Mount of Olives panorama

Mount of Olives panorama
A panoramic view of the Mount of Olives

Monday, November 28, 2011

Getting Ready for Christmas

Back home, we always set up our Nativity and start our Christmas devotionals on the First Sunday of Advent, which usually comes right after Thanksgiving.  But the first Family Home Evening after Thanksgiving is when we set up our tree and do all our other decorating.

So while the kids were at school, Elaine and went out on the prowl and found a Christmas store shoved into a storefront in East Jerusalem.  A whole lot of shekels later, we came home with a medium-sized artificial tree and all kinds of lights and decorations.  Seeing the look on the kids' faces as they came home from school made the expense worth it.

Coloring pictures to decorate the door

Samuel's face made the effort and expense of finding Christmas stuff in Jerusalem all worth it

Sunday, November 27, 2011

New Testament Jerusalem

Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem.  Wikimedia Commons.
This half day field trip, done here in the Old City, could properly be called Herodian Jerusalem, because it highlight several mansions and palatial dwellings as well as the temple itself from the Herodian Period (roughly 37 B.C. - A.D. 70).  But the name we use, New Testament Jerusalem, reveals the major draw for those of us who are Christian: the archaeological sites we visited today reveal Jerusalem as it was at the time that Jesus and his disciples walked these streets.

Two buses dropped our two classes off at the Dung Gate, through which we walked to enter the Jewish Quarter.  We then split up, with my class first going to the Wohl Museum and Steve Harper's class going to the Burnt House Museum.  Both of these exhibit the remains of palatial residences on the Upper City, which was the quarter of the rich and powerful at the time of Jesus.  They reflected the life of the privileged groups but also testified of the terrible destruction that occurred when the Romans took the city in A.D. 70.

Before and after we saw evidence of destruction of a different kind and period.  The Wohl Museum entrance is off of the Hurva Plaza.  The Hurva was the main Ashkenazi Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter until the Jordanians seized it in 1948 and subsequently destroyed it and many other Jewish synagogues.  While the Hurva has been recently rebuilt, we looked at the ruins of the Tiferet Yisrael Synagogue, which has been the center of Hassidic worship in the Old City.

This is for Sister Skinner Senior

Ruins of the Tiferet Yisrael Synagogue

Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock

The gray dome of the Al Aqsa Mosque rises above

I was happy to have Elaine come on the field trip with me today.
But perhaps the most interesting, and moving, part of today's trip occurred in the Davidson Archaeological Gardens.  The Davidson has a fine museum, but the real draw is to wander the grounds south and southwest of the Temple Mount.  Here the dig has taken the level down to the level of the Herodian Street: now we can say that were were not walking "above where Jesus walked" but where he actually walked.  We were able to talk a lot with the students about the construction of the massive Herodian retaining wall, look at the giant stones that the Romans pushed off the mount when they burned the temple proper, and check out miqveh baths and shops, all of which testified of the busy pilgrimage industry in that period.

The Herodian Street that ran along the base of the Temple Mount

A miqveh or ritual bath; impure entered on one side, the purified emerged on the other

The spring stones of Robinson Arch in the upper left were the beginning of a massive arch that supported a stair case leading up to the Temple Mount.

A diagram illustrating how Robinson's Arch functioned

Massive stones toppled off of the mount ins fulfillment of the prophecy of Mark 13:2.
The next part, in my opinion was when we sat in front of the Huldah Gates, on or near the actual steps that first century pilgrims walked on to enter the temple compound.  After talking about the architecture, we read Psalm 24, 132, and 150.  But best of all, we sang "We Love Thy House, O God."

My New Testament class on the steps (most of them restored) leading up to the Double Gate that was the exit for pilgrims to the Temple complex.  The partial arch is all that is immediately visible of the double gate, which has been filled in and most of which lies behind later construction.

Elaine standing on the threshhold of the Huldah Gate.  First century pilgrims, including Jesus would have stepped on this very stone!  See John 8:59 for Jesus' meeting the blind man as he exited the temple.

The Triple Gate, now blocked, was the entry for pilgrims

Diagram illustrating the Double and Triple Huldah Gates.  The Mishnah, "they entered from the right and exited to the left" (m. Mid. 2.2).

