Friday, 20 July 2018

The sorrowful pilgrimage

Now that we have visited the places associated with the joyful and the luminous mysteries, I want to guide you next through the sorrowful mysteries. These are the most geographically limited, only taking 1.3km from beginning to end, but of course their effects are without limit.

Gethsemane - the Agony in the Garden
There are two parts to modern Gethsemane: the part which is still a garden, and the part which has a church built on it. Given that we usually the associate the garden with darkness (actual and metaphorical), it can be quite a surprise to come upon it looking pretty in the sunshine. The gnarly olive trees, some of them up to 800 years old, try to look suitably foreboding; but the prevalent sun shining on flowers like hollyhocks and bougainvillea make the place actually rather pleasant. We don't know what it was exactly like 2000 years ago; but there's no reason to suppose it wasn't just as beautiful - a little consolation for the human nature of Jesus in His suffering.
The Garden of Gethsemane in late-afternoon sunshine

In a deliberate attempt to provide a grimmer atmosphere, the church is a darker space, with stained-glass windows that don't let much light through. In front of the altar is a large and mostly flat rock, which is supposed to be the place that Jesus prayed and sweated blood. When I had the privilege of celebrating a Mass there, for a group of American pilgrims, I attempted to startle them by saying that God is 'pro-choice'. But they didn't seem particularly perturbed as I went on to explain that God allowed the disciples to witness something of the agonising choice that Jesus made there in Gethsemane, thus implying the importance of the fact that He did freely choose to undergo His sufferings for our salvation. Behind this lies the mystery of the free will that God gave to all of us. It is the drama of every human story that we have the freedom to choose between good and evil, and it matters drastically which we choose.

Lions' Gate Road - the Scourging and the Crowning with Thorns
Leaving Gethsemane and crossing the top of the Kidron Valley, we come up a steep road to the Lions' Gate (thus named from the lions carved upon it) to enter the Old City of Jerusalem. With the Temple Mount to the left of us, we continue up the road until we reach the site of the Antonia fortress - one of the main Roman fortresses in Jerusalem and the traditional site for Christ's trial and condemnation before Pontius Pilate. The main part of the fortress to the left is covered by a Muslim school, but to the right is the Franciscan Monastery (sic) of the Flagellation.
East window of the Chapel of the Flagellation

Behind the altar of the church is a stained-glass window depicting the scourging of Jesus. This was a brutal method of punishment, intended to cause open wounds. The severity and duration of it could vary; but when it was a prelude to crucifixion, as in this case, the soldiers probably didn't hold back. Victims sometimes died just as a result of the blood loss.

The crowning with thorns probably happened in the same place as the scourging, so the third sorrowful mystery can also be commemorated in the Chapel of the Flagellation (there is a chapel in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that is dedicated to the crowning with thorns, but it definitely didn't take place there).
Ceiling of the sanctuary in the Chapel of the Flagellation

Painful though the crown of thorns would have been, an essential element to this mystery is the mockery. Apparently being taunted by the soldiers and others was a normal part of the process: punishments like crucifixion were a social, not just a physical annihilation. In the nearby Ecce Homo convent there is a Roman stone pavement (about one hundred years too late to be the one mentioned in John's Gospel, however) with engravings on the stones that some people link to the mocking games soldiers would play with the prisoners.

Via Dolorosa - Jesus carries His cross to Golgotha
These pilgrims are just
leaving the Fifth Station
From the Chapel of the Condemnation (also in the grounds of the Flagellation Monastery) to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is about 600m through the streets of the Old City. Not a long walk under normal circumstances; but of course an ordeal for someone who has already been scourged and lost a lot of blood and is expected to carry a big lump of wood. The route is marked at irregular intervals by chapels, or sometimes just a bronze plaque, for each traditional Station of the Cross. But because of changes in the buildings over the centuries, closing off the route at a couple of spots, the pilgrim has to back-track a little after both the eighth and ninth stations.

