the grounds. Dedicated to St. Anne, Mary’s Mother, there was a lovely statue of an older woman (Anne) standing next to a young girl (Mary). Seeing a middle-aged woman, a face with wrinkles, worn with age, made me feel good. Here was a woman who looked like me given a place of honor.
And finally I walked the Via Delorosa once more. It was the most direct way to the Jaffa Gate, where I could catch the rail back to the hostel, and so up I went. It was a steep walk, almost all uphill. There were many stairs built into the road along the route to help make the upward walk a little easier. I contemplated Jesus’ walk with the cross as I went.
All along the way there were vendor shops on either side of the cobbled road. And all along the way the shopkeepers would call out: Where are you from? Why don’t you come into my shop? I have something special to show you? I have a special memento of Jerusalem you can take home with you. And my personal favorite: Let’s see your smile.
Okay, first of all, it is 90 degrees. Second, I am walking up a steep hill of a road. Third, it is the Via Delorosa, the key pilgrimage destination for Christian pilgrims. People walk it contemplating Good Friday, Jesus’ walk with the cross, and the suffering that was endured. Do these vendors have a clue? Why would have them say: Let’s see your smile?
I thought of Jesus’ last day in Jerusalem. He turned over the tables of the vendors in the marketplace. How dare they turn God’s house into a marketplace. It seemed to me nothing had changed in 2,000 years. In trying to have a ‘religious experience’ in Jerusalem, it must happen within the context of someone trying to sell you something at every turn. Pilgrims and tourists mean revenue, just as pilgrims 2,000 years ago were emptied of their pockets all in the name of giving honor to God.
Outside the walls of the city, I thought I would have reprieve from the vendors, of someone trying to get my attention to sell me something. Every five or ten minutes on the Mount of Olives, a taxi cab driver would stop and ask me: Want a taxi? I would say, no thank you. They then would say – as if on cue - I can take you to Bethlehem, the Dead Sea, Jericho. No thank you, I would say again. Not to be deterred, they would then say, How about a ride to Lion’s Gate? Again, no thank you. After I had been through this same conversation roughly 20 times, I lost patience with the 21st taxi cab driver.
After saying no thank you three times and him asking again and again, my voice became firm as I said No thank you once again. Now he was offended. Why are you feeling angry? He asked. I said, what part of no thank you did you not understand?
At this point he said to me: Go home. We don’t need complicated here.
As I continued walking down the Mount of Olives, I thought: Complicated. Old Jerusalem is nothing but complicated. In fact, it is the most complicated city I had ever encountered.
How is it complicated? Old Jerusalem is sectioned into four quarters. The Jewish, Armenian, Muslim and Christian Quarters. Each section of the city reveres and honors the God and religion to which it is dedicated. The impression is that the Muslims, Jews and Christians each believe their religion is the true religion and they are the chosen people of God.
There is a tolerance of the other’s tradition on the surface. But this toleration feels strained; it is as if there are only two options: all-out war or toleration -and everyone, out of common sense and not out of goodwill, has opted for the latter.
In old Jerusalem religion is a serious business, very serious. Life and Death. Each of the city’s religions has experienced horrific persecution at some point in history – And there is a history of bloodshed and war between the peoples of these religions that are all held within the city walls. With all the historical buildings, signs, and materials, there are reminders everywhere of the suffering that its residents have suffered at some point in history because of their religious identification.
Daily Jews from around the world pray at the Western Wall, or wailing wall - the only section of the original temple mount they have access to. They do not step foot atop the mount. Atop this mount is the great mosque: Dome of the Rock, its golden dome dominates the skyline and has stood on the mount for 1,200 years.
A couple of the Jewish women I met said they pray at the wall so that one day they can once again have their temple on top the Mount and to have the whole of Jerusalem one day be entirely Jewish again. In a world that is in alignment with God, there would be no Christians or Muslims in their city. Muslims and Christians of course see this differently. I am told there are already architectural plans for a new temple on the mount and for a ‘restored’ Jerusalem. And what would have to take place for the Jews to realize their dream, their hope, their prayer of restoring Jerusalem to how it was 2,000 years ago? Nothing less than war, destruction and loss,
Within this most holy city are the must unholy tensions. A city dedicated to the worship of God, visitors are kept from doing just that as vendors interrupt their experience hoping to make a sale. It is called the City of Peace, but more than any city I know of this city has experienced anything but peace. For instance, I remember the Muslim boy who walked with me through the Muslim Quarter but would not step out of his section of the city. Why? What would happen? Or even within the Christian Quarter, why can’t the high priests of the six different Catholic traditions agree on how to move a ladder that has sat on a ledge for over 150 years; these most high priests have been known even in recent years to resort to physically punching each other when discussing an issue they wish to resolve.
Over 20 million people enter the walls of this old city every year. From countries across the globe, Muslims, Christians and Jews see Jerusalem as a central pilgrimage destination. The thousands of residents of this city daily move about with thousands of tourists in the narrow city streets and inside their places of worship.
And yet, the taxi cab driver tells me to go home because ‘we don’t need complicated here.’
My vision would most likely be highly unpopular with many religious leaders and residents of Jerusalem and is just as improbable as the vision each has for pre-eminence within the city walls. But here it is:
Muslim, Jew, Christian – they all share a common ancestor: Abraham. They share the same patriarchs and to some extent, the same ancient history. In essence, these traditions are brothers, brothers of the One God.
For there to be peace, harmony and true brotherhood, the temple mount would have a temple, a mosque and a cathedral. The mount is over 1600 feet long. It has plenty of room to house all three traditions. As each of these religions was spawned from the loins of Abraham, the sibling rivalry between them has caused enormous pain and bloodshed through millennia.
My dream is that the siblings recognize the validity of the other, and extend honor not just toleration towards each other's tradition. Perhaps then the true inheritance of Abraham will be realized when the three brothers, the three traditions do not create boundaries and divisions, but share in the bounty of God and the mount.
This may seem oversimplified. But what if it simply came down to a fight amongst brothers. Jews - the descendants of Isaac the honored son of Abraham - claim that the inheritance of Abraham is theirs. Muslims - descended from Ishmael, the Abraham’s eldest but a bastard - are asserting rights to be recognized as a true son, perhaps even as the eldest. Christians, also want recognition for being a descendant of Abraham and that within the ‘newer’ religion of the three recognize that Jesus’ life and teachings is accepted as part of the divine unfoldment of how religion is to be held and practiced.
A unified Jerusalem. Unified brothers. This is my vision. To have this happen, Jews, Christians and Muslims would all be practicing the Golden Rule, core to each of the traditions: to love their neighbor as themselves. To do unto others as they would do unto you. If this could be accomplished, then we would all be acting as true children of Our Father in Heaven.
Perhaps it is simplistic. Perhaps my vision will enrage some. But I find it more palatable than making light of another’s tradition, wanting to expand one’s boundaries by diminishing another’s, being distrustful of the other’s intentions and dishonoring other’s beliefs for the sake of upholding one’s own.
As I made my way back to my hostel to pack my bags and ready for the airport, this is what I was thinking. In the weeks to come, I will be digesting and integrating all that I experienced and will be posting additional insights and even conclusions I am having about Mary Magdalene.
For now, goodbye to Jerusalem. Goodbye to Israel. I have been enriched, uplifted, informed, inspired and I carry many treasures back home with me that will serve me for years and decades to come.
I am blessed to have been able to have made this journey.