Two weeks ago, the Rev. Mark Krieger and his wife, Lori, were in what is believed to be the tomb where Jesus Christ was buried. The fact that it's empty, and the memories of visiting other places where their savior walked and talked to his disciples, makes today a special Easter Sunday for the couple.
"You get a feel for what (the tomb) looked like," Mark Krieger said. "That and going to the place in Jerusalem where Jesus likely was held by the Roman guards, and where he was probably flogged and kept when he was on trial, gave me a greater appreciation of the sacrifice that Jesus endured for us.
"It's all underground now, but the stones on the ground are where the soldiers mocked Jesus and where he endured the suffering. It was real powerful being in that place, knowing this is where Jesus suffered and died for us. It was very personal in a unique way."
He'll share insights from his trip with his congregation at Modesto Covenant Church on this, the holiest day of the year for Christians around the world. The Kriegers saw evidence of that worldwide faith when they were in the ornate Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which most biblical experts agree was built over the sites of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus.
"It was neat going to that church and thinking, wow, (Christianity) has spread from there all the way to the four corners of the world," Lori Krieger said. "Just seeing all these people from different places -- Russians, Polish people, Koreans, Americans -- all coming to the place where Jesus died and rose. It was amazing just thinking of all these people coming here to worship God and having that faith at home."
The trip, a gift from their congregation, deepened the Kriegers' already-deep faith, they said.
"I feel like being there added another sense to your five senses," Lori said. "It's hard to explain unless you've been there, but it adds a whole new insight to Scripture. Knowing what it looks like, the vegetation, the smells, where Jesus walked. It's interesting. It gives you a whole different aspect as you read the Scriptures."
"One person whose book I read as we were preparing to go said the Holy Land is like the fifth Gospel," Mark added. "In the four Gospels, you read about Jesus, but in this fifth Gospel, this is another way of experiencing Jesus."
The couple toured the Galilee area in the north, where the Bible says Jesus spent his childhood and later returned with his disciples, as well as Jerusalem with its Temple Mount -- site of King Solomon's temple, which now features the Muslim's gold-topped Dome of the Rock mosque. The area is considered sacred and can be a point of contention among Jews, Muslims and Christians.
Galilee 'felt like home'
Lori especially enjoyed the region near the Sea of Galilee.
"It looked a lot like California," she said. "It had the same kind of wildflowers, same kind of agriculture -- almond trees and olive trees. I kind of felt comfortable. I felt like I was home. I think some of it was all of these stories that I've read my whole life. They just felt so close to me. Like, 'Ah, I'm here; I'm home.' It just felt right."
Mark also enjoyed a stop there, the site where tradition says Jesus in his resurrected body comes to his disciples and restores Peter to his calling of discipleship. The story points back to the evening of Jesus' arrest, when the disciple infamously repudiated Jesus three times.
"They believe it's the place where Jesus restored Peter because of the fish that are there and there's a church there," Mark said. "Our seminary professor talked about Jesus making a charcoal fire and asking Peter, 'Do you love me?' (The professor) made the point that there's only two places in the New Testament where it talks about a charcoal fire. One is the place where Jesus restores Peter, and the other is at the place where Peter denies Jesus three times.
"When Jesus rose from the dead, he wanted to enter into relationship with Peter and restore Peter and enable him for leadership. That was kind of neat, too, to think that Jesus would seek out his disciple."
The theme of repetition and similar sites intrigued Lori, she said.
"I thought about the unity of the Old Testament and the New Testament, and all of the old Jewish traditions and how it flowed so much into what Jesus taught," she said. "Before I went there, I didn't realize Abraham had gone to sacrifice Isaac on what's now the Temple Mount. And it was just near there where Jesus sacrificed himself, where he died for our sins. Just that imagery was amazing.
"Another neat thing is where Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River; it's also where Joshua brought the people (after their exodus from Egypt) into the promised land. I kind of had chills when I stood there. This is where Jesus was baptized and the Holy Spirit came down."
Small space for history
The close proximity of biblical sites surprised the Kriegers.
"Think of the distance from here (Modesto) to Lake Tahoe," Mark said. "When you travel from Galilee to Jerusalem, it's only a couple of hours. And then the wilderness is just beyond that. So in the distance from here to Lake Tahoe, everything happened that changed the world. It's amazing to think about that."
Visiting museums and seeing some of the archaeological finds helped prove Scripture, the Kriegers said.
"People were trying to discount that Jesus could have fit in a boat with all the disciples," Lori said. "They didn't think they made boats big enough to fit 12 disciples and Jesus. Then in the 1980s or '90s, they unearthed a boat from that time period that could easily fit that many people."
"Yes," Mark added. "Apparently the water level in the Sea of Galilee was low and some wood was sticking out of the mud, and they discovered this ancient boat from the first century. It was a big deal, how they got it out without it falling apart. "
Traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem was a highlight for Mark.
"As we were going through the hills going to Jerusalem, our (Jewish) guide said it would have been very dangerous in Jesus' day to go that way, with people hiding out along the way. She said people would have said psalms to themselves as they were going.
"It's interesting to read these psalms of ascent. One of them was Psalm 121: 'I will lift my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord.' They would read that as they were going up these hills. And then it talks about the Lord not letting your foot stumble and being your shade and all this stuff. As they climbed these treacherous hills, the heat of the sun would have been on them, and they would be saying, 'The Lord is our shade.' So now I read those psalms differently."
The most important lesson, Mark said, came at the tomb.
"Just being there and realizing that this is where Jesus' body was laid, and that he's no longer there. He's risen. We don't go to this place, even though it's a special place, to experience Jesus because he is alive. So while the Holy Land is special and unique, at the same time because of the resurrection, we can experience Jesus in Modesto, and everywhere, because he wasn't held by a tomb."
That's the message of Easter.
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or firstname.lastname@example.org.