The stations probably don't correspond to the actual locations of the events. But it's instructive to note, for example, that Simon of Cyrene is commemorated just at the beginning of a long uphill stretch. It's also instructive how the normal life of the Old City continues more-or-less regardless as we follow our Stations of the Cross: shopkeepers carry on their business and people keep squeezing past the groups of pilgrims on their own way somewhere. It was probably much the same when Jesus and two criminals were being led off for execution.

Somewhere about the seventh station is where they would have passed out of the city walls on that first Good Friday, although it is now well within the current walls. Executions and burials had to be outside the city. But only a decade or so after the Crucifixion and Resurrection, King Agrippa expanded the city limits northwards, beginning the construction of what is called the Third Wall. After that, no more executions or burials took place where Jesus had been executed and buried.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre - the Crucifixion
Although the church as a whole is named after the Tomb of Jesus, it also contains the site of His death. Turn immediately right when you enter the church and go up the steep stairs to reach the Chapel of Calvary, which is built on the rocky outcrop where our Lord was crucified (it's not as big a hill as depicted in some films or paintings). The bedrock has been made visible on either side of the main altar in the chapel, and pilgrims can touch the rock through a hole underneath the altar.
The Chapel of Calvary
(note the bedrock visible under the glass either side of the altar)

This process of venerating the rock of Calvary (or Golgotha, to give it its Hebrew name) is slightly slowed down by the photo-taking tendencies of the modern pilgrim; but an attendant Orthodox monk keeps that under control and there is generally a much more reverential atmosphere about it than in, for example, the Grotto of the Nativity. Only a few steps away, in other parts of the chapel, people are milling around and guides are explaining things; yet it remains the most sombre place of pilgrimage in the Holy Land, as one would expect, and it's a good place to pray if you can find a spot to do so.

Christ's sufferings on the Cross lasted only a few hours; but in His Church He continues to suffer the wound of disunity, among other things. The main Chapel of the Crucifixion is under the care of the Greek Orthodox, while a few metres to the side of it is the Catholic Chapel of the Nailing to the Cross. The Armenian and Coptic Churches also have their stake in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, adding up to a certain counter-witness to the Gospel in the heart of Christendom. Relations between the Churches have improved in recent times; but we still have a long way to go to achieve the unity that Jesus prayed for before His Passion.

The marble slab marks the spot where Jesus' body was prepared for burial

Saturday, 14 July 2018

The luminous pilgrimage

Ready for the next stage of the Rosary Pilgrimage? Today we visit the places associated with the luminous mysteries of the rosary.

River Jordan - the Baptism of Jesus
It's about 1200m almost straight downhill from Jerusalem to the bottom of the Jordan Valley. The land gets rapidly drier as you pass into the rain shadow of the Judaean Mountains, and it's effectively desert before you get to "The Inn of the Good Samaritan", which is roughly halfway down the road. So when we're told that "all of Jerusalem" went out to John the Baptist at the Jordan (Mark 1:5), that involved crossing this desert. It wasn't a casual journey. But at least they didn't have to contend with the minefields that now block off most of the river - only one road leads through them to the Baptism site.

Looking across the Jordan to the pilgrims on the eastern side

Another difference from Bible times is that increasing water use by Israel, Palestine, and the Kingdom of Jordan has made the lower reaches of the Jordan River little more than a large drainage ditch. The resulting murky waters don't really communicate the idea of cleansing which is part of baptismal symbolism, and I for one did not feel inclined to take a dip. But many pilgrims do decide to re-enact or renew their baptism - and some are actually baptised here - so there are always at least a few white-robed people going into the water, either on the Palestinian or on the Jordanian side, if not both. One or two Israeli soldiers keep a discreet eye on what is, after all, an international border.

Although the cleansing significance of baptism is somewhat obscured, the significance of the location remains. As I have noted before, the fact that Jesus was baptised at the lowest point on Earth is quite symbolic. The proximity of Jericho also reminds us that it was around here that the Israelites crossed over the river into the Promised Land, after journeying in the desert.

