Tuesday, 15 May 2018

The High King

I was going to simply write something about the experience of celebrating the Ascension at the place where it happened. But I am grieved by yesterday's massacre of Palestinians at the Gaza border and by the triumphalist theatrics accompanying the new American embassy here in Jerusalem, so I'm bringing that into my musings.

Unlike those parts of the world where the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus is transferred to the Sunday, we celebrated it on the Thursday, its proper day. I went up there by bus, because I was going with someone for whom the climb up the Mount of Olives would be too much. And the fact that Jesus chose to ascend from a high place is not insignificant in itself, because He could just as easily have ascended from down in the valley. Because the disciples were able to travel the first bit of the Ascension with Him, it reminds us that we are also on our way up to heaven - we're just taking a bit longer about it.

The Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives was taken over by the Muslims centuries ago; but this once a year they allow us to celebrate Masses there. I was there for the main Mass, celebrated by the Franciscans of the Holy Land. I hadn't arranged to concelebrate; but as it turned out there wouldn't have been room for me anyway, because all the concelebrants had to pile into the small chapel, leaving the rest of us out in the courtyard. As it turned out, however, I appreciated being under the open sky while we remembered Jesus going up to heaven. In fact, in Byzantine times the chapel was open to the sky.

Many homilies/sermons on the Feast of the Ascension dwell on the fact that Jesus going into heaven was not a going away from us, but in fact making Himself available to all. As I once heard it put, if Jesus had stayed on earth, we'd only get to speak to Him by phoning His secretary for an appointment!

In ancient thinking, the heavens were not a place disconnected from earthly affairs, but rather a place to have influence on earthly affairs. "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me," Jesus said to the apostles (Matt 28:18). Everything and everyone comes under his kingship.

Which brings me to the political and tragic situations here in the Holy Land. As with any other cases of death and suffering caused by human injustice and hatred, it is hard to see where in all this Jesus is exercising His kingship. But as He said to Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, My servants would fight to prevent My arrest"(John 18:36). Which is not say that His kingdom does not include this world, but that it is not the worldly kind. Kingdoms and nations as we know them keep order by force; but Jesus eschews that. Even now, with all His authority in heaven and on earth, He does not forcefully bring an end to war, nor does He correct unjust political situations. Even now, it seems, His approach is the same as it was on the Cross - to let it all happen and thus transform it. In all these things, the Resurrection is our only hope.

God is not uninterested in political situations. It is part of His will for us that we should work together for the common good, and through the prophets He is critical of injustice and of failure to help the poor. St Paul tells us, however, that when God determined the boundaries of the nations, it was "so that men would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him"(Acts 17:27).

From the perspective of eternity, nations and political systems barely exist. But human souls are immortal, and they are the primary interest of our High King. He works in the souls of those who make peace and who love their enemies. That is where His kingdom is growing, and we can see glimpses of it in the acts of goodness and kindness amongst the evil and suffering.

To conclude, in the context of yesterday's massacre at the Gaza border, I am reminded of
something from "The Last Battle" by C. S. Lewis: in the scene where the inhabitants of Narnia's world all come up to the stable door, where they either go in or shy away in fear from Aslan, it is briefly mentioned that one of the people who goes in was a dwarf who had participated in a massacre of the Talking Horses.

Musings, just sorrowful, incomplete musings. I have some related musings about "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar...", which will appear in the not too distant future.

Friday, 11 May 2018

The call of the desert

The patient beast that bore the
burden known as Brother Paul
The best experiences are often the unexpected ones. Like when one of the Salesians contacted me with the question, "Paul, are you doing anything this Sunday?"... That's how I found myself on a bus with a load of Filipinos going down to the Negev desert near Beersheva. They needed a priest to accompany them on their day-trip and celebrate Mass for them after a camel ride, and how could a dutiful Capuchin refuse such a pious request?

The country slowly got drier as we went south, and after a couple of delays (one of them caused by half the bus deciding to make use of a checkpoint's solitary toilet) we arrived at the camel ranch a little way outside the town of Dimona. I'm pretty sure that the animals we were introduced to were technically dromedaries; but the owners consistently referred to them as camels, so that's what I'll call them as well.

Having got us all mounted, the rancher and his crew led us off along one of the ancient camel trials, for a back-and-forth ride of about an hour. At a couple of points we stopped and circled the camels so that he could explain some things about the beasts and about the land. On one of these occasions he cheekily asked me if I'd read the Bible.

