2nd Sunday of Easter B

It seems that Jesus wanted the theme of Eater to be peace. As love was the theme of the Last Supper in John’s Gospel (“No one has greater love than to lay down one’s life for their friends”) and as John emphasized victory in his depiction of the cross, the Easter story is about peace. Three times in the Gospel appearances to the disciples Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” I don’t think he is simply reassuring the apostles because they are freaking out as he just appeared on the other side of locked doors. Well maybe a little. But he also says it after they are already rejoicing. I think it is more than a greeting. I think it is a statement of fact and theology: peace is with them because he has risen from the dead.
Peace is with them because Jesus is with them. Having risen from the dead he is literally the embodiment of peace. For we can never underestimate what the resurrection means. It means Jesus has overcome death and has promised the same for us. For at the end of the day, it is death we fear the most. And all our fears, great and small our somehow connected to death. But on Easter Sunday morning, everything changed. The looming night has been replaced by a dawn that will not be extinguished. Light has overcome darkness and hope has triumphed over despair for life has conquered death. This is the meaning of peace: that we are free from fear. This is a peace that is not contingent or dependent upon anything other than the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It can never be taken away for He is truly risen.
This is a different definition of peace than most of us possess. We usually think of peace as a state of mind when everything is going well, when the tumult and the madness of life have quieted down. But there is a whole other word to describe that state: luck. Instead this is a peace that abides; a peace that sustains; a peace that does not fade when the rigors of life catch up to us. For no matter what challenge you face, one fact in your life will not change – Jesus Christ has risen from the dead and he has offered us paradise.
Jesus himself points to this in his greeting to the apostles. As soon as he offers his peace he shows them his hands, bearing the marks of the nails, and his side, torn by the sword. And this is Jesus in his resurrected, glorified body. It is not perfect as we would imagine it. It is wounded. He offers peace not in spite of his wounds but because of them. His peace grows around his wounds and the wounds are the pathway through which he was able to offer that peace. It may also be true for us. Our peace does not mean we are unblemished. It means that we love, we trust and we believe around our wounds. Indeed, they are often the space we allow our loved ones and God to enter into our lives through our vulnerabilities. It is the gift Jesus offers to quell Thomas’ doubts. “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side.” Thomas responds, “My Lord and my God.” He gets what peace looks like.
And isn’t it wonderful that the language of Jesus to his apostles is the language of the mass. We say nothing more often than the “Lord be with you” and “Peace be with you.” When we share the sign of peace, we are boldly proclaiming that Jesus is the Risen Lord. Of course we say it in a low mumbled voice. “Peace be with you.” How great would it be if we share the definitive good news in our lives with the joy the apostles must have known in that locked room? How invigorating to hear from loved ones, acquaintances and strangers alike they are a witness to the peace of Christ and they see it in you as well. Let this be our song of the Easter season. Peace be with you.



Holy Thursday 2018


Some parishes have very precise rules for who can receive communion and who cannot.  We never have. But that is about to change right now.


Our first reading is about the Passover as the Last Supper was a Passover meal.  It concerns the great liberation of the Jewish slaves from the clutches of Pharaoh in Egypt.   God had heard their cries and noted their suffering and God was ready to act in a definitive and awful way to let his people go.  For it seems the Lord is intent in our being free.  Of course, God who created us in freedom and for freedom knows that without it, there can be no love.  No one can be forced to love someone else.  It was precisely that gift that was central to Jewish self-understanding that all Jews celebrated and still celebrate at Passover.  It was the night of celebrating God’s special care for His people and the extraordinary lengths God would go to deliver them.


So as it is a Passover meal, the Eucharist must say something about freedom and care.  Jesus was speaking of a God of liberation.   So here is rule #1.  If you come to this table, prepare to be set free.  Whatever imprisons you, be it an addiction, a broken relationship, shame and guilt or low self-esteem, Christ will use his body and blood to free you.  Once we know the endless care and boundless love that is held in the Eucharist, we will find that which imprisons and indeed enslaves us is no match for the infinite embrace of God.  Our problems do not disappear at this table, but they can no longer direct our destiny for true freedom is the ability to love despite our obstacles, with all our flaws.  Having been loved perfectly, we have opportunity to unshackle ourselves from that which holds us to the walls of injustice and failure.  Rule #1:  be ready to be free.