Kafr K
anna - Jesus changes water into wine

A stone water jar
There is some dispute over the actual location of the town of Cana; but the current 'official' holder of the title (so long as you don't ask Lebanese Christians) is Kafr Kanna, only a few kilometres from Nazareth. Certainly it makes sense that it would be somewhere near Nazareth, given the presence of at least one Nazarene family at the wedding there.

There are two churches - one Catholic and one Orthodox - commemorating the miracle that Jesus worked at the wedding feast. I think neither church tries to claim that it's on the actual site of that party; the nearest they get to a direct link is that they both display first-century stone jars, as described in John's account of the event. Given that there were six of these jars and each jar held "twenty or thirty gallons"(John 2:6), it's possible to work out that Jesus 'produced' somewhere between 730 and 1,100 bottles of wine. So either it was a very big party or Jesus was being abundantly generous (I favour the latter interpretation).

The entrance to the Orthodox church is on the main road. The Catholic church is down a back street and is easier to miss; but you know you're getting near it when you see shops selling 'Cana wine'. Married couples on pilgrimage often renew their wedding vows in this church.

Capernaum and the Mount of the Beatitudes - the Proclamation of the Kingdom
When Jesus began His preaching ministry, He moved from Nazareth to make His base in Capernaum, on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee. It is specifically mentioned as the location for some events in the Gospels, including the healing of Simon Peter's mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-31). When you enter Capernaum now, the location of Peter's house is immediately apparent by the church poised above it like a UFO that has just landed. This slightly strange architecture is designed to leave the ancient ruins both intact and visible.

Not that there is a shortage of ancient ruins - large areas of the town have been excavated. It seems to have been only about 200m across, so it was probably not much of an exaggeration when we are told that "the whole city gathered around the door" of Peter's house (Mark 1:33).

Capernaum synagogue - the darker stones at the bottom
are the foundations of the synagogue that Jesus preached in

Standing out amongst the ruins is an impressive limestone synagogue. It was built in the fourth or fifth century; but at its base you can see the basalt foundations of the first-century synagogue - presumably the one in which Jesus preached. It was here, for example, that He identified Himself as the Bread of Life (John 6:24-59).

On one of my visits to Capernaum a storm from the east came across the Sea of Galilee, reminding us of the time Jesus calmed the wind and the waves.

The Sermon on the Mount, and the Beatitudes in particular, can be seen as manifesto or even a Constitution for the Kingdom of God, so the Mount of the Beatitudes is an alternative location for remembering the third luminous mystery. It's only a couple of kilometres along the Galilee coast from Capernaum.

A possible site of the Sermon on the Mount,
overlooking the Sea of Galilee

A church at the top of the hill, surrounded by beautiful gardens, commemorates the Beatitudes. But some think that Jesus actually gave His most famous sermon further down the hill, on a shelf of land that is high enough to fit Matthew's account of Jesus going "up on the mountain"(Matt 5:1), but also matches Luke's description whereby Jesus "came down and stood on a level place"(Luke 6:17). In any event, this location is among my favourites for its simple beauty and for the fact that a church hasn't been slapped on top of it, which makes it easier to imagine the original occasion. The space is big enough for a large crowd of people; but small enough that Jesus could be heard clearly, without a "Blessed are the cheese-makers" incident.

Mount Tabor - the Transfiguration
Standing somewhat apart from the other mountains of Galilee, Mount Tabor rises about 400m above the surrounding plain. Traditionally identified as the place of the Transfiguration, it certainly fits the description of "a high mountain [where they could be] apart by themselves"(Mark 9:2). I don't know what the vegetation was like in Gospel times; but now the mountain is mostly covered with trees, although they get a bit scrub-like towards the peak.

