Tuesday 31 March 2015

Holy Week in the Holy Land

Recently I was asked to talk to my community at the Pisana about Holy Week in the Holy Land.

I thought of the many events and celebrations that crowd Holy Week in Jerusalem, and to the fact that I've been to so few of them, mostly because of my unwillingness to face the ordeal of the crowds. Much worse when Easter coincides for Catholics and Orthodox. I've been to the Palm Sunday procession, quite un-liturgical and un-Roman, with the thousands of people, pilgrims, Palestinians, residents of Jerusalem, Filipinos, and of course young Salesians, dancing and singing and shouting their way down the slope of the Mount of Olives, very likely the road that Jesus himself took, with the shouting and exultant crowds, into Jerusalem.

I think of the early morning Way of the Cross with the Ratisbonne community on the Via Dolorosa, before the crowds really get going, the Via Dolorosa which Vernet quietly says is not really the Way of Jesus but a post-Crusader tradition, the real Way being quite outside the actual walls of the City, skirting the City down from the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane, through the little French gem of a church that is Gallicantu ("The Cock Crows"), where the house of Annas and Caiaphas probably was, with the dungeons discovered underneath and the stairway, perhaps only piece of modern Jerusalem on which Jesus might actually have walked, and then to what is now the Armenian Apostolic church of St James, where very likely he must have faced Pilate and been condemned to death, to be swiftly sent on to Golgotha.

When you live in a place you run the risk of getting used to it. It is actually possible to forget that you live so close to where Jesus was born, and to begin longing for the gaudy Christmas decorations of New York or Rome. But every now and then you might remember that Jesus actually walked and lived and died here, in this Land, perhaps there where you are actually walking, down Independence Park, along the unknown Mamilla, the Upper Pool where Isaiah made his great prophecy (Is 7:7), up the Gaza road (now Agron Street), towards Jaffa Gate and the Old City, the Holy City, Al Kuds, Hagia Polis, City that stoned and killed the prophets, City of the Messiah, holy not to one, not to two, but to fully three religions. And you remember that his body, like all our bodies, took in and sent out the Land, and that you are privileged now to take in and send out that very Land, so that there is a sharing at a very deeply and truly physical level, which one day theology might learn to integrate, as Lonergan suggests. And you see the sparrows and the cats and the olive trees, and you think: perhaps they are descendants of the ones that lived in His time.

And then there are those places that preserve his Presence in an extraordinary way. The Lake of Galilee and hills in which he prayed. And Ephraim, now Taibeh; Ephraim-Ophrah-Taibeh, the Ephraim mentioned in John 11:54, the little town overlooking the Judean desert, to which Jesus retired when he realized that the opposition around him was mounting to its peak, that death was staring him in the face. Ephraim, which has remained somehow completely Christian, half Orthodox and half Catholic, but Christian, all these 2000 years. And which preserves the tangible presence of Him and his disciples, in their last retreat before the Passion. The peace can be touched, as you go around the little town with its neat houses and spring time flowers, with the ruined Byzantine church overlooking the desert, with the more modern Catholic church and its talkative parish priest, and the House of the Parables, at which you laugh because then there are so many Houses of the Parables even now back home, in India. Ephraim-Taibeh, glorious in spring time, decked with white and pink almond flowers, and home now to the Taibeh beer factory, in its brave little attempt to create employment and retain Christian youth in the Land despite everything.

And then the Sepulchre. A 25 minute walk from Ratisbonne. Ugly and messy in its Crusader incarnation, and above all noisy and so full of confusion as to be scandalous to many. Till you realize that it does not matter. That the Sepulchre, the place where Jesus died and rose again, is a mirror of the world into which he God came, in which he lived, in which his work is still going on, quite unfinished, quite imperfect. And in this Sepulchre, and in this world, we make our act of faith: we know and we believe that God has triumphed in an odd sort of victory, and slowly we learn to join the Hallelujah, a thousand Hallelujahs, competing Hallelujahs from large sturdy monks, Franciscan, Armenian and Orthodox, large and sturdy because every now and then they have to fight, even physically, among themselves, to preserve the status quo. God must smile, his mercy and patience stretched to its limits.

Does he still also cry? Does he weep, looking at Jerusalem, at his Land, at his People, at the violence, the injustice, the un-forgiveness, the vice of impossible co-existence within which they all feel caught? Does he weep when he sees a migrant father of three little children, caught without documents, facing repatriation, having to decide what to do with life, his life, the lives that have been given to him? Francis wept in the Philippines. Perhaps God still weeps.

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