Elaine and I spent much of the rest of the afternoon wandering the Christian Quarter of the Old City searching for a phantom Christmas store that we heard was there.  We had hoped to get a small Christmas tree and some decorations, but perhaps because it was Sunday, most of the shops were tightly shuttered.  We did notice that Christmas lights had been strung over some of the streets, which made us happy.

Speaking of Christmas, tonight was the First Sunday of Advent, which gave us a chance to begin to focus as a family on what the season is really about.  Samuel is particularly very into decorating and talking about Christmas, and observing this familiar custom was reassuring to him.  We set out our new olive wood Nativity set and finished trimming our homemade wreath and candles.  Samuel, who hardly sang at the branch primary program yesterday at church, sang along heartily to "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," which brings tears to our eyes.  He loves Christmas carols, and we treasure hearing his sweet voice.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

First Sunday of Advent: Hope

For the First Sunday of Advent,
December 2 in 2012; was November 27 in 2011 when this first posted.
Link to the Mormon Times article in The Deseret News; see also Good Tidings of Great Joy, 38-39.

Although various traditions sometimes emphasize different Advent themes and may observe them in different orders, the first Sunday of Advent is almost always dedicated to Hope.  That is because the long-prophesied birth of the Babe of Bethlehem was something that God’s prophets and people had looked forward to for ages. 

On the First Sunday of Advent we start by lighting one of the purple candles of our Advent wreath and then read passages of scripture that reflect on the theme of Hope.  Reading Old Testament scriptures about the hoped-for Messiah on the First Sunday of Advent helps recreate the anticipation that people felt before Jesus’ birth even as we look forward to the excitement of Christmas Eve.  But reading New Testament scriptures as well as passages from the Book of Mormon also helps us focus on the hope that we have in Christ in our lives today, as well as causing us to look forward to his Second Coming.
Passages we read together as a family on the First Sunday of Advent include the following:
  • Isaiah 61:1–2
  • Jacob 4:4–5
  • Romans 5:1–5
  • Moroni 7:41
  • 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17
The first Sunday of Advent is when we set up our Nativity
I suggest that after discussing that week's theme families also consider reading each week one of the familiar parts of Luke 1 and Matthew 1 that lead up to the actual birth of Jesus.  This helps set the realization of the prophecies of Jesus' birth into the immediate context of their fulfillment, and it also adds to the excitement of the Christmas season as we join Zacharias and Elisabeth and then Mary and Joseph in their experiences.  For the first week of Advent, I recommend reading the Annunciation to Zacharias in Luke 1:5–17, focusing on how the promise of John the Baptist's birth revolved around how he would prepare the way of the Lord.             

The song almost always associated with the first Sunday of Advent is the haunting carol, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” which focuses on how the hope of Old Testament Israel was realized in Jesus Christ, who was “God with us” (see Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:22–23).

Happy Advent and Merry Christmas!

Being in the Holy Land this year, sending out Christmas cards or even that obnoxious creation, the ubiquitous holiday letter, is not really an option.  But being here and doing this blog has given us a chance to produce a Video Christmas Card, which features my family sending you greetings straight from Shepherds Field just north of Bethlehem:

Our family on the Mount of Olives with the Old City of Jerusalem in the background.

On an open hillside north of Bethlehem that is reminiscent of that first Shepherds Field

For some ten years now, our family has incorporated a modified form of Advent into our seasonal celebrations.  I wanted to share with you a short article on how this can keep Christ the focus of our holiday season that appeared Thanksgiving Day in the Mormon Times section of The Deseret News.  Each Sunday of Advent I will post a brief update with scriptures, readings, and song suggestions for that day.

From our family to you and yours, Happy Advent and Merry Christmas as we remember the Good Tidings of Great Joy that are what this season is all about.

The Huntsmans

Celebrating Advent
See Good Tidings of Great Joy, 16-17, and the Deseret News article in the Mormon Times for November 24, 2011.