The camel is traditionally called 'the ship of the desert', which I think is not just because they are such a naturally effective form of transport across the desert, but also because of the swaying motion which might make one seasick. I felt comfortable enough; but I was kind of saddle-sore for a few days afterwards - and that was after only an hour's ride.

Once we were back at the ranch, we retired to a picnic area where we celebrated Mass,
The 'roof' of our desert 'church'
under the curious gaze of the pregnant camels in their stable next to us. It was a beautiful place under a tree (the ranch is in a kind of oasis) and of course it's significant that the priesthood of the Old Covenant was instituted in the desert. I preached about how the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city, but in between the story often passes through the desert. The Israelites and many key individuals (including of course Jesus Himself) spent time in the desert. It's an important environment to meet God, because distractions are reduced and you also become more aware of your smallness and neediness before the Almighty Creator. We all need to find our own 'desert' for this personal meeting with God; but the story is not supposed to end there, because the next stage is to meet God incarnate, to meet Him in human beings.

We did, of course, return to the city, and not just any city but the iconic city of Jerusalem, a reminder of the new Jerusalem where the Bible story ends. But before that we had a shared lunch and time to explore a bit - including a walk up a nearby hill to survey the stark beauty of the land.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018


Given their significance, it's remarkable that the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered less than 72 years ago. And given that the Bedouin who found the scrolls and those to whom they initially showed the scrolls didn't realise what an amazing find they were, we can be thankful that they survived to inform our understanding of the Bible and of Jesus' times.

Looking down at Qumran from a cave
in the hill above, with the Dead Sea in
the distance
The site where the scrolls were found, and which also turned out to be the location of a long-lost Jewish 'monastery', is called Qumran, and we visited it on the way back from Masada (see my previous post). Although also on a plateau, Qumran is considerably lower down than Masada, being more on a foothill of the mountains that surround the Dead Sea.

As with Masada, the desert location makes it impressive that a large community of people could live in such a landscape. It's all the more impressive in the case of Qumran, because the Essenes living there were a Jewish sect for whom ritual purifications were a very important part of life. So in addition to needing water for drinking and agriculture, they also needed a constant supply of water for their baths. In these lower reaches of the mountains, however, there begin to be more springs, as the water that seeped into the limestone of central Israel and Palestine finds it way out again. Still, the Essenes needed to make the most of what was available.

Note the steps going down into this ritual bath and the steps going out on the other side - a similar design to the baptismal fonts of early Christianity

The comparative inhospitableness of the place was an advantage for the Essenes, in that they wanted to separate themselves from the corruption (as they saw it) of mainstream Judaism at the time. The sect seems to have emerged as a result of the Temple priests compromising with the political powers. Calling them a 'sect' might give the impression that they were a small group; but although the Qumran community itself was fairly small, the Essene movement in general was a big presence in the Judaism of Jesus' time. This factor is one of the things that makes the Dead Sea Scrolls so significant.

The caves, as seen from Qumran itself,
in which most of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found

The scrolls include, for example, a liturgical calendar that differs somewhat from the 'official' calendar of the Temple in Jerusalem, and some difficulties with the chronology of the Gospels can be solved if Jesus celebrated Passover according to this Essene dating. This seems all the more likely now that we have also found that the traditional site of the Last Supper is in what was the Essene quarter of Jerusalem.

This would not be to say that Jesus was an Essene (nor even that John the Baptist was, although the similarities are stronger in his case). He clearly differed from that sect in various ways: most obviously in that the Essenes were keen on separating themselves from the 'unclean', whereas Jesus was noted for associating freely with 'sinners', etc. But the common threads with groups like the Essenes or the Pharisees help us to realise more deeply that the Gospel didn't emerge from nowhere - God had prepared His people for it.

Another significant element of the Dead Sea Scrolls is the collection of Biblical texts, including a complete scroll of the Prophet Isaiah. These are by far the oldest documents of Scripture that we have, and their similarity with the later texts give all the more credence to the reliability of the Bible's transmission through the centuries.

Coming down to Qumran from the hills behind it

The ruins of the Essene 'monastery'

The wadi leading down to the caves

Thursday, 3 May 2018

A desert fortress

This is my first post in quite a while, but that's because I've been particularly itinerant since Easter Week, and so I have various little adventures to update you on, dear reader. To start with, there was a trip to Masada and Qumran: this post is about the former place, and it'll be followed by a post about Qumran.

