We began our last day of touring at the Mount of Olives. Beyond its stunning view of the holy city, the second highest mountain of the city located east of its walls, has been the base for pilgrims, processions and conquerors for centuries. In the life of Jesus, it was precisely all those things, although his conquering was through sacrifice, not arms.
For once we traveled down a hill after nearly a week of straight ascent. Yet, while less arduous, this proved tricky over the pavement slickened by a steady drizzle. From the top of this mountain, probably roughly along the path we walked, Jesus made his palm strewn entrance into Jerusalem aboard a mule, a messianic sign. To this day, pilgrims and locals commemorate this march on Palm Sunday down the slope of the mountain. From the top of the Mount of Olives, Jesus ascended into heaven. But our goal was the bottom – the Garden of Gethsemane and the beautiful Church of All Nations. We wound down the steep drive passing a large Jewish cemetery. This is a cherished place to be buried for it faces the now sealed Golden Gate through which many Jews believe the Messiah will enter and usher in the Apocalypse. To be buried in the Mount of Olives is to have a front row seat for the end of times and to be first to be raised from the dead. All three major monotheistic beliefs have an investment in the last days coming from Jerusalem. Muslims associate it with the Apocalypse due to Mohammed’s night journey and there is a corresponding Muslim cemetery just outside the walls of the city and Christians founded an ancient cemetery to the north awaiting the second coming.
Amidst all those dead eagerly awaiting the Messiah, is the church of Dominus Flevit, The Lord Wept, commemorating Jesus cry for Jerusalem in Matthew 23:37-39, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but you were unwilling! Behold, your house will be abandoned, desolate.” Already anticipating his ultimate rejection, Jesus laments Jerusalem’s failure to embrace him as Messiah. From the vantage point, the city looks just large enough to enfold in one’s arms or as a hen gathers her young under her wings. The prophecy would be fulfilled in 70AD with the Roman conquest and the destruction of the Temple.
Among the most moving sites in all my pilgrimage was our visit to the Garden of Gethsemane. It is among the least disputed of the sites of Jesus’ life, probably because it was a well-known spot by all in the city. Resting at the base of the Mount of Olives where it meets the Kidron Valley, the garden is different from every other site we visited for it is not enclosed by a church, making it look much like the place where Jesus agonized and was betrayed. The authenticity comes from the olive trees, the so called silent witnesses of these tragic events. They are witness for they were surely there on that fateful Spring night. Olive trees do not die. Their roots are capable of continual regeneration and these are among the most ancient in the land dating to over 2000 or even 3000 years old. I made sure to touch the tree that saw the agony. (I also made sure to quietly sing the Garden of Gethsemane song from Jesus Christ Superstar, my favorite from the rock opera.) The garden itself possesses the solemnity appropriate to the moment it memorializes where Jesus sweat appeared as blood so deep were the throes of hurt of a man who truly loved us and his life, yet recognized his need to surrender it. I remembered all the agonies of those I know and asked for the prayer of Jesus to the Father include those intentions as well. We celebrated mass at the beautiful Church of all Nations where poignant mosaics portrayed the astounding events of the Mount of Olives from the heartbreaking to the (literally) uplifting.
After lunch we followed the path of Jesus’ last night before his crucifixion by heading west to Mount Zion, once inside the city walls and not just beyond its southern gates. The agony of the night before the crucifixion deepens into darkness. We first came to the Abbey of the Dormition of Mary where legend has it that she was taken from a deep sleep and assumed into heaven. The island of Ephesus also makes a claim for this honor. But even the Assumption does not dilute Mary’s other experience on this mountain, the pain of a mother watching her son’s demise as depicted in the sacred art of the church.
The most disappointing site of the trip was also found on Mount Zion – the cenacle, the famed upper room where Jesus instituted the Eucharist among his disciples and where the fear filled apostles were touched by the Holy Spirit as tongues of fire at Pentecost. It is certainly not for a lack of love of these events that I felt let down, but there was a strangeness to this place. Controlled by the Israeli government, it is of questionable authenticity, crowded, and since worship is prohibited there, no place to pray. But more than that, I had now become accustomed to feeling the power of these places and I truly believe (although this risks exposing too much pride) that if what was to have happened there happened there, I would have known it. However, as they say in the Holy Land, “here or near here,” these momentous events occurred. What I did honor were the historic meetings of the Greek Patriarchs and Popes that have occurred fifty years apart where the bridges of reconciliation of a thousand year schism where built. Let us pray that we may be reconciled.