Now let us look at the circumstances around that Passover meal in an upper room.  It is not pretty.  Jesus can sense his hour of challenge is coming, and despite their protests to the contrary, his disciples are about to fail in theirs.  He knows one friend will betray him and a best friend will deny him.   The situation on the outside is even worse as the forces of power are gathering to defeat him.  The people for whom he came to love are turning against him.  Darkness has intruded his ministry of light and the world is moving to crush him as it must when it is confronted by pure love.  And how does he respond to these betrayals, denials and the promise of violence?  He does not scheme to get away.  He does not try to diminish himself to go unnoticed nor repent of what his ministry has been all about.   No, he goes big.  At the moment when he feels the depth of our sin and weakness, he finds a way to love us.  The only response he has to the flailing, failing and foolish disciples is to love them more dearly and love them completely.  “This is my body.  This is my blood.”  What else can one give but one’s body and blood?  It is a sign of the surrender of self that anyone can recognize as love.  It is his marriage vow to us. 


So here is rule #2:  do not come to this altar unless you are ready to be loved and to love.  For the power of that moment was meant for generations of us who similarly fail in sharing God’s spirit and ignoring God’s wisdom.  It is meant for those who doubt their worth for they have been granted freely the grace that is the body of Christ within them.  It is meant for each of us who though unworthy are called to the great feast of dignity and awe, the supper of the Lamb.  Eucharist means that we have this love within us, but if it is to be received, it must be shared.  It multiples itself when the new body of Christ gives all of ourselves to others; when we mirror Jesus by giving all that we have.  It reaches its glory in Christ fully alive in us.  Rule #2:  let us love as we are loved.


The Gospel comes from John and there is a twist.  It is again the Last Supper and just when you expect the blessing of the bread and wine, Jesus instead surprises his disciples with the offer, demand actually, to wash their feet, a task so lowly that it was considered the lowest thing a slave could do.  Understandably, the disciples are horrified at the action, but Jesus does not consider it demeaning to his status.  “You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am.  If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.”  He is not saying he is not all that.  He is.  He is instructing them that the translation of love into life is service.  We are not to be empty vessels stuffing ourselves with divine favor.  We are to be conduits of God’s love for us so that others might taste the grace of Jesus Christ.  Rule #3:  if you come to this altar you do so to become a servant.  Or in other words, don’t just receive Eucharist.  Be Eucharist. 


Be a servant who makes it clear that love has transformed their lives.  Act as one whom Christ has chosen and share his face of mercy.  Stand up for justice for we are all the body of Christ.  Forgive those who have hurt you for his blood was given for the forgiveness of sins.  This world is crying out for something; it needs a savior and the Eucharist has made us the bearers of Christ.


So three rules to come to the Eucharist:  freedom, love and service.  It is enough to change the world.


5th Sunday of Lent B

I cannot remember if I ever mentioned it to you, but I was in the Holy Land in January.  One place I have not talked about though is a lovely church about half way down the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem called Dominus Flevit, or “The Lord Wept.”  It commemorates the spot of Jesus’ famous lament for the city. “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.”  And the remarkable thing about that spot is that if you extend your arms like a hen would spread her wings to gather her young, from that perspective, your arms would encompass the entire walled city of Jerusalem.

And that is exactly what Jesus came to do. To gather us.  To make us one.  To save us.  The compassion he shows to the city of Jerusalem, the very home of God for the Jews, is extended to the whole world.  His burning desire to save resounds in these charged words; the cry of a protective mother hen for her children.

And there is but one way to do it.  It is to give everything because there is no love without sacrifice.  Or as Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.”  That grain, fully alive when attached to the stalk cannot produce new life unless it first falls, is buried and becomes the seed that opens and gives itself up to produce something new.  For this revolution of love to occur, Jesus must surrender life to bring us new life.  He must die.