Herod the Great built many fortresses up and down the land, but probably his most impressive was the large fortress of Masada, on a mountaintop overlooking the Dead Sea. One of the oddities of that part of the world, however, is that the peak of this mountain is only about 30 metres above normal sea level, although it towers hundreds of metres above the plain.
Looking back down from the cable car
Masada is mainly remembered as the last holdout of the Jewish Zealot revolt against the Romans, which is usually considered as ending with the capture of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, although Masada was taken two or three years later. Given how it ended, with the remaining Zealots in Masada killing themselves when it became inevitable that the Romans would take the fortress, I was slightly surprised at first that it's the place where Israeli soldiers come to take their oath. I didn't like to think that they were upholding the tragic folly and eventual suicide of their forebears as a good example for their military. Apparently, however, the thinking is something like, "This is where a previous attempt at an independent Jewish state finally failed; we won't let it fail this time." Nonetheless, many Israelis do see the story as one "of courage, heroism, and martyrdom" (which is not a reading I would endorse).
In the centre of this photo you can see some of the ramp that the Romans built
to reach the walls of the fortress - a massive undertaking.
In the intervening centuries, the site has been largely unused. But in Byzantine times there was a church and a small community of monks living there. The story is told that they had a vegetable garden down near the Dead Sea (presumably in a place where there was a spring) and a donkey who would fetch vegetables from there. All they had to do was put the saddle-bags on the donkey and by itself it would walk down the steep, winding path to the plain, where the gardener would load the bags, and then it would faithfully go back up to the mountaintop to the monks. I hope it got a good share of the vegetables in return for its efforts.

Here follow some other photographs of the place.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Walking to Emmaus

On Easter Monday, along with a group of more than thirty other people of various nationalities, I walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Unlike Cleopas and the other disciple on the original occasion, however, we got the bus back to Jerusalem.

I say that we walked to Emmaus; but perhaps I should say we walked to an Emmaus. Because there are no less than three places claiming to be the original Emmaus. This one, however, is the furthest away - about 30km - so at least we couldn't be accusing of skimping it. It's called Emmaus Nicopolis, and is under the care of the Community of the Beatitudes.

Quite apart from the Biblical significance of the walk (see Luke 24:13-35), much of it was through beautiful and rugged countryside. (The following photos only show the group from behind, because I was appointed as the rearguard, or 'back traffic' as Student Crossers would say.)

Just like Jesus broke bread with the disciples in Emmaus, so when we had finally arrived there we celebrated the Eucharist, along with many other people who hadn't walked but still wanted to remember that important Resurrection appearance nearly two thousand years ago. And then, as previously noted, we went back to Jerusalem by bus.

Looking back to the beginning of the walk, I ought to mention that as we came out from the Jaffa Gate we met a man who asked where we were going. When I told him that we were walking to Emmaus and that it was about 30km, he spontaneously decided to join us, just as he was. And he did in fact walk the whole way, in his suit and shoes. It was only the next day that it occurred to me that he might have been Jesus, just casually tagging along with his disciples.

The Great Three Days

Although I am only halfway through my time in Jerusalem, it's probably safe to say that one of the best things about being here is commemorating the Death and Resurrection of Jesus in the very place they happened. The surrounding Jewish culture also provides an enlightening context, being in significant ways similar to the culture in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. In particular, this year the celebrations of Passover and Easter came together very well. The account of the Passion in John's Gospel seems to imply that the Day of Passover fell on a Saturday that year, and that was the timing we had this year.

Holy Thursday
First up, however, was the celebration of the Last Supper. Unlike the other major events, we couldn't celebrate Mass in the actual place, because the Upper Room is under Israeli control and they only allow occasional prayer services there. There was such a prayer service in the afternoon - but another problem is that the space is comparatively small and I was stuck outside with a large crowd of others. Still, I got to go in afterwards and even getting to visit the place of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday was special in itself. (NB. The original building unsurprisingly no longer exists, but it seems pretty likely that the current building was erected on the same site as the Upper Room of the Last Supper and Pentecost.)

Backtracking a little, it was in the morning that I went to Mass of the Lord's Supper in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Yes, it's odd timing; but unfortunately all the Triduum services there had to be held in the mornings, due to the fossilized arrangements with the other Christian churches that share the place. We combined Mass of the Lord's Supper with the Chrism Mass, which at least was at its proper time, so the washing of feet and the renewal of priestly vows both took place in the same celebration, which is not inappropriate.

It's also not inappropriate that we commemorated the institution of the Eucharist in front of the Tomb, the place of the Resurrection, because the Sacrament is life-giving precisely because of the Resurrection.

The Archbishop's homily and also some photos of the occasion are available here.