And just down the hill from the Cenacle is the very powerful St. Peter in Gallincantu. The rooster atop the cross quickly identifies it as the spot where Peter denied Jesus three times outside the court of the high priest Caiaphas. Stunning art portrays a halo-less Peter denying the Lord and a devastated Peter crying over his betrayal, his tears having restored his halo.
Large cisterns and rooms indicate this is the house of the high priest and the archaeology itself is moving. Beneath the church are two levels leading to a pit that originally had been a cistern but then used as a cell for prisoners who ran afoul of the Temple authorities. It makes sense this is where Jesus stayed after his trial before the Jewish high court, the Sanhedrin, and before being taken to Pilate for final judgment. A small hole was carved from the stone so the prisoner might be hoisted by rope into a pit of despair. We often relate to the passion as physical without remembering the psychological torment Jesus experienced during a night alone in a pit with friends having abandoned him. The agony that began in the garden lasted all through the night.
My last place of pilgrimage was an appropriate one as I stood outside the portico looking back at the Mount of Olives when a brother priest from the Diocese of Albany walked up the stairs. “Father Matthew Wetzel” I exclaimed and he greeted me as well. I knew that Fr. Matt and I were on pilgrimage at the same time and we had just missed each other on several occasions judging by the registries we signed after mass. It was wonderful to see friends from throughout the diocese in such a holy place. It eased my way back to reality.
Just before that was one last memorable sight. Peering down toward the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations, we saw a path including first century stone steps, the top few of which we sat upon. “Jesus went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to where there was a garden, into which he and his disciples entered.” Surely these must be the steps he trod on his way to the Garden after the last supper and here are the steps he returned just a few hours later in custody. Along this path Jesus gave us the joy of the Eucharist, the tragedy it symbolizes and the hope that sustains us. Jesus came to earth right here so that every place might know the perfect love of God. We literally ended in the footsteps of Jesus.
Some mercifully short reflections…The Hustle: I have never seen a place with so much hustle and bustle as Israel with the possible exception of New York City. From the narrow aisles on the flight, crowded with pious Jews gesticulating their way through prayers, to the young man who saw his luggage emerge from the baggage carousel and ran over me to retrieve it (It is a carousel. It will come around!) to the plethora of trinket sellers and charming street vendors trying to coax us out of our money with products useful and dreadful, everyone is on the hustle. You forgive it because that dollar for a picture with a camel or the souvenir or flute might be all that feeds a family. In the Mid-East they like to say, “Our neighborhood is not like yours.” The very history of the place suggests that survival is a premium value. The Politics: The land is rife in it and it is always complicated. But at times it is disheartening that such people of prayer have not found a way to be reconciled. And in the loss of Christians in both the West Bank and Israel due to staggering amounts of emigration, a valuable balance has been lost. How can two states with such enmity survive side by side given the history of terrorism and violence and extremists on both sides who reject peace? How can there be one state and Israel retain its Jewish nature when half the population is Arab without denying those Arab citizens their political rights? The holy land needs one more miracle. It will begin with the will to make peace the highest priority. The Franciscans: To end on a higher note, thank God for the Franciscans and their 800 years of service in the Holy Land. They do not oversee every Christian site, just almost all of them. Who better for this job than the order founded by the man who joined a crusade and crossed into enemy territory to engage the Sultan for peace? The trust all the varied parties of the Holy Land hold in the Franciscans make possible their service to the pilgrims. At each site, a brown robed Franciscan welcomed us, sets us up for a mass with a missal meant for that particular church (How thrilling to say, “here” and “at this place”) in the liturgical prayers. May God ensure this wonderful ministry will continue until the end of times when certainly a Franciscan will welcome the Lord back home.