Yet it should come as no surprise that dying to one’s self is how life and love begins.  Most of us will not be called to actual martyrdom, but we should never forget that today some will pay the ultimate price for putting others first.  It may be a woman struggling to reach a refugee camp with her family or someone professing their faith in Christ Jesus.  That most likely will not be our story.  But we are not unfamiliar with dying to self.  We do it all the time.  When you marry, you die to yourself, giving up independence and seeing your life as a partnership, not even deciding what to watch on television by yourself #I don’t know how you people do it!  When you bring forth new life in a child, you die to yourself, inevitably placing the welfare of your child above your own.  You have died to self if you have a best friend and you spend time you don’t have listening to them.  How many die to themselves by taking care of an elderly parent, a sick child, someone with Alzheimer’s?  We die to ourselves when the rights of a stranger matter to us although we live in different worlds. This is the definition of love and its force.

All that you treasure, all that makes life worth living is borne of the sacrifices others have made for us and we make for others.  It is not money or naked power that makes the world go round.  It is life giving, sacrificial love that has transformed and changed our lives.

If that is what our love can do, if that is what our flailing imperfect love has done for us, then imagine what perfect love is capable of.  To picture this, let me take you to another hill across the Kidron Valley, one called Golgotha, the place of Skulls.  One more time Jesus extends his arms, no longer meant for Jerusalem, but for the whole world.  The seed has fallen and is about to die.  Forgiveness, redemption, salvation is about to be born.  “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.”  We are enfolded within the extension of those arms.  How can we doubt that we are loved, cherished and precious?

If we are to imitate our Lord, let us die to self to live for others.  After all, whoever seeks to save their life, refusing to take risks, to sacrifice, will lose it and whoever surrenders their life, placing others before them, knowing what it means to love, will save it.

3rd Sunday of Lent B
The Gospel ends in a strange way. Jesus “did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well.” He gets us. He knows that we love the show, the easy way. You see Jesus has an interesting frustration. It is not that he is failing. People are flocking to him. But they are coming for the wrong reason. They are coming because of the great and powerful deeds known as signs in John’s gospel. And what is wrong with that? Isn’t that what athletes want? Isn’t that what performers want? Homilists? But it isn’t what Jesus wants.
That is what scholars have identified as sign faith. The people Jesus is attracting are caught up in the signs. We like to be around cool people doing cool things. Besides, if you are ailing, he will heal you, if you are hungry, he will feed you. He can even make water into wine and who would not want to be around a guy like that. But like any sign, these miracles are meant to direct you somewhere. Jesus is constantly pointing to the Father, the kingdom and indeed even himself. But they do not look where he is pointing, they only look at the finger that is pointing. And that is not enough. Jesus wants people to have faith not in what he does, but in who he is.
What do you out your faith into? Jesus is acknowledged universally as a moral guide and his teachings have been adopted, at least in theory, throughout the world. And many see this as central to knowing Christ. What he did was remarkable. He took the Ten Commandments, the heart of the law of Israel which he treasured and expanded those beyond the “thou shall nots” and married them to a positive vision of mercy and love. We have found in Jesus the right way to live. But that is not enough.
Do you put your faith in politics? It is usually said that you should never talk about religion or politics. But it seems to me that everyone is talking about politics and no one is talking about religion. It speaks to our priorities. People align themselves with a D or an R and expect to find solutions to what troubles us. Jesus was aware of politics. The cleansing of the Temple is a political act. He did not expect to become the high priest. He found a dramatic way to make a point. And certainly the Gospel has a political outgrowth and consequences, but it not meant to be a football tossed between factions with all claiming ownership of it. A good politics is essential to a better society and we must strive for it. But that is not enough.
Even believing in our beliefs is not enough. In a few minutes we will recite the creed, an important moment that details the critical parts of our faith that we profess to be true. But even saying we believe in the doctrines that bring shape to our faith is not enough to make us a Christian.
What makes us a Christian is what Pope Benedict XVI stressed so much that it was as central to his papacy as mercy is to Pope Francis. What makes us Christian is faith in a person, the person of Jesus Christ. Nothing else will suffice. Love Jesus and the rest are details. Why else would God have made his perfect revelation in Jesus Christ? Why else would the Word of God taken flesh unless it was for us to know him, to have a relationship with him? Fr. Leo likes to say that you cannot love something that cannot love you back. A moral code cannot save, politics will not redeem you and doctrine cannot love you. But Jesus can and he loves you perfectly.
We are almost halfway through Lent. I know because I am on a diet. Let’s make a plan for the rest of Lent. Let us focus on one thing – falling in love with Jesus Christ. Let us deepen our trust in him and feel his love. Don’t make Lent about what you have given up or your discipline or your abstaining from meat. That would be confusing the sign for the destination. Wouldn’t it be a great Lent that when Easter came you could say that I am closer to Jesus than ever before? After all, Christianity is but one thing – faith in a person, our Lord, Jesus Christ.