               As we move from Thanksgiving into the Christmas season, it is easy for decorations, festivities, and, sadly, commercialism to dominate our holiday.  In reaction to this, many individuals and families look for ways to keep Jesus as the focus of their Christmas celebration.  For over ten years, our family has adopted the custom of celebrating Advent in an attempt to do just that.  While Advent is not a common LDS practice, we have found that adapting it to our needs and weaving LDS scriptures and teachings into this old celebration has made it a powerful teaching tool for our children and a warm new family tradition for all of us.

               Advent is an important tradition in Germany and Scandinavia as well as being part of the Christmas worship of many branches of Christianity, including the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, and Methodist churches.  The name “Advent” comes from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming, appearance, or presence.”  As early as Pope Gregory the Great (A.D. 590–604), Advent was established as a four week preparatory period that anticipated the celebration of the birth, or advent, of Christ as the Babe of Bethlehem.  But as observed today, Advent also celebrates Christ’s presence and importance in our lives now, and, just as importantly, looks forward to his future return in glory when he will reign as Lord of lords and King of kings.

               Although some Christian communities celebrate it differently, a common feature of the Advent celebration is the Advent wreath, a simple or decorated evergreen wreath with four candles set in the circle and perhaps a fifth, white candle set in the middle.  Traditionally three of the outer candles are purple, the color of royalty, celebrating the imminent coming of the Newborn King, while one of them is pink or rose-colored.  On the first Sunday of Advent, which this year is November 27, the first purple candle is lit.  On each subsequent Sunday an additional candle is lit until Christmas Eve, when the central candle is list as well.

               The lighting of the candles on each of the four Sunday leading up to Christmas Eve gives families an opportunity to gather for a Christmas devotional, taking a break from all of the other holiday festivities to focus on the true meaning of the season.  Although traditions differ regarding the symbolism of these candles, we have adopted one that sees these candles as representing the Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace that came because of the birth of Jesus Christ and which can continue to come into our lives today as we take the opportunity to turn to him during this joyful season.

               Traditionally those who celebrate Advent gather, either in their churches or as families in their homes, to read scriptures from the Old Testament that anticipate the birth of Jesus.  After reflecting upon these Advent themes they may then sing carols specifically written for the Advent season.  When our family gathers each Sunday of Advent, we use scriptures as well from the New Testament and the Book of Mormon.  We take some time to discuss that Sunday’s focus and reflect on how it applies to us, after which we sing any of our favorite Christmas carols that fit the day’s theme.  After our family prayer, we turn to other, lighter traditions such as sharing a Christmas treat, opening that day’s pocket in our Advent calendar, and listening to Christmas music.  Advent has thus become a cherished tradition in our family, one that helps us reflect on the true meaning of the season throughout the month.

               In some traditions, the central candle lit on Christmas Eve represents the Advent theme of Presence, indicating that just as Jehovah came to be with his people that first Christmas, he can be present in our lives now if we open our hearts to him.  Because we use many Book of Mormon passages in our Advent celebration, we have come to use that fifth candle for a new Advent theme, that of Salvation.  This is because every prophecy of the coming of Jesus in the Book of Mormon is also tightly linked to why the Son of God came into the world—to suffer, die, and rise again for us all.

Weekly Advent Updates

Each week of Advent, we will share the scriptures and carols that our family uses in our celebration of Advent.  Whether you choose to actually observe Advent yourself, we hope that these scriptures will provide you with a source of meaningful reflection this Christmas season.

Our own Thanksgiving

Although we had a Thanksgiving dinner with the students and the other center families as soon as we got home from Galilee on November 24, our family celebrated our own Thanksgiving in our apartment the next day as soon as I finished with work.  It gave us a chance to celebrate the holiday as we do at home with our own family around the table with all of our accustomed foods and traditions.  Elaine really outdid herself---it was hard work (and expensive) getting a turkey and many of the foods that are not common here.  But it was worth it, especially when Samuel said afterwards that "This was the best Thanksgiving ever!"

