Walking in the footsteps of Jesus along unpaved paths and over stone floors, President Gordon B. Hinckley revisited the most sacred of sites in the Holy Land.
The prophet was accompanied by his wife, Marjorie, during a stay in Israel June 16-22, that immediately followed their five-nation European visit. (See Church News, June 15, 1996.) President Hinckley spoke June 21 at a fireside in the BYU Jerusalem Center.Visiting each hallowed place – many now enclosed within churches – President and Sister Hinckley were told of the historical and scriptural background by their host, S. Kent Brown, outgoing director of the BYU Jerusalem Center. Afterward, they read scriptures and sang hymns.
They traveled to such places as Dan, ancient Israel's northern boundary; the ancient area of Megiddo; Nazareth, where Jesus was reared; the Sea of Galilee and Capernaum, sites of many miracles; Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount; and the River Jordan, where He was baptized.
In the Jerusalem area, President and Sister Hinckley visited the places of the Savior's birth in Bethlehem, shepherds fields outside Bethlehem, Lazarus' Tomb, the Old City of Jerusalem, the Upper Room, Garden of Gethsemane, Golgotha, and the Garden Tomb.
The energetic president also traveled to Masada, an ancient Jewish fortress; the Dead Sea; and Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.
The prophet walked the Holy Land with reverence and was often reflective. One such occasion came at shepherds field outside outside Bethlehem. As darkness approached and Muslim prayer calls were intoned over the hills from Bethlehem, the visitors held their own worship as they sang, "O Little Town of Bethlehem." A herd of sheep tended by a young Arab shepherd crossed the hilltop at dusk.
The following day in Jerusalem, President and Sister Hinckley walked through a narrow, walled lane to reach the Garden of Gethsemane. The garden is located at the foot of the Mount of Olives, and crowded by vendors selling souvenirs at its gates. The garden's ancient trees are fenced; a church has been built over the stone where tradition has it the Redeemer bled from every pore.
Seated beneath a nearby olive tree in quiet contemplation, President Hinckley read of the Savior's suffering for all mankind.
President and Sister Hinckley visited the Garden Tomb in the freshness of the morning. Lining the walks were flowers, watered from a millennia-old stone cistern. The garden is believed by many to include part of the hill of Golgotha, near the crucifixion site, as well as the tomb where the resurrection occurred.
While sitting in the garden, President Hinckley became emotional as he read scriptures of the Savior's resurrection.
After visiting sites in the Holy Land, President Hinckley spoke June 21 at the BYU Jerusalem Center fireside. He summarized his impressions:
"Jerusalem is celebrating its 3,000th year," he said. "This is a tremendously significant place; there is no place like Jerusalem. It is unique. I suppose there is more history in Jerusalem than perhaps any other place on earth.
"There is no place in the world where there has been so much of conflict going on through all ages since we had any record." President Hinckley said he had been told that Jerusalem has been taken captive by a foreign power some 20 or 25 times. "There has been so much blood spilled here, so much of human suffering, so much of slavery from the past, so much of conquest; a land of pitiless conquerors."
He said, "As I think about all of that bloody and terrible history of human suffering, I think of the majesty of the Son of God, the tremendous, wonderful majesty of the Redeemer of the world, Jesus of Nazareth, He who was born in a manger in Bethlehem, Judea. According to the vision of Nephi, as recorded in the 11th chapter of 1 Nephi, it was He who had been the Firstborn of the Father, He who had been the Chosen, who stood at His Father's side, He who had been Jehovah, Creator of the earth, condescended to come to mortal life in a manger under the humblest of circumstances in this place of so much of bitterness. I don't know where else He could have been born that would have represented greater condescension on the part of God.
"He deigned, as it were, to leave His celestial courts on high and come here and be reared here as a boy, walk the dusty roads of this land, to know the temptations of Satan, to be baptized in Jordan's waters to fulfill all righteousness, to come as a master teacher."
President Hinckley continued, "We were on the Mount of Beatitudes the other day, as many of you have been. The Sermon on the Mount – what a revolutionary thing it was to do good to them that hate you. . . ."
He said that the vision of Nephi that speaks of the condescension of God has been "going through my mind all the time that I have been here. From the celestial majesty to the dust, as it were, of the stable; to the hatred, to the pain of the cross on Calvary's hill – this is the story of the Son of God who gave His life for each of us.
"I can't understand the fullness of the Atonement. I think it to be beyond the capacity of any human to understand the full meaning and implications of the atonement of Jesus Christ.
"When we were at Gethsemane today, we went across the street into that garden and sat in the shade and read the scripture. I think of His plea to His Father, when He sweat drops of blood in His agony. . . ."
The Savior asked if it were possible that there could be some other way, said President Hinckley. "I think it was more than the certainty of the crucifixion that weighed on Him," he continued. "It was His place in the whole eternal plan of God concerning the immortality and eternal life of man. It was the whole matter and purpose of the creation of the earth, of the peopling of the earth, of the divine plan. . . .
"His great message was a two-fold message of love and peace in an atmosphere of hatred and conflict. Love and Peace. In that final great gathering in the upper room at the feast of the Passover, He spoke out of the depths of His heart, to those he loved.
"It was so remarkable in terms of the environment in which He lived. There were others who taught the Golden Rule. There were others who taught great concepts of love and peace. But here is One who taught with great power and then sealed that teaching with His very life."
President Hinckley concluded: "If there is anything this troubled world needs, it is the message of the Lord Jesus Christ. I give you my testimony, my dear beloved associates, that God our Eternal Father lives, and He was the author of the grand plan under which all must come.
"There is nothing we can do that is more important than to listen to that which He has said, and follow it. If we are disciples of His, there cannot be conflict in our hearts, there cannot be jealousy, there cannot be meanness, there cannot be any of those things. We must stand a little taller, a little higher, and walk in the direction that He pointed. He asked us to be perfect, even as our Father in Heaven is perfect.
"None of us is perfect. He was the only perfect man to walk the earth, but we are to follow His example."