In order to satisfy my preference for liturgy at the proper time, however, and also because I like to experience Mass in a language I understand, I also went to an English celebration of the Lord's Supper at Ecce Homo Basilica in the evening. I did similarly on the other days, meaning that I effectively had a double Triduum.

Good Friday
This was quite a full day, starting with Tenebrae at 5am, then Commemoration of the Lord's Passion at Mount Calvary (in the Holy Sepulchre Church) at 8am, Way of the Cross at 11.30am, and Commemoration of the Lord's Passion at Ecce Homo at 3pm.

The 8am Commemoration was of course very significant for being in the right place, i.e. in the Calvary Chapel, built on the very rock (probably) where Jesus was crucified. Unfortunately the right place also had limited space, so once the main procession had gone up to the chapel there was a lot of pushing and shoving as other people tried to get their places there. I was seriously impressed by how many people did in fact manage to fit up there (and I openly speculated that maybe the chapel had TARDIS-like properties); but I was content to wait down in the main body of the church along with the greater part of the congregation, "watching from a distance"(Matt 27:55). We could only follow part of what went on up in the chapel (luckily they sung the Passion narrative, which meant we could hear that). I looked around at the people gathered from many nations and languages, all of us peering up at Mount Calvary, not entirely following what was happening, but knowing we had to be there, before our dying Lord in solidarity and in supplication.

The Way of the Cross was similar to those that take place every Friday, except that the numbers were greater and the atmosphere more sombre. The weather was cooperating with the liturgical mood by being cold and wet - quite a surprise after a month of warm sunshine. And the impressive presence of heavily-armed Israeli police echoed (presumably unintentionally) the presence of the Roman soldiers at the original Way of the Cross.

Doubling up again, I went to the Commemoration at Ecce Homo, which was held in on the Lithostrotos - a Roman stone pavement in the basement. It's about a century too young to be the Gabbatha mentioned in John's Gospel. But its antiquity and the low stone arches of the space gave the service a catacomb atmosphere.

Probably the most important experience of Good Friday, however, came apart from the Christian liturgies. It was less than an hour after returning from the Ecce Homo commemoration of Jesus' death, and I heard horns sounding. At first I wondered if they were sirens warning us of, for example, a rocket attack from Gaza. But then I realised with a thrill that they were sounding the horns to mark the start of the Passover - just shortly after the slaying of the Lamb of God.

"Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the feast..."

Holy Saturday
The early timing of the Holy Sepulchre liturgies was especially odd on Saturday morning, given that we were celebrating the Lord's Resurrection about 12 hours too early. Someone did try to convince me that the celebration of the Easter Vigil at the Tomb in Jerusalem ought to precede even the celebrations in places like New Zealand, but I think that was just trying to make a virtue out of a necessity. One can either be upset by this liturgical incorrectness, or just be amused by it. I chose the latter, and enjoyed looking up at the bright blue sky, visible through the cupola above the Tomb, while the deacon sang, "This is the night..."

I was lucky enough to get a place close to the centre of the action this time. Theoretically we Capuchins weren't even supposed to be concelebrating; but some of the expected priests didn't turn up, so our Franciscan brethren kindly snuck us in at the last minute. As often happens in liturgical processions, "the last shall be first", and I ended up with a seat only a few metres away from the Archbishop. More importantly, of course, I was only a few metres away in the other direction from the place where Jesus rose from the dead. Which of course gave the whole celebration a special atmosphere. The Archbishop preached about the need to approach our 'tombs' without fear and with faith.

The rest of the day felt like a kind of half-Easter. I could hardly still be in Lent after the joyful celebration at the Holy Sepulchre; but force of habit and my liturgical sensibilities meant that I didn't feel like Easter had truly begun until the celebration of the Easter Vigil at Ecce Homo. This celebration began with the Easter fire on their rooftop terrace, with the stars above and views of the Mount of Olives and the Dome of the Rock.

"Now not day only shall be beloved, but night too shall be beautiful and blessed and all its fear pass away."

Postscript: Let us keep the feast
The coordination of Easter and Passover this year means that the Easter Octave and the Feast of Unleavened Bread are almost exactly coincident. This adds to the atmosphere - the city's streets and parks are full of festive Jews and Christians. I hope the Muslims don't feel too left out... or maybe they should.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Better Palm Sunday video and photos

If you have 9 minutes to spare, here's a better-quality video of the Palm Sunday procession:

There are also better-quality photographs on the Latin Patriarchate website, along with the text of the bishop's sermon.