After the intensity of our experience at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, it was just as well that we should take a quiet day away from the city and its distractions. So, after breakfast, we headed to the deserts of Judea. First stop: Masada.
Revered in a very special way by the Israelis, Masada served as a safe haven in troubled times by the notorious Herod the Great, who, under Roman direction, ruled the province of Palestine with an iron hand. Discovering this hilltop promontory, Herod immediately understood its strategic importance and constructed not one, but two palaces on the site in the first century AD. Following the defeat of the Jewish rebellion against Rome and subsequent destruction of Jerusalem under the Roman leadership of Titus (70AD), remnant groups of resisters headed for Masada for what was to prove their last stand before the imperial forces. According to tradition, after a two-month siege, the Romans penetrated the site, only to discover that its inhabitants had chosen to commit suicide rather than surrender.
After Masada, we stopped at a section of the Jordan River in order to renew our baptismal vows. Next to us, a group of Eastern Orthodox pilgrims were doing likewise. Many of them were dressed in special white garments for that purpose. According to custom, these garments will be kept and used later as burial shrouds for their owners.
Next, we headed for the Palestinian city of Jericho, known to be the oldest continuous settlement of human beings in the world, having been settled more than 6000 years ago. The town is a true oasis, its splashing fountains and springs fed by arterial streams. We lunched and shopped at a highly commercialized spot. I was fascinated to watch the steady stream of hung, thirsty pilgrims arriving from every corner of the world: Kenya, Indonesia, Korea, Italy, and so on. We even ran into some fellow Franciscan friars-- Italian-born members of the Custody of the Holy Land.
Before returning to Jerusalem, we stopped over at the Franciscan Sisters' School of Jericho, a co-ed institution staffed by three native-born Palestinian sisters. The student population is just shy of 600; Christian students number 16 of that total. As one of the sisters reminded me: "We are here as missionaries. Not to try to convert people, but to show the loving presence of Jesus for all people. And to help the children-- all of the children-- to have the kind of education which will allow them to participate fully in society." Fr. Cesar, a member of our group, presided at Eucharist in the simple chapel of the sisters. In this simple and humble place, it was not difficult to understand the importance of a Christian presence in this part of the world.
Returning toward Jerusalem, we made a pit stop at the Dead Sea. Most of us braved the salty elements to get into our swimsuits for a dip. The waters were thick, warm, and chalky. It was impossible to do anything other than float-- and so we floated! Some of us, by which I mean Father Larry, went a step further to cover themselves with mud-- great protection against the relentless sun. And great fun to boot. . . . Arrived in Jerusalem at last. Bone-tired, we welcomed the refuge of our rooms.