The Land He Loved

by Richard M. Romney

Assistant Editor

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    The lessons were plain yet insightful, describing the elements essential in the refined spiritual character.

    “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

    “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

    “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

    “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness.” (Matt. 5:3–6.)

    The young Latter-day Saints, participants in a BYU study abroad program, sat on a hill thought to be the site where Christ delivered the Sermon on the Mount. They read again the words of the Master Teacher.

    “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

    “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

    “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” (Matt. 5:7–9.)

    The students thought deeply as they read, the thoughts and images of their stay in the Holy Land flooding through their minds.

    “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.” (Matt. 5:14.)

    This indeed was the land where the Savior taught and walked and healed and slept and preached and ate. And having lived in the land, these young people now grasped the lessons more keenly with each reading. Their understanding of Christ’s ministry expanded to include the events of the Messiah’s entire lifetime.

    One young man, who had lived and worked on a kibbutz, remembered standing on a hill near the farm, looking out toward where Joseph and Mary came to be taxed, then turning to look at the outskirts of Jerusalem, knowing that to the center and north of that city Christ was tortured, scorned, and crucified, and that there he rose from the dead. A young woman sitting nearby quietly wept tears of joy as she remembered her own glorious growth from skepticism to investigation to testimony, a journey of increasing commitment that led her to be baptized in the River Jordan, somewhere near the spot where the Savior himself received the ordinance at the hand of John the Baptist.

    It was easy to look out on the Sea of Galilee and imagine the storm brewing, the clouds boiling, the waters churning, the fear of the men in the boat, and the calm of their leader who, roused from sleep, commanded the very elements, “Peace, be still.”

    It was natural to remember the impressive view at the Dome of the Rock, when the setting sun gilds the walls of an entire city, and how another scripture, a lament, had gilded itself in deeper meaning:

    “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” (Matt. 23:37.)

    Even the blistering work in the banana fields or the sweaty toil of hoisting and sifting dirt and stone at an excavation site had been enriching when considered in light of the Savior’s words, “For the workman is worthy of his meat” (Matt. 10:10).

    And there were memories of cultures mixing in the narrow cobblestone streets—bagels for sale, candied almonds, plastic toys, vegetables, leather goods, even goats’ heads displayed at sidewalk stands. A veiled woman bickered with a meat vendor over the price of a chicken as an Arab merchant cried, “Eteone! Eteone!” to attract customers for the hard rolls he carried in a tray on his head. The top ten Arabian hits blared from a transistor radio; then a Moslem chanted from a minaret, beckoning his people to prayer. Bells in an Armenian convent would chime as an Orthodox Jew in his long black coat wended his path to the Wailing Wall.

    And what about the merchant in the old section of town who quietly asked, “Are you BYU students?” Who would ever forget the surprise of being recognized, and the lesson of his words: “It is easy to tell. You are nice people, and here it is easy for us to see.”

    Who could forget the white-robed Samaritans crouched on mats at the top of Mount Gerazim to celebrate the Passover sacrifice, or the head priest at the Samaritan sanctuary at Nablus, showing the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) claimed to be 3,500 years old? And for one young woman, the memory of kneeling next to wheat harvesters in a field in Israel will forever reinforce one of the strongest images of the New Testament:

    “[He] will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable” (Luke 3:17).

    Most of these events, of course, were recorded in personal journals, where years from now sons and daughters will reread tales of singing “I Am a Child of God” at an orphanage near where tradition says the Lord was born of Mary; stories of seeing mounds of salt while swimming in the Dead Sea; or details of the impression left from a visit to the sort of tomb from which Jesus called Lazarus out of death into life.

    “Each of us has grown in some way, according to our needs and personalities,” one student wrote. “We have helped and loved and lifted one another. We have seen weaknesses turned to strengths, confusion dispelled by understanding, doubt transferred into joy. Elder Thomas S. Monson visited us and bore testimony of the divinity of Christ. He said how fortunate we were to be here and to study the scriptures in such a special setting.

    “Now it is our last week here, and our thoughts are drawn to the Savior and his last week on earth. Where did he go? What did he do? What precious spots did he linger over? We are following his footsteps and tracing the last important acts of his mortal life. I walked from Bethany to Jerusalem and felt his spirit here. I visited Gethsemane, where the Savior of mankind faced his ordeal alone. I stood at Caiaphas’s palace; I saw the Antonio Fortress where Pilate questioned the Lord and sentenced him to death. Back and forth we traced Christ’s course, which led finally to Calvary, then to the quiet peace of the Garden Tomb.

    “We sang, ‘He Is Risen,’ and my eyes filled with tears in gratitude for what the Savior did for me.

    “‘Ye seek Jesus, which was crucified.

    “‘He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.’ (Matt. 28:5–6.)

    “Wherever we go, for the rest of our lives, the spirit of his land has touched us and left us forever changed, and the reality of his resurrection and continuing ministry remains with us as surely as our knowledge that he lives.”

    These thoughts, and others like them, kept filling the minds and hearts of the small group gathered at a place where centuries before a man from Nazareth, the Son of God, instructed his disciples. The young Saints knew that Christ’s sermons, which built and edified those listening as he spoke, still continue to build and edify those who study his lessons today. But they also recognized that the land he so loved had become a part of them, and that their experience would help them to comprehend the Lord’s mortal ministry in a fuller, more sensitive way.

    Photos by Floyd Holdman

    Clockwise from top: city on a hill in Hebron; farmers plowing Judean fields; reading on the Mount of Beatitudes

    Clockwise: a street near where Christ carried the cross; gleaning in Beersheba; the Dome of the Rock; a Jew at the Wailing Wall

    Clockwise: swimming in the Dead Sea; the Garden of Gethsemane; fields near Bethlehem; exploring Hezekiah’s Tunnel