Buses and coaches are not normally allowed up the winding road to the top, so large groups of pilgrims have to be dropped off at a small bus station on the lower slopes, from where they can pile into the minibuses that shuttle up and down the mountain all day. Reasonably fit pilgrims with time on their hands can choose to emulate Jesus and the disciples and walk up instead - either along the road or by the footpath that goes straight up through the woods (as for most other paths in Israel, the way-markers are painted on the rocks).

Like many other churches in the Holy Land, the Basilica of the Transfiguration is of fairly recent construction (within the past century or so) but on the remains of older churches. It has a nice mosaic of the Transfiguration, and chapels dedicated to Moses and Elijah. Attached to the church are a couple of viewing platforms, from which one can see across a lot of Galilee and beyond. The wide plain immediately below the Mount is the Valley of Jezreel.

Sunrise as seen from Mount Tabor

On one visit I was privileged to stay the night at the Franciscan friary there. Once the gates are closed in the evening it becomes very quiet - the only habitations are the friary and the Greek Orthodox monastery just below the peak. I could understand why Jesus took the disciples there for a time of prayer, as the cool evening breeze blew past and the busy human world seemed far away.

The Upper Room - the Last Supper
Although it is currently a little way outside the Zion Gate, the site of the Last Supper was originally within the walls of the city. For some reason that no one seems sure of, the Ottoman rebuilding of the walls omitted to include the Upper Room - despite the fact that it was being used as a mosque at the time. The place itself has been thoroughly rebuilt at least twice during the last 2000 years, so nobody tries to claim that it is the actual room in which Jesus ate with the Twelve (that would have been rather smaller, for one thing). But it is almost certainly in the right place. And the surrounding buildings help to retain the feel of the original place, which was in a crowded suburb of Jerusalem.

Entrance to the Upper Room (or the Coenaculum)

There are usually plenty of people in the neighbourhood, because there is also a synagogue on the ground floor, centered on the 'Tomb of David' (it almost certainly isn't his tomb, but never mind), which draws Jews and sometimes Muslims to visit. This is in addition, of course, to the Christian pilgrims visiting the floor above.

Due to the vagaries of history, the place is currently under the control of the Israeli government. Sadly, this means that the Eucharist cannot be celebrated in the place where it was instituted. Formal prayer services are allowed, however, on Holy Thursday, Pentecost, and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and informal prayer is allowed at all other times - so you can pray your rosary, no problem!

We will return to the Upper Room in a later post, when considering the third glorious mystery.

Monday, 9 July 2018

The joyful pilgrimage

The 'Rosary Pilgrimage' concept also provides a useful template for sharing some of my experiences of the Holy Land with you, dear reader. So in this blog post I'm going to say a little something about each of the places associated with the joyful mysteries of the rosary. The other sets of mysteries will be covered in following posts.

Nazareth - place of the Annunciation
Back when the angel Gabriel appeared to a young lady called Mary, Nazareth was an obscure little town, of which someone said, "Can anything good come from there?"(John 1:46). The population was maybe 400 or 500. Now it is the largest city of Galilee, with a population of about 76,000 - mostly Arabs. At 347m it is considerably higher than the Sea of Galilee (-215m), but lower than Jerusalem (754m). Hence the Bible speaks of Jesus going up to Jerusalem and down to Galilee.

Some remains of the ancient houses lie in the shadow of the huge Basilica of the Annunciation, and it can be seen that they were constructed on top of and/or in front of caves in the limestone rock. These help to make sense of the fact that the traditional site of the Annunciation is a cave - because such spaces were actually part of people's houses (it also makes me think of hobbit-holes, which is not entirely irrelevant). This particular cave or grotto is now part of the lower level of the twentieth-century basilica, and clustered about with some remains of the Byzantine and Crusader churches.


A pilgrim praying in front of the Annunciation Grotto
It is a little disappointing, even if also convenient for the pilgrim, that there is rarely much of a queue to pray at the Grotto of the Annunciation - unlike the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which often has a queue of two or more hours. For most people the place of the birth is more significant; but it was in Nazareth that God first became a human being - an event in the history of the universe only comparable with His Resurrection thirty-something years later. Because of the relative lack of pilgrims, one can take time praying in front of the Grotto, contemplating the Incarnation, and adding a little note of thanks to the young lady who said "Amen" to God's loving plan.