1st Sunday of Lent B

Did you hear that Pope Francis wants to change the words to the Our Father?  I first saw it on Facebook and I thought… well you know… fake news.  Buy as I saw it from more reputable sources, I thought it was worth looking into.  Of course, you cannot change the words of Jesus, so we are really talking about the translation of those words.  And the line he has focused on is one that has troubled me for a long time.  “And lead us not into temptation.”  Have you ever thought, “I have enough going on in my life without YOU leading me into temptation?”  And I think if God were to lead you into temptation, can you really get out of it?  As the Pope says, a Father would not do that to his children.  He prefers what the French Bishops have already adopted and is current in Spanish.  “Do not let us fall into temptation.”

I appreciate that way of phrasing it.  I am glad we are taking the onus and the ownership of temptation away from God.  Not just the Our Father but our everyday language betrays our sense of God’s responsibility.  How many times have you said, “God, how did I end up in such a mess?” It is not that God is incapable of bearing the blame or our anger.  In our most searing pain, we have no choice but voice our anger to God.  It is ok.  God has the biggest shoulders.  But the problem comes when we do it too often, we make our greatest champion our enemy.  If God is the source of our pain, we will not turn to Him as our comfort.  If God is the problem, we will not think of God as the solution.

The weekend’s spare depiction of the temptation of Christ leads me to think of the very nature of temptation.  If we examine it honestly, we know it is not God’s fault.  We know that as long as there is something we think we deserve; as long as there is someone whom we might take advantage of; as long as there is someone ranked ahead of us, we will be tempted.  After all, the quickest way to the top might be by climbing over someone’s back and the shortest route to the finish line is a short cut.

And that is what temptations are – shortcuts.  Since Adam and Eve wanted knowledge without earning it, the story has been the same.  We would rather not do the hard work of healing relationships; we choose to cheat or cut a corner, convincing ourselves that no one is really being hurt; we exploit the weaker one.  We harm our body to satisfy our needs for a short time.

And how are we to resist these temptations? The other temptation of Christ gives us an answer.  It occurs in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before he was to die on the cross.  Here Satan plays a more subtle role. After following the Father’s command unwaveringly throughout his life, Jesus suggests his own short cut.  “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me” He does not want the suffering and the humiliation of the cross. It lasts but a moment as he continues, “Still, not my will but yours be done.”  Jesus takes on the cross, he suffers and he dies.  And we can know without a moment’s hesitation that we are loved, precious and saved.  What other path could have made it  that clear?

Jesus tells us to “Take up our cross daily” because temptations come to us every day.  If we share in the burden of the cross, if we make our goal to sacrifice, to be selfless and to love the best we can, then we will have given the liberation of true care.  We will truly be disciples of Christ.

