Thursday, May 14, 2015

JERUSALEM: BETHESDA

Rather than follow the chronology of our trip for the next few posts, I've decided to follow the chronology of Christ's life, at least the part that was in Jerusalem. I've already covered the healing of the blind man at the Pool of Siloam. Another one of Christ's healings also occurs at a pool--the Pool of Bethesda. 
I had several "Aha!" moments in Israel, and one of them was about why water is such an important image in the Gospels. Israel is essentially a desert climate, and Jerusalem itself had (and has) a fairly limited water supply. Water certainly wasn't piped into homes during the time of Christ; it was brought in by hand in containers. It was an effort every day to get enough water to sustain life. When Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well, "Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life," he was using a metaphor that would have had significant meaning in such a dry country. Similarly, performing two of his miracles at pools of water would have powerful symbolic meaning.

But I'm jumping ahead.

The Pool of Bethesda is located in what is now the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, just inside the Sheep Gate, also known as the Lion's Gate. It was through this gate that lions and sheep were brought to the Temple for sacrifice. Later, it would be this gate that Jesus--the sacrificial Lamb--would enter on his way to his crucifixion.

The pool is part of a walled complex that includes a large, beautiful, peaceful courtyard and the 12th century Church of St. Anne. Our group arrived when the courtyard was essentially empty.
Looking back at the door through which we had just entered:
We sat on benches or stood around the perimeter of the garden listening to Michael retell the story of Jesus healing the man with infirmities who for thirty-eight years had no one to carry him to the water when the angel troubled it with his finger (See John 5:1-18).  Michael stressed that some blessings are a long time in coming and require much patience.  He also noted the simple, non-grandiose manner that the Savior had, rather than the "Look at me!" approach we are sometimes more inclined to take.

Our friends Geneil and Terry listening to the lecture
Beyond the tranquil gardens sits St. Anne's Church, a Roman Catholic Romanesque edifice completed in 1138 by the Crusaders. The church is built over the grotto thought by the Crusaders to be the birthplace of Mary, the mother of Jesus. According to tradition, Mary's mother's name was Anne or Anna, and her father was Joachim.
A side door of the church shows the way to the birthplace:

Once we were inside, we tried to be very quiet. Apparently tourists who speak English are frequent offenders:
The interior is simple and unadorned:
In contrast to the heavy stone pillars, the ceiling of the nave is a series of delicate arches:

The main altar depicts the birth of Jesus on the left, the deposition of Christ's body from the cross in the center (covered by the purple tulle), and the Annunciation on the right:
I noticed these stairs and took photos, but I didn't go down them. There was no sign indicating what was below, and we had limited time. Too bad. At the bottom of the stairs are the supposed remains of Anna and Joachim's home, where it is believed Anna gave birth to Mary.
Had I gone down the stairs, this is what I would have seen, or something like this:
Picture from seetheholyland.net
I did enjoy these two statues. I can't find any info on the wood carving on the left, but I assume it is St. Anne with baby Mary. The beautiful marble on the right shows a sweet, young Mary gazing up at her mother, such tender love between the two:

Doorways, along with small windows, let in a soft, filtered light:

We didn't know it as we walked around the church, but St. Anne's is known for its phenomenal acoustics. The priest who was in charge approached us and asked if we wanted to sing. We quickly pulled together a group of ten or twelve singers and started to sing the LDS children's song, "I Am a Child of God," a song we knew all the verses to. Wow.
Chris, Judy, Julia--getting ready to sing
As soon as we sang the first note, we realized we were in for a treat. The unadorned stone walls and lofty heights caught, held, and amplified our voices, then gently threw the notes back to us, much lovelier than when they had left our lips. We could feel the music surrounding us, gently wrapping us in cloaks of notes. We were a choir of heavenly angels.

To provide a sample of the acoustics, here is a video of the BYU Jerusalem Center students singing at St. Anne's.  I sure we sounded this good (at least in our own ears):
We were so impressed with the cheerful, friendly priest who gave us this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He is a member of the White Fathers, a French Roman Catholic society established in 1868. In addition to doing extensive missionary work in Africa, they take care of this church. Their name comes from their white vestments.
The third, oldest, and most important (to me) part of the Bethesda complex is the famous pool. In Jesus's day, these were pagan medicinal baths. It was believed that an angel flew overhead "in a certain season" and "troubled the waters," and that those with disabilities who could get into the pool at just the right moment would be miraculously cured. 

Jesus had come to Jerusalem for one of the feasts. It was the Sabbath, and he must have passed by this pool on his way to the Temple. When Jesus saw the man who had been waiting thirty-eight years to be healed, he asked him if he "would be made whole." The man told him that he could never make it to the pool in time to be cured, that someone else always beat him to the water. Then Jesus replied with the simplest of sentences: "Rise, take up thy bed, and walk." The response was just as simple: "And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked." Jesus did not need to wait for the troubling of the waters. He did not need the magic water to cure the paralytic. He was "living water."
The story, told in the Gospel of John, became part of Christian lore, and various pools in and around Jerusalem were considered possible sites, although there were many experts who believed the story to be metaphorical. John mentioned five porches where the invalids would sit to wait their turn to step into the water, but no such pool was known to exist, and some thought the five porches were John's reference to the five books of Moses, which Jesus had come to fulfill. Then in 1888 these pools were discovered by German archaeologist Conrad Schick. Further excavations in 1956 revealed that the pools had four colonnaded porches around the sides and one over the central dike. In every way, they matched John's description of them.


One of my favorite paintings of Christ depicts the tender scene at Bethesda. In it, Christ not only heals the man physically, but lifts the cloth that keeps him in darkness, perhaps signalling a spiritual healing as well, and certainly speaking to Christ's role as "the light of the world."
Healing at the Pool of Bethesda (1883) by Carl Heinrich Bloch
This enormous painting (10.5' x 9.25') hangs in the BYU Museum of Art, Provo, Utah
The depth of the pool can be seen in the photo below. The wall/bridge on the right separated the water into two pools. During the Byzantine era, a church was built over the pools, with the arch in the center of the photo being one of the supports for that church.
Some places lend themselves to visualizing the familiar stories from the Gospels. This was one of those for me, and it was the spirit of the place as much as the scenery.

4 comments:

  1. This was a nice site because it was more peaceful, less crowded. I wish the photo of the white father could have had the priest without his jacket. The various garbs of religious dress we saw were fascinating.

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  2. Singing in that church was such a fabulous experience. Who knew acoustics could make us sound like the Tabernacle Choir?

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  3. One of my favorite parts of that story about the healing is that Jesus ASKED him if he wanted to be healed. I love that invitational gesture; perhaps it was a way for Jesus to ascertain the lame man's faith? I am glad to see these sites--thanks!

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  4. Thanks for including the beautiful number sung by the BYU students to show the wonderful acoustics. I have had the opportunity to sing in some unique places like this chapel with exceptional acoustic properties - the amphitheater in Ephesus, the Waitomo Caves in New Zealand, along Steamboat Rock in Echo Park while floating the Green River, the Mormon Tabernacle, the Salt Lake Temple Solemn Assembly Room, and the shower in our master bathroom. We even had Michael Ballam with us when we sang in Waitomo Caves. It is fun to hear ones voice enhanced through natural or man-made acoustics of a space.

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