Ein Karem - the Visitation
In his account of Mary's visit to her relative Elizabeth, St Luke writes of "a town in the hill country of Judea"(Luke 1:39). Tradition has identified this town with Ein Karem, which is now a village just outside western Jerusalem. My first impression when I walked out there is that it fits the description of 'hill country'. In fact it's quite a pretty location, popular with Jerusalemites for an afternoon out.
The hill country of Judea, as seen from the Church of the Visitation

The Church of the Visitation sits on a hillside a little way above the village centre, with a view across the valley that probably hasn't changed much since Mary (with Jesus on board) came calling. On the way up one passes "Mary's Spring": given that she stayed three months with Elizabeth, we can be sure she got water from it many times (assuming tradition has got the location right). Although pilgrims might content themselves with visiting the lower chapel of the church, which is supposedly the site of Elizabeth and Zechariah's house, the upper church is beautiful to see, and likewise its garden.

Bethlehem - the Nativity
Once again we find the key location is in a cave/grotto (and G. K. Chesterton expounds on the significance of that better than I ever could). But unlike what we saw in Nazareth, the place of Christ's birth is usually far from peaceful. The birth of a child is easier for people to relate to than the unseen moment of conception, so people flock in greater numbers to Bethlehem. The queue can often be two or more hours long. And once people have slowly shuffled forward for all that time, squeezing one by one through the bottleneck that is the grotto's entrance, the excitement cannot be contained and prayerful reverence is a lost cause. The pilgrims push forward to touch the star in the ground that marks the spot of the first Christmas, chattering to each other and asking each other to take photos of them (an extra complication that modern times have brought).

Entering through
the Door of Humility

A few feet away there is also the manger where the God-child was laid - a stone trough in a slightly lower alcove. For this as well the pilgrims push forward to touch it and to take photos (even when Mass is being celebrated in the alcove, as I discovered).

I console myself with the thought that this is reality and that Jesus didn't come to be in a nicely-controlled, pious environment. We often depict the shepherds kneeling reverently before the baby Jesus; but they just as likely burst in upon the scene shouting with excitement, before proceeding to make cooing noises at Jesus while competing with each other to tell Mary and Joseph about the angels that had appeared to them. But at least they didn't take selfies.

The Grotto of the Nativity aside, the church built over it can claim to be the oldest intact church in the Holy Land, and one of the oldest in the world. All the other churches in the region were destroyed in the Persian invasion of the early seventh century; but the Basilica of the Nativity was spared when the invaders spotted a mosaic of the Magi (aka the Three Kings) which depicted them in traditional Persian dress. My favourite feature is the Door of Humility: this main entrance was originally made smaller to stop the disrespectful from riding horses into the church, but the fact that one has to stoop low to go in has come to symbolise the humility of the Son of God in becoming one of us.

The Temple Mount - the Presentation and the Finding in the Temple
Two mysteries of the rosary take place in the Temple: the presentation of Jesus as a first-born son, forty days after His birth, and then His truant episode about twelve years later. In addition, the Temple was of course the centre of Jewish religion and Jesus frequently visited it, prayed in it, and later also taught in it.


A scale model of the Temple
After the comprehensive destruction by the Romans, and then the Muslim takeover of the site centuries later, all that remains of the Temple is some of the outer supporting walls - mostly famously the portion known as the Western Wall. The dimensions of the site, however, are much the same as they were, and it is a large, beautiful, park-like space. The central positioning of the iconic Dome of the Rock roughly corresponds to the Holy of Holies, with an inner plaza and a surrounding outer area roughly corresponding to the holier inner courts of the Temple and the outer Court of the Gentiles. So with a bit of imagination one can visualise the two events we are considering. (A caution for any pilgrim who wishes to pray these mysteries of the rosary on site: any overt non-Muslim prayer is forbidden.)