In our own lives, let us mirror the choice of Jesus and say yes to the long way of love and sacrifice.  Let us reconcile and heal broken relationships; let us be an ally to those who are weak; let us patiently listen and serve.   You will probably not get to the finish line first.  But what is the point of “winning” if at the finish of the race the race, all that you can show for your efforts are those whom you have hurt, ignored or taken advantage of laid strewn behind you?  What would be the point if you got there all by yourself?  Instead take the time and the effort to be a repairer of the breach, a peacemaker, a lover.  Let us come to that finish line as a family, a community.    Take up your cross to resist temptation.  Then you will earn the crown of salvation with integrity, in communion with God and neighbor and in love.  That is the definition of success.  “Father, do not let us fall into temptation.”

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.

Holy Land Part 5
Jerusalem. What word conjures such holiness, division, hope, despair, healing and pain? All that deriving from its history, its politics, current, past and ancient and its religions. Jews have claimed that it is the center of the world. A couple of days of walking through the streets, hearing its sounds and feeling its thick religiosity make that statement hard to argue. It is reflected in all pilgrim experiences in the holy city of extremes.
Jerusalem is a strange place to want which makes it ironic how deeply it has been and is desired. Far from the water or easy access to commerce, this isolated city was chosen for political reasons rather than natural resources. The Jebusite people controlled it until King David conquered the city that had never known Jewish rule. This made it a perfect place to build the new capitol since neither the Southern kingdom from which David came nor the defeated Northern Kingdom could claim it as their own. Its greatest asset is its height. Built on three different hills, it was easily defensible even if terminally vulnerable to sieges.
Our first stop was at the Pool of Bethesda, a deep cistern only recently discovered where Jesus cured a crippled man. We were there because it stood at the head of the Via Delarosa, the Way of Tears, which traces station by station the way of the cross. The first two stations are most likely the most accurately placed until the end of the journey. The Antonia Fortress (named for Mark Anthony) was where Pilate held court during the Passover festival. Here is where Jesus was convicted and received his cross in what is now an appropriately dark and spare church with a window depicting the Lord in shackles. Emerging from that first street, the path deters from the straighter one Jesus most likely took to accommodate the modern lay out of the ancient city. As I progressed along the way, I was struck by two ordinary things that somehow still surprised me. As business people and families came out of their apartments, I recalled this not just a holy path but is now and was then a busy city with people doing their own thing oblivious to our prayers and perhaps oblivious then to the dire situation of the Galilean carrying a cross. Bread was brought from a cart and cars whistled down narrow alleys as we prayed each station.
The second surprise is more embarrassing to admit. Did you know that you have to go uphill to Mount Calvary? Of course you did. But to feel it in your feet, your legs and to imagine the burden of a cross and the bleeding of the scourging, makes every step that much more heartbreaking to contemplate. Up, up we went through the city, through the shops (Fifth Station souvenirs!), through a myriad of vendors, recalling the familiar stories but seeing it in brand new ways until we arrive at the holiest place on earth.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is not a quaint or recent chapel. It too has known the scars of the city having been a Temple to the Roman God and destroyed and rebuilt by many a conqueror. Any serious doubts about its authenticity have long been set aside. Its large dome encompasses Christianity’s two holiest places, the site of the crucifixion of Jesus and the tomb from which he rose. It is shared, often contentiously, by five denominations, the Latin Catholics, the Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Coptic and Ethiopian. Entering through its proud wide doors (and just beyond the Israeli police “Holy Sepulcher Division”) we climbed up yet more until we slowed at the chapel of the crucifixion. The line moved haltingly as a dramatic silver lined crucifix dangled over an altar. In a congestion of sacred drama, just before the altar is reached, a slotted stone is glass encased. These are the rocks that supported the cross. Beneath that altar is a stone. As you approach it, you bend down under it and place your arm though a small hole where you can touch the spot upon which the cross stood. Upon which hung our salvation. It is a dizzying and fast experience; emotional and heart pounding. I could not make sense of it until the tomb. But thus it always was.