First a slightly little video collage and then some pictures from the day:

My (first) plates

Rachel's plate

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Haifa, Mount Carmel, Caesarea, and Home for Thanksgiving

Galilee, Day 11 (11/24/11): Our Galilee Rotation ended as we checked out of the hotel at En Gev Kibbutz and drove to Haifa, the third largest city in Israel.  Located at a strategic point where Mount Carmel juts into the sea, forming a protected bay right where the Jezreel Valley opens up, Haifa is the largest and most important port in Israel.

Below is today's highlights video:

Our objective in Haifa was the German Templar Cemetery, which lies behind a British military cemetery that houses the dead who helped seize Palestine from the Turks. The German Templars were a millennialist German denomination that began to settle in the Holy Land about 1850, bringing advancements in agriculture and technology to Palestine.  Early LDS Missionaries in what was then the Turkish mission came to Haifa, primarily to work with resident European Christians like the Templars.  Two of these young LDS missionaries, Elders Clark and Haag, died while in the Holy Land, and their graves, which we visited, are there in the Templar Cemetery.  Also buried there are two early converts, Georg and Magdalena Grau.  It was very moving listening to Andy Skinner recount their missions and read a letter from Elder Clark to his loved ones at home in Draper, Utah.

The Templar Cemetery lies behind this WWI military cemetery
The Templar graves are marked with stones bearing Bible verses in German or other touching dedications.
The broken column of Elder Clark's grave symbolizes a life cut off early

Elder Haag's grave

The grave of Magdalena Grau, the wife of the first German convert in Haifa
As we left Haifa, we drove up onto the Carmel Ridge.  As we drove, we saw over the edge the complex of the Baha'i.  A religion that grew out of Islam in Persia in mid-nineteenth century.  It focuses on the unity of mankind and all religions.  One of its founders is buried here in Haifa and the other in Acco.

The Tomb of the Bab, or "Herald," of the Baha'i religion
Driving farther along the Carmel ridge, we came to the Carmelite Monastery that commemorates the Prophet Elijah's contest with the priests of Ba'al.  After watching the other class reenact the scene in a funny role play, we entered the complex, where the custodian allowed us to go into the small chapel and sing.  We sang three reverent hymns, which sounded beautiful in the acoustics of that small space: "Where Can I Turn for Peace?" "More Holiness Give Me," and "Father in Heaven."

The student reenactment of Elijah's contest

Statue commemorating Elijah

The inside of the chapel where we sang
Many visitors gathered in the doorway of the small chapel and just outside to listen to us sing, and in an amazing coincidence one of them was a man named David Galasso, who was a friend of Craig Jessop, formerly the music director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  His wife, when she heard us sing, ran up onto the roof where there is an overlook, and said that there was a group in the chapel "singing like angels."  He came down, listened from the door, and asked one of the students if they knew or had sung with Craig Jessop.  The student directed Mr. Galasso to me, and we had a great visit.  He had sung with Dr. Jessop under Robert Shaw.

We then went on to the roof and read the account of Elijah and the prophets of Ba'al from 1 Kings 18.  We talked about modern instances of "halting between two opinions," and I also brought in Alma 5, pointing out how important that it is that we are truly, and individually, converted . . . and we have felt so once, to feel so again.  From the roof overlook, there were stunning views of the Jezreel Valley.

Our last site of the day was Caesarea, the city on the coast that Herod the Great transformed into a busy port and the most important Greco-Roman city in his kingdom.  Later it became the capital of the Roman province of Judea, and it was here that Cornelius became the first Gentile convert baptized.  Paul was held here for two years and tried before appealing to Caesar and being sent to Rome.

With my students in the heavily renovated theater in Caesarea

Remains of Herod's palace

The hippodrome

Student races in the hippodrome

Baths at Caesarea

The Cardo or main street

The platform on which Herod built a temple to Augustus
When we arrived home to the Jerusalem Center, we found it all decorated for Christmas.  And in the Oasis we had a Thanksgiving feast.  Our family is going to do its own Thanksgiving tomorrow in our apartment with all of our traditional foods, but the kitchen staff did a good job of approximating the American holiday for us today.  I hope that the mothers of my students in particular will watch the video clip, since their children all say hello to them in it!

Ahmed carving the turkey

Rachel, um, came to the diner as a turkey

Here she sadly contemplates the dilemma of a turkey eating turkey