The presentation of Jesus probably took place in the Court of the Women, that being the closest that Mary could get to the Holy Place. The finding of Jesus among the teachers of the Law may well have been somewhere in the Court of the Gentiles, perhaps among the outer colonnades where people could conveniently gather to talk and debate. Even now it is common to see groups of Muslim children with their teachers.



Tuesday, 3 July 2018

The Rosary Pilgrimage Route

To set myself some sort of interesting target for my nine months here in the Holy Land, I decided early on that I wanted to visit all the locations of the mysteries of the rosary and pray the relevant decade in each. In order.

That would be very difficult to achieve on an ordinary pilgrimage, because it involves going up and down the country at least twice.* As it happened, I needed three different trips to Galilee to get through the joyful and the luminous mysteries.
At the Church of the Transfiguration,
on Mount Tabor

On my first visit north I was able to start things off by praying a decade at the grotto of the Annunciation in Nazareth. But only on returning to Jerusalem could I do the next mystery, at the Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem just outside Jerusalem. Then it was Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus, and the site of the Temple for the mysteries of the Presentation and the Finding in the Temple.

On my second visit to Galilee we went via the baptism site at the Jordan River, meaning that I could kick off the luminous mysteries. But we didn't visit the three relevant sites in Galilee in the necessary order, so I had to content myself with praying the second luminous mystery in Cana. It was only when I accompanied my parents to Galilee that I could do the third and fourth luminous mysteries (at Capernaum and Mount Tabor, respectively).

The remaining luminous mystery, all the sorrowful mysteries, and most of the glorious mysteries took place in or near central Jerusalem, so the rest of this Rosary Pilgrimage seems easy. I did all the sorrowful mysteries this morning, in one mini-pilgrimage. The only practical difficulty is the final glorious mystery, which takes place in heaven... So I can't completely finish my pilgrimage in this life.

As I said, doing the rosary in the right order would not be feasible for an ordinary pilgrimage. But the mysteries of the rosary provide a good list of holy sites to visit - in whatever order is practical. Many pilgrimages try to fit in too much, and this is one way of focussing on what's really important in the story of our salvation.


*For those who aren't familiar with the 'mysteries' of the rosary, here they are (with their locations):
Joyful mysteries - the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary (Nazareth), the Visitation of the Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth (Ein Karem), the Birth of Jesus (Bethlehem), the Presentation of the baby Jesus in the Temple (Jerusalem), and the Finding of the boy Jesus in the Temple (Jerusalem).
Luminous mysteries - the Baptism of Jesus (Jordan River), the Wedding Feast (Cana), the Proclamation of the Kingdom (Capernaum and/or the Mount of the Beatitudes), the Transfiguration (Mount Tabor), and the Last Supper (Jerusalem).
Sorrowful mysteries - the Agony of Jesus in the Garden (Gethsemane, Mount of Olives), the Scourging of Jesus (Jerusalem), His Crowning with Thorns (Jerusalem), the Way of the Cross (Jerusalem), the Crucifixion (Jerusalem).
Glorious mysteries - the Resurrection (Jerusalem), the Ascension (Mount of Olives), the Coming of the Holy Spirit (Jerusalem), the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven (Gethsemane, Mount of Olives), and the Crowning of the Virgin Mary as Queen of heaven and earth (Heaven).

Friday, 8 June 2018

Going underground

In the late 8th and early 7th centuries B.C., Jerusalem was threatened by invasion from Assyria. So to prepare for the expected siege, King Hezekiah had a tunnel made to take water from the Gihon Spring into the city. Which sounds simple enough, except that meant his men had to chisel their way through 500 metres of rock with nothing in the way of powered equipment. Two teams followed a winding route towards each other and met in the middle, adding the extra puzzle of how they managed to keep tunneling in the right direction without so much as a compass. It's also impressive that the difference in height from one end to the other is only 30cm - another sign of precision work.

