The first day of the Pilgrimage is always full of anticipation as people bundle onto the coaches for a day of visits for the first time.  It somehow feels a bit like a school bus as people begin to figure out where they will sit on the coach – and likely stay there the whole time – and if they are travelling by themselves who they will sit with.  We are so fortunate that the weather is good and more than that to be here at all. 

During the time that we will travel together around the Holy Land a community will form on the coaches and sometimes lifelong friendships begin. Certainly, there have been some who have been on more than one of the Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimages and they swap stories of all that has happened since last they were pilgrims together.  It is a very special time. 

Each coach has a leader: Fr Phil Andrews, from St George’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, on Paul and the Very Revd Andrew Nunn, from St Mary and St Saviour Overie, the Anglican Cathedral in Southwark on Peter.  Bishop Paul and Bishop Christopher will move between the coaches so that everyone has a chance to travel with them and learn from their knowledge and experience of the Holy Land.  I tend to move around too so that I can make sure that as many people as possible contribute to the blog and are in the photographs.

Today has been a busy day and we have returned to the hotel a little tired, a bit overwhelmed and ready for a quick shower and dinner. 

We have walked down the Mount of Olives, seen Dominus Flevit, that wonderful tear shaped church which is said to be where Jesus wept over Jerusalem.  From there we saw the Russian Orthodox Church of St Mary Magdalene, with its wonderful golden dome which the sun dances off, where Prince Philip’s mother is buried – which seemed to have much more resonance with people since The Crown has brought Princess Alice into our lives. 

Walking down the Mount of Olives can feel a bit like taking ones life into ones own hands, or rather placing it in others people’s hands, as the cars simply decide that no matter where people are, or how small the space is, they are coming through.  It can be a bit agitating!  In the years that I have been coming to the Holy Land I have been constantly surprised at how busy the Mount of Olives really is and no more so than today.  We didn’t have the traffic jam that we experienced on the first Diocesan Pilgrimage but it was incredibly busy, indeed, more or less wherever we have been there have been crowds of Pilgrims. I don’t ever remember seeing quite so many groups or such big groups.

We moved on into the Garden of Gethsemane with its wonderful olive trees. Olive trees apparently regenerate so that even if the tree seems to die shoots from it ensure that new life begins.  So there are some very old trees here whose origins date back to Jesus’ time and we are shown and urged to touch the oldest.  People from all the pilgrimages gather around it because it is so special to feel that Jesus may also have touched it.

The Church of All Nations, which is called this because many different countries contributed to it being built, stands alongside the Garden and it is built over the stone upon which Jesus is supposed to have prayed during his time in the Garden the night before he was arrested. It is also called the Church or Basilica of the Agony.  Like Dominus Flevit, the Church of All Nations was designed by Antonio Barluzzi.  It was built in 1924. 

Back onto the coach and up the hill to St Peter in Gallicantu.  I have never quite figured out why but, in the places that we visit in and around Jerusalem, this is one of my favourites.  It might be because of the extraordinary views as it is atop a hill or it might be because the steps which are at the side of the church are supposed to be the ones that Jesus actually walked up on his way to Pilate’s house.  But, most likely, it is because this is where Peter is thought to have denied Jesus three times which is why there is a Cockerel on the top of the church as the weather vane and they feature in many other places on this site.  It always reminds me that no matter how imperfectly I am a follower of Jesus, God can and will still shape and use me if I allow this.

We were incredibly fortunate today because it is very unusual to be able to get down into the dungeon where Jesus is said to have been held after his arrest.  But today is quiet and we are able to go there before seeing the two contrasting churches.  The lower, plainer one with its wonderful clean lines and pale stones and pastel colours and the upper one which is full of the most amazing mosaics. There is a statue of Peter as you leave the Church alongside the stairs.  Apparently Pilgrims had begun to take pieces of stone from the stairs as souvenirs and so groups can now only walk on five of them and the Guides encourage us to do this.

From the belvedere alongside the Church it is possible to see the most amazing views and I am always struck by the separation wall which has been erected. It brings into focus some of the realities of the Holy Land for so many people today.

It has been a busy morning and now it is time to get on the coach and move onto Ein Karem for lunch at the Covent of the Sisters of Zion.