We took our first steps downward in forever until we came to the slab of stone upon which his body was prepared for burial. Incredibly, it is available for venerating touch. A few yards away is the Christian holy of holies: the tomb of our Lord Jesus Christ.
St. Helen, the first Christian pilgrim to Rome and the mother of the Emperor Constantine, was guided to this place by the small surviving Christian community that had been worshipping and remembering it for three hundred years. She built a surviving obelisk like form over the tomb which itself remains two-thirds buried and is covered over in marble. We stood on a mercifully short line, roughly a fifteen minute wait. This is the province of the Greek Orthodox and a monk strongly regulates access. Within the tomb, and only there, we were told no pictures allowed. The decision seems holy and correct. The small entrance way is beautifully festooned with candles and icons. Three or four people are allowed in at a time, first to a small antechamber and then through an even smaller passage into the room of the tomb. The tiny room is nothing more than a kneeler and the marble top of the tomb. Its power is humbling. Here I literally had a touchstone moment: for all the troubles and suffering and heartache and pain and fear we face, the easiest thing to forget is that we have already won. Easter is forever. Our life and our freedom are guaranteed. So much of our lives are consumed by the struggle. Even the noblest ones for peace and justice cause a strain. And indeed we are called to carry the cross and to walk our Via Delarosa. But the cross always leads to the place of redemption; death always leads to life; tears turn into joy. It would be callous to ignore the needs of others, unChrist-like. It would be insensitive not to be aware of the pain of others and our own lives, inhumane. But it is foolish not to consider that we are not the final arbitrators of love; peace is ours to work for, but it is a gift from God. My touchstone moment as I pressed hard on that monument is not that the struggle is wrong. It is the struggle that imagines the destiny is ours alone that tells a lie. How much greater is the weight when we forget the victory has been won, the price has been paid, the darkness has been defeated and even death has met its match. The temporary amnesia that makes days feel like Good Friday restrict our ability to love; it limits our capacity to carry the burden and endure the struggle. The voice of the Lord said to me, “Be free. Be free. Be free. I have already won.”
How do you follow an experience like that? Jerusalem always has an answer. How about the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest in Islam? Through the streets first constructed in the first century by the Emperor Hadrian, we headed to the Temple Mount. It is at this place that King David first instructed his son Solomon to build a Temple to God. Destroyed by the Babylonians, it was rebuilt under the auspices of the Persian king and reached its greatest splendor at the time of Jesus under King Herod.
Once it was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD as Jesus had predicted, Jews longed to be among even its ruins. All that remained of the massive structure was its Western Wall. For most of 1000 years, Jews pined to return to the site of the glory and as close as possible the spot where the Ark of the Covenant stood which contained the two tablets on which were written the commandments, but the rule of Christians and Muslims prevented them. It was not until the Six Day War of 1967 that the modern state of Israel regained access to the wall and it has become the center of Jewish life in the city. Segregated by male and female, Jews pray fervently by the wall and cram their written intentions in to the small crevices between its massive stones. Its rise of 100 feet speaks to the massive size of the Temple and the devotion of the people speaks to the pull and the power the place still holds. I was honored to approach it, embarrassed as a breeze carried my paper yarmulk off my head as I began to pray and humbled to pray where so many have cried, hoped and celebrated.
Above the wall on the Temple Mount, where the heart of the Temple had lain is the Majestic Dome of the Rock. There is but one mystical experience in all the Koran. The Prophet Muhammed dreamed the Angel Gabriel escorted him to the Temple Mount and from there was to be taken up to heaven in a chariot as was the Prophet Elijah. In the sixth century the shrine with the golden dome was built to commemorate the ecstatic travel of the Prophet. To this day, the Dome of the Rock dominates the Jerusalem skyline. A more traditional mosque with a black dome, Al-Asqua takes a prime position to the East and therefore closer to Mecca. The site has restricted visiting hours for non-Muslims and we were not able to walk in the courtyard. But surely there was as fervent prayer beyond the Western Wall among the mosques as there was at the base of the Wall – all praying from a similar tradition. We can only pray that the unity of prayer can overcome the sharp divide of the wall.