However the Jews of old did it, the tunnel is still there, and the waters of the spring still flow through it. For the small cost of an entry ticket, tourists and pilgrims can follow this underground stream to the Pool of Siloam. It is somewhat surprising that visitors are left to do this unsupervised. The tunnel gets quite narrow at some points, and it could be quite problematic if someone had a panic attack or some other accident somewhere in the middle, 250m from any help. Perhaps they rely on the fact that there are always people passing through.

Hezekiah's Tunnel
Anyway, I'm not complaining - it was good fun to wade the length of Hezekiah's Tunnel, in the company of Br. Pawel Teperski (who took this photo of me). It took us about half an hour - surprisingly long, but wading slowed us down, as did a group of Israeli schoolchildren whom we caught up with. There wasn't anything much more Indiana-Jonesey than that, I'm afraid: no blades suddenly protruding from the walls, no rolling boulders, no crocodiles, not even any snakes. But I recommend it as an interesting diversion from the normal round of holy places and ancient ruins that a Jerusalem pilgrimage involves. Just so long as you're not prone to claustrophobia.


Pool of Siloam
(rather smaller than in Biblical times)

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Speaking in many tongues

For the past couple of weeks my laptop has been languishing in the dread grip of 'The Black Desktop of Death'. So now that I've wrestled free from it (albeit with the loss of most of my apps and settings), I have some catching up to do on computer-related matters, including this blog.

More than a fortnight after the event, therefore, I'm reporting on the experience of Pentecost here in Jerusalem. As with many other liturgical events here, the real buzz is in getting to celebrate it in The Place Where It Actually Happened. In the case of the Cenacle (aka, the Upper Room) it's extra special because the Israeli authorities only allow Christian services there on a few occasions in the year - Pentecost unsurprisingly being one of them.

Another bonus this year was the coincidence of the Catholic observance of Pentecost with the Jewish observance of the same feast - although they call it by its Hebrew name, Shavuot. At the time of Jesus the feast was a celebration of God giving the Law (the Torah) on Mount Sinai, which is why so many Jews had gathered in Jerusalem on the day when the Holy Spirit came and gave us another, even bigger thing to celebrate. The Old Law was written on tablets of stone; but the New Law is written on human hearts.

The current Upper Room is probably bigger than the one that the disciples of Jesus were gathered in; but it's still not a large space and probably less than two hundred of us were there for the permitted celebration - Second Vespers of Pentecost - late on the Sunday afternoon. There was a lot of singing and processing around (the Franciscans of the Holy Land like to make the most of these occasions), but the best bit for me was when we prayed the Lord's Prayer, each one of us in our mother tongue. The resulting babble of languages, all raised in prayer to God, was a non-miraculous sign echoing the miraculous sign of that Pentecost day nearly two thousand years ago. On that occasion the Holy Spirit made it so that all the visiting Jews heard the disciples of Jesus speaking in their own native languages. Now the Holy Spirit gathers from the nations disciples of Jesus, each with their mother tongue. Both events are a sign that the Gospel is for all peoples of the Earth.*

Overall, an uplifting experience. But I must mention one discord: some Jews were unhappy with our celebration. There was one venerable-looking Orthodox Jew standing outside the entrance with a little poster telling us that holding our services in the room above a synagogue "is forbidden". The ground floor of the building, you see, was transformed into a synagogue in 1948, on the basis of a medieval tradition that the tomb of King David is there. When this aggrieved Jew heard me speaking English, he backed up his poster by pointing back down the lane and saying, "You have a church down there - please go and pray there. We've suffered enough from you." Luckily for me, I happened to have been speaking to a more ecumenically-minded Jew, so I was able to leave the two of them remonstrating with each other. But it was yet another reminder of the jockeying for space that mars life in the Holy Land, and something of a counter-sign to the universality of the Gospel.

* And possibly for peoples of other planets, if such peoples exist and are in need of redemption. But that's a story for another day.

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.