Monday, 15 January 2018

Jerusalem: Second Thoughts

Disclaimer: I am not using 'Second Thoughts' in the Pratchett sense.

In my 'Jerusalem: First Impressions' posts (here and here) I was, however, trying to exercise 'First Sight' in the Pratchett sense. Now that I've been here in Jerusalem for nearly two months, I'm revisiting those first impressions and realising that while most of them hold good, some do not correspond to further observations. In the interests of true reporting, therefore, here are some reconsiderations of those points.

There are actually plenty of these. My initial impression that there weren't many seems to be because a) I hadn't visited the areas that they tend to frequent more and b) many of them don't fit my expectation of someone sitting on the pavement. They are more likely to be standing or wandering around, accosting likely-looking people - such as friars. So you don't know that they're beggars until they actually come and beg. And many of them seem not to be homeless as such; the rate of homelessness here is relatively low because of a strong family culture among both Jews and Arabs.
My first impression that there are lots of cats here has in fact turned out to be something of an underestimate. I said that the friary 'has' three cats, whereas the actual number is more like ten! I put 'has' in inverted commas because cats here tend to be semi-wild scavengers and will attach themselves to any household that feeds them. They'll often been seen hanging around bins, waiting for something edible to be dumped.

Although the touristy areas tend to be kept quite clean, that doesn't necessarily extend to the rest of the city. Arab areas are noticeably more messy, but this might not be entirely their fault. Apparently they get less frequent refuse collections than the Jewish neighbourhoods. When there was a municipal strike for a few days, it didn't take long for the Jewish areas to start looking just as messy as the Arab ones.
Since my first impressions post things have changed slightly after Donald Trump's 'recognition' of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The resulting violence wasn't as widespread as the news might give the impression; but there's undeniably been a greater tension in the air. And over time the presence of the army and the police gets more noticeable. I haven't been able to find out how much of the Israeli population belongs to the police force; but I expect it is an unusually large proportion.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Photos from the Baptism pilgrimage

The pilgrimage down to the Jordan for the Baptism of the Lord (see my previous post) included a procession along the last kilometre to the river, Mass at the banks of the river, a trip up to the Mount of Temptation (where Jesus is traditionally supposed to have spent his forty days in the desert, right after his baptism), and lunch at the Franciscan friary in Jericho. Here follow some photos from the day.
The friars are ready to march

Still waiting

Jesus had some serious desert to cross;
but at least he didn't have to contend with barbed wire.
The procession finally arrives at the shrine on the banks of the Jordan
The Eastern Orthodox church on the eastern bank
A rare selfie

More people on the eastern shore went into the water

These Israeli soldiers didn't seem to think us much of a threat:
one was having a snack and the other was checking her phone.

Milling around after the Mass
Another hazard that Jesus didn't have to contend with

Ascending the Mount of Temptation

I thought we were supposed to pray not to be led into Temptation?

A weary friar surveys the view of Jericho

The Greek Orthodox monastery clinging to the slopes of the mountain

Lunch at the friary in Jericho
(paid for by all you Catholics who contributed to the annual collection for the Holy Places)

Thank you!

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

How low can you go?

The answer is: about 430 metres below sea level. At least that's as low as you can go while still in the open air, on the surface of the Dead Sea (which obviously doesn't count as normal 'sea level').

This last Sunday was the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, when we celebrate Jesus' baptism at the hands of John the Baptist. So where better to celebrate it than at the place where it actually happened? Thanks to the generosity of the Friars Minor of the Holy Land I was privileged to be there with them for Mass on the banks of the Jordan River.

OK, admittedly we didn't actually celebrate in the river itself, and even the baby who was baptised during the Mass was done with a large bowl of water rather than the muddier option a few metres away.

Afterwards, however, we did go those few steps further down to the waters of the Jordan, and some brave souls took the plunge:

At that point we were about 400 metres below sea level. Which means that Jesus, in coming to be baptised, came just about as low as anyone can physically go. Which is symbolically important, because His coming to be baptised was a sign that He, although sinless, comes right down into the depths of human misery and sin with us, so that He can then take us with Him as He rises up again. In that mission, Jesus did go as low as one can go. And now He has gone up as high as it's possible to go, to the throne of God.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Italy to Jerusalem in 101 days

This is Mauro.

He spent 101 days walking through Italy, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, and Israel, arriving in Jerusalem shortly before Christmas. He took no money with him on his epic pilgrimage, relying on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter. He had some difficult times along the way; but God never let him down and provided for him in all kinds of ways - whether it was an ex-military Greek giving him better winter equipment or Anatolian shepherds giving him basic food and shelter.

Mauro was a professional basketball player in Italy. He thought he'd retired from that; but it seems God had other plans and Mauro is now playing for a Palestinian basketball team based in the Old City. He wants to learn Arabic and Hebrew and work for friendship between the different faiths here; but he needs to earn his keep somehow, and somewhat to his surprise basketball looks like the means for that. And perhaps not a bad way of building up some friendships to start off with.

And this is Br Nicolas, a Capuchin from Switzerland.

He recently completed a 900km pilgrimage through the Holy Land (via a winding route - the country is only 470km long) with a mixed group of Muslims, Christians, and 'spiritual' people from Switzerland and Germany. They received hospitality on the way from Jews and Muslims; but sometimes in the Negev desert had to sleep under the stars.

Br Nicolas arrived at our friary on the same day that Mauro was leaving (to live with the Franciscans in Ein Karem) - so they had a chance to share notes on their impressive pilgrimages. I have been on a few walking pilgrimages myself; but before men like these I can only say...

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

A different kind of autumn

When I first arrived here in Jerusalem the land was dry and parched, after the usual months with hardly any rain from May to October. We got the first rain in November. The normal pattern is that the frequency of the rain slowly builds up until the peak of the wet season in January and February. So far it hasn't built up much, but there has been enough occasional rains to refresh the land.

Green grass has appeared in previously brown areas of land, and other small plants have also come to life. It's a kind of spring. But this is happening at the same time as the cooler nights and shorter days have been prompting the trees to lose their leaves and hibernate for a while - normal autumn behaviour, in other words.

So autumn here is not like back home in Britain, where it is more uniformly a time for plants to scale back their operations. Here it is a mixed time, a time of both falling leaves and new growth.

I can't help feeling that this difference in the seasons is an important factor in understanding the Biblical vision of nature. I haven't quite worked out how yet.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Bethlehem photos

Just some pictures from our visit to Bethlehem on Boxing Day.

Entering the Nativity Basilica through the 'Door of Humility'
The queue to go down into the Nativity Grotto - the reputed place of Christ's birth
The best - but very appropriate - photo that I could get in a crowded grotto
A baptism was going on in the church
Manger Square - in the sunshine this time
An appeal to pray for the freedom of Palestine
An appropriate brewery name
Note the little sign saying, "Make hummus, not walls"
A bit of (alleged) Banksy graffiti, on a door opposite the church of the Milk Grotto

Monday, 1 January 2018

Midnight Mass in Bethlehem

Not perhaps as romantic as it sounds.

It was wet. Very wet. Not that we should complain - this country needs the rain.

We came by coach with a load of Salesians and fellow-travellers, arriving in Bethlehem at about 9pm on Christmas Eve, and were immediately herded towards the church. Not that any of us were keen to stay out in the rain. But the urgency of the organisers was to get us inside and through the security checks before the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, arrived.

Practically speaking, for us priests that meant that we had to be vested and on the sanctuary two hours before Mass started. Having plenty of time to pray in preparation is a good thing, of course - but two hours late in the evening, when I was still slightly damp, taxed my endurance.

Once things kicked off with the Office of Readings, however, it was all worthwhile. There was a lot of good singing (to my untrained ears) and a joyful and hopeful atmosphere (despite the political circumstances). The following two-and-a-half hours went surprisingly fast. Most of the proceedings were in Latin, but with healthy doses of Arabic (which is of course the local language), English, and Italian, and occasional bits in French, German, Spanish, and Hebrew. I was relieved that the homily was in English - I guess the bishop was aware of the international mix of the congregation and of the fact that the service is broadcast internationally. He preached wisely and well, sensitive to the Gospel message and the particular circumstances (including the presence of Mahmoud Abbas, who stayed until the end of the homily and departed before the liturgy of the Eucharist - as is traditional for the unbaptized).

You can watch and listen to the Mass here:

The bishop's homily is from 00:53:40 to 1:08:40. Exactly 15 minutes - I don't know how he did that. You can also spot yours truly at 2:10:55, if you want proof that I was there!

Of course the most important thing was the fact that we were celebrating in the same place where the original Christmas story actually happened. This was emphasised several times during the liturgy: in various prayers or antiphons when the birth of Jesus was mentioned there was an added "HERE" or "in THIS PLACE" (or the Latin equivalent thereof). The finale of the service was a procession next door and downstairs into the Grotto of the Nativity, where we venerated the place of Jesus' birth.

The heavy rain continued throughout the service and for our walk back to the coach station - I had to splash through a small river running down the road at one point - and we weren't home in Jerusalem until nearly 3am; but it was all worth it.

One final detail: on our way across the border between Israel and Palestine we were stopped at the checkpoint - but only so that a representative of the Israel Ministry of Tourism could wish us Merry Christmas and hand out bags of sweets. A nice gesture. Although a couple of the Salesians joked together about whether the sweets originated with Mossad and contained tracking devices so that they could follow our movements.

On St Stephen's Day some of us paid another visit to Bethlehem - a dry and sunny one this time! Photos in the next post.